Category Archives: Travel

Oh Vienna – Day 3: Schönbrunn

My last full day in Vienna? That just feels incredibly wrong. This is the problem of having these short weekend breaks, as lovely as they are it is just over too soon.

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Still, we made the most out of today and the way to do that is with a good breakfast (well, brunch by the time we started). In many ways Vienna has similar prices to London, but if you are smart about it you will not break the bank. See this breakfast for two that I shared with the hub. It really kept us going through most of the day, where we were on our feet pretty much all the time.

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The destination today was Schönbrunn, which is a very short metro ride out of the city centre. The main draw is the UNESCO Heritage recognised palace and gardens.

The palace was the former summer residence for the Habsburg emperors of Austria-Hungary and is absolutely massive. I swear that we don’t have palaces to this scale in the UK, when you consider that this former hunting lodge expanded into well over 1000 rooms.

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I would be so interested to see what the grounds are like in summer with full flower beds and running fountains. In December it is still beautifully grand (and smells of cinnamon thanks to the resident Christmas market), but a little bit bleak.

There were signs that said you would need to wait 2.5 hours before being able to enter the palace to have a look around. What these signs did not tell you is that you could head in straight away if you bought one of the combined tickets to another nearby attraction. We know this purely because it was our plan to do this anyway.

The interior of the palace that we saw as part of the “Imperial Tour” was extremely grand. Sadly there were signs everywhere that said no photography was allowed inside, but I think we all disobeyed that rule when it came to the this grand ballroom.

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I haven’t never been to Versailles, but if the hall of mirrors there is meant to be greater than this ballroom… well I think I know where my next planned trip might end up being. Seriously though, going to this palace, the Imperial Crypt and seeing how much they still revere Maria Theresa makes me want to learn more about the history of the Habsburgs. If you have any suggestions of where I can start, please let me know.

After an hour long tour of the palace we walked through the gardens on the way to Schönbrunn Tiergarten (ie the zoo). This was originally started as an imperial menagerie  and has since expended into one of the best zoos I have ever been to.

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This is not just because of the variety of animals (which includes polar bears, sea lions, leopards and pandas), but also the condition of the enclosures. This is a zoo that has successfully bred polar bears and pandas so you know they are doing something right.

I has running about this zoo like a little kid (who was cold seeing how we didn’t get too far about freezing today) looking at all the animals that I could see in the few hours we had in this amazing zoo.

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Of course we ended up spending a lot of time with the pandas. How couldn’t I? They’re pandas! We were there a solid 10 minutes hoping it would turn around and only when we went to leave did she suddenly move and allow me to take such cool pictures. This was better than seeing the pandas at Ueno in Tokyo. Can’t believe I was actually so close.

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We stayed into the zoo until it closed. The closing announcement came through whilst we were in the aquarium staring at a rather lively octopus. So it was back to the city centre before we got locked in with the crocodiles.

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Rather than heading straight for food (we were all hungry by now) we visited the, now dark, Stadtpark to see some of the statues. The main ones were still lit up anyway so the emptiness of the park just added to the ambience. The statue that I came to see was this golden one of Strauss. It’s nice to see someone other than Mozart being revered in this city.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
img_4579Food item: Linzer Torte

By now we needed a sit down so it was an early evening cake and drinks before a final runthrough of the Christmas markets. Finally I was able to try some Linzer torte. I got it as a slice because could not find it as the typical torte. Better than Sacher torte by a mile. The toasted hazlenuts and the crumbly cake are brought together by the seam of redcurrant jam. Where the Sacher torte was a disappointment this Linzer torte is a pleasant surprise.

img_4582Food item: Horseradish
Progress: 593/751

One of the big things that my mum wanted to have from the market stalls was some Tiroler gröstl. We had it when we were in Kitzbühl back in 1999 and there were stalls selling it here. To my surprise they put grated horseradish on top. There is nothing I like more than a surprise list item and this horseradish really complimented the fried bacon and potatoes. Makes me feel like I am 9 again.

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The final Christmas market we went back to was the one on the Rathausplatz, which is both the biggest one and the nearest to our hotel. There were some last minute purchases and a complete final runthrough. I can’t believe we are going from somewhere this filled with Christmas and going back to a flat where the decorations aren’t even up yet!

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Of course I finished the evening with a hot dog. I have not had anywhere near enough wurst since I have been in Austria and at least I was able to finish this trip the right way.

That’s it for Vienna. There is a separate food post coming up where I will finish off this run of posts, but for now here are some things I will miss about Vienna:

1) Classically trained buskers – we have seen a violinist, a cellist and a tuba player playing film themes on the street. In London you are more likely to see a man playing a traffic cone.

2) Seeing Mozart’s face everywhere i go. We don’t do the same in London and now I want to know why we don’t plaster all our tourist shops with the face of Dickens or Shakespeare. Such a missed opportunity.

3) Architecture. It’s overblown and utterly amazing. The commute to work will feel all the more boring after visiting Vienna

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4) Christmas markets – come on London we can do something on this scale and with this high level of quality. Sod off with your Hyde Park Winter Wonderlands and give us something decent!

Oh Vienna – Day 2: Coffins and Art

So begins the first of the two full days that we have in Vienna. Being a city of coffee culture it is very important to find a good place for breakfast. Thanks to a bit of googling I found a place near St Stephen’s Cathedral called Haas & Haas.

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This is one of those places that was built for the long brunch. The sheer variety of breakfast items (from dim sum to a full English) was astonishing. Seeing as we are in the German speaking world there was no way I could say no to Weisswurst, a pretzel and Bavarian sweet mustard. I also had a lovely pot of rooiboss tea flavoured with cacao nibs and coconut. Truly this is the breakfast of champions.

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Of course the logical first place to visit after such a breakfast was the imperial crypt. Looking at it from the outside this is a very unassuming church, but this does not reflect what you find in the basement.

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Coffins. Rooms filled with the coffins of members of the Habsburg royal line. I have never seen anything quite like this. True, there were some coffins on the simpler side but, then there would be one covered in bronzed skulls, veiled women and maybe an angel or two.

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Nothing could compare to the massive coffin (if you can call it that) of Maria Theresa. This was bigger than a car and had many details including large weeping women and engravings of buildings. Every coffin afterwards just paled in comparison.

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You had a special room for Kaiser Franz Joseph, Sisi and Rudolf, but those coffins were still a plainer affair than Maria Theresa’s.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 65/100img_4470Sight: MuseumsQuartier
Location: Vienna, Austria
Position: #338

We walked from the imperial crypts to the MuseumsQuartier and…honestly I don’t have much to say about this place. Maybe it was the wrong time of year to visit? But after coming from the crypt and walking passed some amazing buildings via the Maria-Theresien-Platz; well it was an extreme let down to be honest.

How is this the only thing from Vienna on the Lonely Planet travel list? This has really given me some doubts about the rest of the list.

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After this disappointment we spent the rest of the afternoon in the Art History Museum (pictured is the Museum of Natural History, but apart from a few sculptures these are pretty much identical).

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Inside this building was a melange of marblework. The hallways were just an astonishing mixture of colour and polish, which just goes to show that some of these baroque are just as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside.

img_4482The first rooms we went through were paintings from the Flemish, Dutch and Germanic schools. In it we found the twin painting of the Tower of Babel scene we saw in Rotterdam. Strange, yet lovely way for these two rather different cities to be linked.

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Amongst the other paintings we saw were some rather weird looking Jesuses (so many great painters just cannot depict babies well), a strange depiction of groping and a very famous painting of a young Catherine of Aragon.

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We roamed around the other painting gallery for a while before heading for the antiquities. In the Roman section I was very much taken by the weird room where they had arranged a lot of statue heads/busts so they were all facing one direction. It was a very strange thing to walk in on.

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It was getting towards 4:30 when we left and we need drinks and snacks. Thanks to the Christmas markets you are kinda spoilt for choice at the moment. Personally I felt the flavoured pretzels calling my name and went for a pizza pretzel.

We headed back to the hotel room via a bunch of smaller Christmas markets and Julius Meinl (where I found a few food items that we will be saving for the day we leave).

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Dinner was our attempt at finding something Austrian to eat, and I found a place on Annagasse that did the trick. Pancake soup to start, Wiener schnitzel for main and a cheese strudel for pudding. I walked out of that restaurant a very happy man for I had eaten schnitzel in its spiritual home of Vienna.

We went for a final turn around the main Christmas market at the Rathausplatz before turning in for the night. We managed to be there until it closed…

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…but not before we got ourselves a langos. Think of it as a Hungarian treat where you deep fry a disk of dough and then brush it with garlic butter. Seriously, I love how much this city and their Christmas markets speak to my Germanic roots.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings. Hopefully some gröstl.

Oh Vienna – Day 1: Arrival

I know, I know. “Oh how the other half live” and all that. Honestly, I cannot believe how I ended going on 4 holidays/minibreaks in two months. I really need to space these out more. Seriously, my passport has been water damaged since the first day in New York and I need to get that dealt with.

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Vienna is one of those places that, for whatever reason, never majorly featured too highly in my holiday consciousness. I knew it was beautiful and know people who have been there and really loved it, but as I was walking around the city centre I felt this weird disconnect.

It was something along the lines of “I’m in Vienna? This is Vienna? How have I lucked out and ended up in Vienna?” Maybe I just went through a bit of disassociation due to having to get up at 04:55 this morning.

The first day in a new place has the tendency to be odd. You need time to get used to a place in terms of geography and culture. Having gotten to our hotel little after midday we still had most of the day to explore the local area.

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You don’t have to walk too far in Vienna’s centre to come to the conclusion that the architecture in this city Is deliciously overblown. Buildings aren’t only grand, but they are domineering with their flourishes, statutes and cornices. This is by no means a criticism. It’s just that in London you’ll get a small area with interesting architecture and then it’s pretty pedestrian, whereas in the Vienna city centre it’s pretty much all singing all dancing wherever you end up.

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I mean just look at their parliament building. There is nothing about this building that doesn’t feel grand about this place. Makes sense that it was originally built as a seat of power for the empire of Austria-Hungary.

We spent most of the afternoon wandering the streets, looking at buildings and trying to find some form of lunch. Vienna is famous for its cafe culture and, honestly, we were looking in all the wrong places as we found nothing for a very long time.

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Having given up hope on finding a place to have a sit down meal (where the queue didn’t stretch out of the door) so we opted for the classic bratwurst in a roll. You can never go wrong with that.img_4405

Of course this is when we started to spot cafes. So, we dragged our tired feet into the Mozart Cafe (side note: everything here is Mozart themed – it’s actually quite weird) and it allowed me to grab the first, of what may be a small number of, food item.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 591/751
img_4404Food item: Sachertorte

Aside from schnitzel there are few things more Viennese than a Sachertorte. It was invented in the Hotel Sacher around the corner from this cafe (would have gone in, but lines) and is pretty much the city dessert. Think of it as a dense chocolate cake with apricot jam spread around the sides and in the middle. It is then finished off with dark chocolate icing and a quiet of whipped cream.

Think this cake sounds rich? Then you would be right. Pretty damned moist as well, which is also helped by the side of cream. The cup next to it was a hot chocolate with pistachio syrup. I guess chocolate cake was to satisfy that craving.

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By the time we left the cafe the sun had gone down and we were able to enjoy Vienna for the reason we actually came here – Christmas lights. Not just one uniform set of lights either; it would appear that each street do their own lights since there was no real repetition that we saw.

Not only are there so many lights, but also there are so many Christmas markets dotted all around Vienna. I think we came across six different ones today and I am sure there are more left to be discovered.

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We meandered around and ended up at the biggest of all the Christmas markets: outside the town hall (and coincidentally a 3-4 minute walk from out hotel). There are over 100 stalls here selling food, souvenirs and all things Christmas. I know that during our time in Vienna we will be back here every night for a roam, a browse and a snack.

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For dinner myself and the hub opted for soup in a loaf of bread. Honestly, we just stood there eating soup out of the hollowed out loaf before then eating the bowl itself. There was just something so satisfying about ripping apart that bread bowl that had become saturated with garlic soup.

After an early start this morning it is an early night tonight so we feel human as we tackle the one Lonely Planet area of Vienna.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 4: Belém

After the incredible wetness of yesterday’s trip to Sintra today’s sunny weather with a cool breeze was a welcome antidote. As I write this up it is currently raining outside and I just about hear it over the Jenny Hval album playing on my iPod.

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As with the previous two days, this day had a focus on a particular are of Greater Lisbon. Today’s focus was on Belém. How did we get there? Why, by an iconic yellow Lisbon tram of course.

To say it was packed would be an understatement (it was on par with Japanese subways), but I had the best seat in the house: right behind the driver. It was so interesting to see the driver at work by using the handles to modify the speed. Also it was just fun to watch him gesturing annoyedly at everyone that crossed the tram’s path.

An interesting tidbit that I learnt about this particular tram route (Route 15) is that this route between Rossio and Belém has been in operation for over 140 years. It’s just that it was previously run by horse-drawn coaches.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 64/100Sight: Mosteiro Dos Jerónimos
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #372

The tram stopped right next to our major destination of the day: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I could see it coming over the horizon whilst we were in the tram, but in person the façade is something else. For one thing it is absolutely massive. Also, the level of detail on everything is extremely intricate.

Considering all the Manueline architecture we saw on display in Sintra I honestly thought I had seen Portuguese architecture at some of its most sumptuous. Until I stepped into the cloisters of the monastery that is.

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Perfect sunshine is what you need to enjoy this courtyard and that is what we got. Honestly, I could have just stayed in this courtyard for an inordinate amount of time checking in on all the different flourishes and decorations. But we continued our tour around which meant visits to the chapter house, the refectory and of course the church next door.img_4165

The church and the monastery together was enough to take my breath away. With columns that, in places, looked like they were made of snaking stone vines this church just felt like it had grown from the Earth. Whilst not the largest church I have ever been in this just felt cavernous. It also, however, felt like it had not been finished. There were empty recesses where one would have expected there to be statues and/or paintings. So I wonder what happened there.

In order to keep the theme going, out next stop was the Belém Tower. This is one of those structures that has had many uses over the year from political prison to customs house to lighthouse. Considering the prominence and the placement of the tower all these uses seem to make a modicum of sense.

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During our visit to the Belém Tower the top two floors were under reconstruction, which was a shame, but we still found our share of joy in the remaining 3-4 floors on offer. You pretty much go inside for the views looking out as, honestly, there isn’t too much to see on the inside. Still, entrance was free thanks to the Lisboa Card so why not go inside.

It was easily time to grab something to eat so we took a walk along the waterfront to our lunch destination. This is a place that I had specifically researched so that I could cross a rather odd mollusc off the list.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Goose-Necked Barnacles

Yes, we had goose-necked barnacles (percebes in Portuguese) as part of our lunch. This restaurant was the only place where I could find them talking about selling it in 100g increments. Considering these are over £45 a kilo you can see why I would only want a small amount.

Seeing them there was rather intimidating as I had no idea how to eat them. I ended up watching a brief YouTube tutorial on my phone to make sure we got our money’s worth. Essentially you need to grab them by the beaky end, twist and then pull lightly to reveal the tender edible insides.

Tastewise they share a similarity to the sweetness of lobster meat but with a higher level of salt as you would expect in shellfish. It sucks that these are probably amongst the nicest shellfish that I have ever eaten since it is unlikely that I’ll have this opportunity again.

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Obviously we needed more food so we each had a prego steak roll. If Nandos is anything to go by, then we most definitely had a very Portuguese lunch. A very delicious (and once again, reasonable) one it was too.

Since it was free we decided to nip into the National Archaeological Museum. Good thing it was free as it was pretty nondescript to be honest. For a country that launched many an exhibition to Brazil and parts of Africa I am surprised there wasn’t more here. There must be a bigger collection somewhere else one would hope.

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For the rest of the afternoon we did a bit of final exploring and shopping before heading back to the room to freshen up for dinner. Sadly the church we intended to see was closed for choir practice, but we got to exploring the Barrio Alto and I met the best rooster in the world. What more can I say.

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For our final dinner we went to a real mom and pop place as recommended on TripAdvisor. For whatever reason I decided to not heed the surprise of the guy when I said I would be ordering cod cheeks – I understood this when the food arrived. As nice as the meat was, there was not a lot of it and I had to carve it off of this boiled fish head that had been cut in half. Young me would have seen the teeth and panicked, I just got annoyed that they got in my way of cod flesh.

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Food item: Abacaxi Pineapple

An unexpected thing we saw on menu was abacaxi pineapple, but there it was in the fruit section. They used the term ananas on the same menu which gave the tip that this was the right pineapple. And it was! Slightly sweeter than a regular pineapple (just not the explosion of flavour that was the Azores pineapple) this made for a refreshing end to the meal. Only it wasn’t the end of the meal.

Here’s the thing. Portuguese cheeses are 2-3 times the price in the UK so I would be a fool to not try and cross as many of these off the list whilst I was here. With this I have crossed off all them from the list. So, mission complete.

img_4221Food items: Azeitão and Serra da Estrela
Progress: 589/751

We started off with the Azeitão which was soft and gooey middle. It had a medium nose with some acidity and a slightly salty edge on first taste. Then the tanginess hits you right in the face. This is not on the same level as the Boulette D’Avesnes, and I guess it’s more like Taleggio. Maybe a really strong Camembert but not as creamy or straw-like. Acid notes with a creamy finish. The rind is edible and, somehow, manages to calm it down.

Then there was the Serra de Estrela, which is referred to as the king of Portuguese cheeses. In terms of texture this is like eating a cheese moose or cheese foam. You can cut the top off and scrape out the insides with a cracker. It’s truly something to behold.

The taste starts off mild and after a few bites acidity hits. Nowhere near as strong as the Azeitão though, but it comes with an aftertaste that is almost like hay or whatever those sheep were eating. It is the ultimate cheese of the Portuguese countryside.

Now I am at the end of my time here there are so many takeaway messages from these days spent in Lisbon.

1) This place is a treasure trove of food items. Seriously, when I consider the number of days that I have been here and the number of food items I have had – there is a huge concentration here.

2) Portuguese cuisine is very much it’s own thing. I came in with the wrong thought that it was just a variation on Spanish. So not true.

3) Aside from the men who kept trying to sell me hash on the street, Portuguese people seem to be hospitable.

4) The metro stations are designed to make you are hungry as friggin’ possible. All day today I could smell popcorn on the metro. It was baked goods a few days ago. So, do they rotate the smells to stop you getting used to it?

The biggest take home message of them all is, obviously, how lovely it is in Lisbon. A return trip is likely to happen – mainly so I can try to experience Sintra on a clear day. In terms of other possible trips to Portugal, I would very much like to give Porto a go, so any suggestions welcome.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 3: Sintra

I know that going anywhere in Europe in November comes with a risk of rain, but looking at the weather broadcast the night before we came to Lisbon gave us a false sense of optimism. But still, we didn’t quite expect the weather we got today.

Anyway let’s backtrack to the beginning.

I have a lot of respect for the public transport. We did not have to wait long for anything today. The longest was a 5 minute wait and the train was already sat there waiting.

Sintra is about a 40 minute train journey from where we were staying in Rossio (and the journey was free thanks to the Lisboa cards that we bought). When in Sintra we bought the 5€ tourist bus round ticket as recommended… and as I would also recommend.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 63/100Sight: Sintra
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #142

The whole day was spent seeing the sights of Sintra so it is a bit difficult to know when to say this was ticked off.

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We started out in the historical town centre of Sintra with a visit to the National Palace. The most distinctive things about this palace are the two conical chimneys. They look so out of place, and yet they really make the palace special.

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Speaking of special, this royal palace was amazing on the inside. So many rooms that are impeccably decorated in many different ways. Most have rather obvious names, such as the pictured Swan Room, and feature beautifully painted ceilings, ornate tiling or both. It was a real eye opener to see some of these beautiful designs and continue my learning of the Moorish influence of this area of Europe.

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As we are on the topic of Morrish, the second of the three main stops on the tourist bus route. On a clear day the views from the top of the highest tower must be exceptional. On this day, it was breathtaking (and wet) to see the clouds physically roll in over the walls. There was something very Skyrim, Hound of the Baskervilles and Game of Thrones about the sheer amount of cloud that was swamping the castle.

The walk from the bus stop to the castle did not give us any warning about how wet and cloudy it was about to become. In fact, it was clear enough for us to be able to appreciate the sheer scope of the second outer set of walls. It was one when we started going up a tower and commencing a wall walk that it became clear just how wet the rest of the day was going to be.img_4099
Looking back on the day – the ruins of the Moorish Castle really was the highlight of the  day in Sintra. I actually cannot think of the last time I saw such a large set of ruins from the Middle Ages.

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A fairly short walk away from the castle was the final stop of the route – the Pena Palace. Now, I would not be surprised if Disney took a cue from here when designing some of their parks. As a palace it was designed for fun (having converted an old monastery) and the bright colour scheme on the outside really does agree with this.

As with the National Palace, the insides are beautifully decorated. However, the decorations here are a lot less subtle and there are more (smaller) rooms. Some of them have beautiful trompe-lœil painted walls whilst others feature tiles. You can also see many specially designed chandeliers and light fixtures including a rather beautiful glass chandelier meant to resemble a morning glory.

I have no doubt that we would have been able to appreciate the Pena Palace more of it was not for the near constant rain. For example, walking around the walls should give wonderful views rather than the sea of clouds. Still, it didn’t deter us from looking around some of the grounds, but first we had to eat some of the Sintra cheese tarts that we bought in the town centre.

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We made for the so-called Valley of Lakes which is at one of the lowest points of the Pena Park. These specially designed lakes looked extra otherworldly in the mist (Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ came to mind… but only after we skipped down a slope singing a song from The Wizard of Oz).

A number of the lakes feature ornate duckhouses. These might have made me jealous of ducks and their wonderful digs. But that my problem apparently.

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Flashforward a few hours and we are back in Lisbon having dinner. For the first time ever I actually decided to have octopus for dinner. Sure, it looked like it was going to reach up and grab me, but the results were rather delicious with lime juice and fried potatoes. I can only imagine my reaction to this when I was in Portugal 16 years ago. The word ‘mortified’ comes to mind.img_4140
Since it was still early there was a chance to wander around the nearby shopping streets to get some souvenir and gift shopping done. We might have spent a bit too much on this, but with Christmas lights starting to go up in Lisbon how could we not?

One more full day here. I really have fallen for this city. Aside from the many times I have been offered drugs, the people are just so friendly and helpful. Here’s to the final day as I scarf pastries down my trap.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 2: Alfama and the Oceanarium

Never let it be said that we don’t pack things into a day on holiday. So many things done today that it really feels like a day of two (rather different) halves.

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We started out by heading for one of the three Lonely Planet Travellist places that I am hoping to hit up on this trip. Our walk took us first to Lisbon Cathedral, whose presence was absolutely massive amongst the surrounding smaller houses.

Inside it is a bit barer than some of the other cathedrals I have been to recently, but there are still some really impressive architectural aspects. To get into the main cathedral is free, but if you want to venture around the cloisters and treasury there is a 4€ fee.

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Well worth it just to know that the money is going towards the upkeep of the cathedral and the archaeological excavation currently happening on the centre of the cloisters. Already they have been able to find old Roman and Islamic remains. Who knows what else they’ll find.

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The treasury is worth it just to be able to get the view from above the cathedral. Never have I ever been so close to a stained glass window that I could make out such a wealth of detail. It made me wish I knew more about the saints and their symbols to better identify them. Hey ho.img_3989
We went across the road to the Church of St Anthony. I think this is the first time that I have been to a church build on the birthplace of a Saint. As you can probably guess, that meant this church had its fair share of pilgrims making their way to the crypt to say their prayers before buying things from the gift shop.

As for us we were able to enjoy the opulent decorations on display in the main church. Gold, gold, gold as far as the eye could see. Also the desiccated corpse of a young Saint Justina. The second time, after Catania, where I have seen a dead body on display in a church.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 62/100img_3994Sight: Lisbon’s Alfama
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #336

So here we are in the first of the Lonely Planet Travelist areas in Lisbon. Alfalfa is an area of Lisbon characterized by winding streets, colourful buildings, lots of little shops and quite a few churches.

It’s hard to just to talk about an area like its a landmark, but it was just such a pleasure to walk through its streets and take in the surrounding as we went higher and higher.

At the top of the hill, and I think technically out of the Alfama, is the Castelo de São Jorge. At the top of one of the towers is, as we overheard from a guided tour, the highest point in Lisbon.

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This is another one of the places where you could just spend a wealth of time taking in the views. We did take our sweet time in the castle grounds just looking at as many different views of Lisbon as we could find.

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The castle itself was large and impressive. Just reading up on the age of some parts of this castle (we’re talking 12th century here, with the hill having been occupied since 4th century BC) just makes you feel humble. That is until you find yourself hugging walls as you clamber down steep stairs whilst singing the New Girl theme song.

This was the end of the first half of the day. The middle was characterised by getting annoyed at the Lisbon bus system after buses just didn’t arrive when they were meant to (as in we waited for 40 minutes and the bus that was meant to run ‘every 15 minutes’ just didn’t materialise… we later found out that the road was closed for works some 100 metres away) so let’s skip on through.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Dieimg_4015Food item: Sweet Marjoram

Lunch was at about 2pm in the cafe attached to the Lisbon Oceanarium. It was here that I somehow managed to tick off a food item since they used sweet marjoram in one of their sandwiches. It just goes to prove that you never really know when you are going to come across one of these. Maybe Lisbon is just a treasure trove of these.

A quick lunch later and we were in the Oceanarium, which is apparently the largest indoors aquarium in Europe. It was also magnificent.

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The whole thing is centred around one large ocean tank that contains my new best friend: a sunfish that I have called Derp. There are other things in there like devil rays, groupers, sharks and guitarfish; but Derp is truly the magnetic presence of the tank. Okay maybe not, just watching the fish was enough, but actually seeing a sunfish in the flesh was something truly special.

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There are a lot of other exhibits in the aquarium including penguins, puffins, otters, jellyfish and a whole wealth of other creatures. Seriously, this is an impressive aquarium to visit and (thanks to it being a Thursday in the off season) it was actually rather quiet. It meant that we could just take our time and take pictures of our favourite fish.

We wandered through the Parque de Nações before taking the metro back home. This park, which was the location of the 1998 World Expo feels so wonderfully modern. So many interesting looking buildings and sites that kinda reminded me of Odaiba.

Dinner was further proof of the wealth of 1001 foods available in Lisbon. It was not a place that I would have normally gone in, but TripAdvisor and a pre-visit glance at the menu persuaded me that it would be worth the visit.

img_4047Food item: Suckling Pig

To help me with the ticking off (as well as ensuring he got a good meal) hub went for the sucking pig. It was a mountain of pork like I had not expected for 11€. In the UK you would probably have to pay 2-3 times that.

Now, on one level I disagree with the concept of sucking pig wholeheartedly, but my god was this good. So very tender they it just collapsed off of the bone. Also, as pork goes, it was a sweet meat. This is a good thing.

img_4048Food item: Black Scabbard Fish

So, the waiter tried to warn me off this. Like he actually told me what this fish looked like and that it basically wasn’t a normal fish. I got a “don’t complain if you don’t like it”

I did not complain. I adored this. It was some of the best fish I have ever had and I can’t think of what I’d compare it too. Perhaps eel would be closest, just not as oily. It was very close textured and slightly salty.

I would have this again. And might do if we find it in another place. Or just visit this place again. Usually a no no for me on holiday, but there are a lot of other things I want from this menu.

img_4049Food item: Guarana
Progress: 585/751

This was not the end of the food items today. Oh no. We actually managed to pick up some Brazilian guarana soda on the way home! I hadn’t really thought about it , but it makes sense that you could get some Brazilian things here. It tastes like a refreshing tropical berry that’s like a nicer version of Red Bull. That’s about it, I have no other touchstones for this..

So that’s today. This may be one of the longest blog posts I have written for a good while. Time for bed so I can be up early tomorrow for our trip to Sintra!

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 1: Arrival

It feels like only yesterday that we arrived back from our trip to Netherlands. Maybe because it was only a week and a half ago. At any rate, I could quite easily get used to being in and out of airports considering how much time I have been spending there recently.

For this latest mini-break I find myself returning to Portugal since I was last here 16 years ago. I don’t remember too much about the previous trip, but there are some things that feel familiar. Mainly the smell of the tree sap as we walked through the greener areas and the patterns of the tiles on the floors and walls.

The first day is always a bit odd, especially when you arrive in the mid-afternoon. Too much time to not do anything, but not enough time to do anything sizeable. So we just wandered around the nearby area.

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The bus ride from the airport was already making me feel like this was a city I could fall for. A shop like this? Well that just sweetens the deal. We didn’t go inside because… well I’m not entirely sure if we’d make it out without buying a can of sardines with our birth year on it.

One thing I had never appreciated about Lisbon is that it is a coastal capital. But there it is, the estuary of the Tejo River as it enters the Atlantic Ocean. The smell of the sea is faint, but very much there as you head to the river’s edge. I guess that must be because this is brackish water rather than seawater.

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We reach the river as the sun is going down and the view is beautiful. The light of the sun is so very red. The surrounding buildings are glowing as if they are facing a gigantic bonfire. The bank is very crowded as we all gather to watch the sun going down.

After some sun watching (and after turning down a vendor’s offer of cheap marijuana) we headed back up to the Rossio area where our hotel is.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Dieimg_3958Food item: Azores Pineapple

On the way back we happened across a shop I was looking to go into tomorrow. A shop that specialises in food from the Azores. I had researched this and was ready to buy a pineapple for the food list with no plan of how I’d be able to eat the damned thing.

Luckily they had free samples of the pineapple on offer, so I was able to try it there and then without having to fruit wrestle. This tasted unlike any pineapple I has experienced before. The flavour just exploded in my mouth. It felt like a sweet and concentrated pineapple flavour that I would normally have in a sweet. So basically it’s the best pineapple I’ve ever had and I’ve bought some pineapple jam to try and recreate this experience at home.

Dinner was at a small place near the hotel. I’ve purposely been researching places to go that were Tripadvisor friendly and would not break the bank. We managed to get a meal for three here for 26€, so I think I did a good job.

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Food item: Alheiras De Mirandela

I got myself the Alheiras De Mirandela and had the most cultured sausage, egg and chips that I have ever had. The sausage itself was mushy on the inside. As in it felt like it was very freshly made (rather than processed) where you could appreciate the textures of the meat and how the smokiness of the meat changed depending on the closeness of the texture.

The sausage itself has an interesting history and dates back to the days of the Portuguese Inquisition. Jews would make these sausages with chicken and hang them up in their smokehouses. By doing so it would like they were eating pork and, as such, had converted to Christianity. Such a clever, yet simple, idea.

img_3960Food item: Gilthead Bream
Progress: 581/751

Hub did me the favour by having the ‘dourada’ or gilthead bream. The skin looked a beautiful golden colour, I guess to match the name which comes from the Portuguese word for ‘gold’. My husband was a little bit taken aback with the toothy fish head that had been nestled underneath some green beans, but he made the best of it.

I lack the fish vocabulary to discuss this properly. It was close textured whitefish that tasted very fresh and still had remnants of the seas saltiness in its flesh. The taste was more on par with richness of trout and mackerel than something like cod.

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We ended the day as I think we are going to end it whilst we are here – with a clutch of Portuguese egg custard tarts. I’m so looking forward the next few days and seeing more of this city

Going Dutch – Leaving Rotterdam

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Being married to a Dutchman means that any trip to the Netherlands has another purpose: visiting the in-laws. And so it was goodbye to Rotterdam with its individual architecture and amazing Markethal. I know I wasn’t really in Rotterdam for too long, but I have really grown fond of it.

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Breakfast was a bit of a haul from a sandwich store in Rotterdam Centraal (translated, I think the name of the shop means “bread sack”) and take the train over to Amersfoort where we would be picked up. Seems pretty straight forward until you are thrown off the train at Utrecht as there was a defective train on the line. Oh well. A bit of a sprint with luggage never hurt anyone.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Progress: 577/751

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Food item: Ubriaco

As I mentioned two posts ago – I bought a wedge of list cheese to be shared today with both the hub and mother-in-law. The cheese in question is called Ubriaco Al Prosecco. It is an Italian cheese that, as part of the ripening process, is soaked in a barrel of Prosecco – ergo the name which is Italian for “drunken”. As such it is recommended that you enjoy this cheese with a glass of Prosecco. Nah.

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Just smelling this cheese through the paper wrapping was something a bit different. It actually smelt of white wine (it probably smelt of Prosecco, but I am no sommelier). I have never known a cheese to smell like an actual type of wine. You can also taste the Prosecco in the cheese, which was stronger in some places than others. Texture-wise this cheese felt quite Dutch as it had an Edam like bounce to it. It went down well.

For dinner we did the finished off this trip in the most Dutch way possible: a visit to a pancake house. Seeing that we had a 1-year-old with us (how big my niece is getting, actually startling – feels only yesterday that she was a gurgling, albeit cute, meatloaf) it was a very family friendly place.

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You’d have thought that a lot of children being around would have distracted from the pancakes…but I got quite a way into my pancake before I remembered to take a picture. This was the Surinamer pancake, which had cheese, spicy chicken, leek, pineapple and sweet chilli sauce on it. It was pretty amazing. Hub had one with goats cheese, bacon, walnuts and rocket on it, again that was pretty good too (not as good as mine though).

Other family things happened afterwards that I don’t need to go into, but I am acutely aware that it is back to reality tomorrow with all its train engineering works and job interviews. So I’m going to just spend some time chilling to some GentleWhispering ASMR videos before heading to sleep around the in-laws.

This little sojourn to the Netherlands really did end too quickly. Like way too quickly. There’s no way that I want to return to regular life. Still, since I have been saving holiday up all year it’s a bit of an end-of-year blow out.

Next stop: Lisbon!

Going Dutch – Amsterdam

I am conflicted about the city of Amsterdam. There are times when I look at it and think that there are some very pretty parts and there are other times where it makes me feel so annoyed and anxious that I end up turning to my husband and say “this is a garbage city”.

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The last time I was here I was disappointed since this is one of “those” cities that people visit for a long weekend and it left I me a bit cold (literally, it was soon after New Years and I was bloody freezing).

This time… well it felt like the city remembered me and was just being mean. Lots of paths blocked because of tram works and garbage trucks, plenty of irate truckers and the occasional waft of cannabis.

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Maybe I was especially marry because I was hungry and hadn’t had breakfast yet. So we went to the Dutch version of Gregg’s (maybe just a bit more upmarket as my husband asserted when I voiced this in public) where I was reminded once again how the Dutch do sandwiches better.

The first port of call was the Anne Frank Huis. Or it would have been if we had looked up beforehand to see that you had to reserve a place online if you wanted to get in before 3:30.

Right so we walked off vowing to be back and made the 30 minute trek to the Museumplein so we could visit the Van Gogh Museum… where we were presented with a similar problem. Luckily, we could actually book ticket for this and just present it on our phones (top tip there).

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Whilst we waited for our slot in the Van Gogh Museum at 1 o’clock we decided to have a bit of a de-stress with some waffles. I cannot tell you how needed these waffles were and they did they job expertly.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 60/100Sight: Van Gogh Museum
Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Position: #190

Finally we were able to get in somewhere! It’s interesting that this museum was included as part of the Lonely Planet travel list since it’s one of only three museums on the list devoted to a single artist (the other being the Teatre-Museu Dalí and Picasso Museum in Spain).

They were pretty vigilant here about no pictures being taken. I can understand why considering how people tend to take the piss when it comes to flash photography even if it has been expressly forbidden.

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The great thing about having so many works of one artist in one place is that it really gives you a greater understanding. For example, I had no idea that Van Gogh enjoyed Japanese art and did some paintings in a Japanese style. I was also unaware that he was only active for 10 years.

So yes, I went into the museum thinking that he was a bit overrated and I came out thinking that yes, someone as famous as him will always be overrated, but he was such a talent. I also understood, for the first time, why people regard his painting of Sunflowers so highly – it truly did light up the room.

After spending a good while at the Van Gogh museum we left to make our way back to the Anne Frank Huis…

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…but not before we had had a snack from Febo and their, almost magical, hot snack vending machines. How something like this hasn’t taken off in the UK I will never understand. If we had a chain of stores in London where I could get a hot snack from an automatiek machine for £1.50-£2 I would be there with bells on.

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On our way to the Anne Frank Huis I was finally able to let go of some of that anxiety/annoyance that had taken over me earlier in the morning. There are parts of Amsterdam that are legitimately beautiful. It just happens that these are not on the main routes (where the trams were being dug up and where garbage were making their rounds in the morning).

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 61/100Sight: Anne Frank Huis
Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Position: #59

We needed that hot snack because a two hour queue at the Anne Frank Huis awaited us. Like with the Van Gogh museum they were very hot about no pictures being taken of the inside. What I can say, is that I am so glad that I chose to read the diary of Anne Frank before visiting this museum – it really gave me a sense of context as we walked through the annex.

When I was reading the book it made it easier to think of her and her family as fictional characters, but there was none of that here. The reality of the living conditions and what happened to them after they were discovered was just laid bare. Yes, in some ways this was rather harrowing, but it is hard not to leave there feeling humbled.

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Since it was 6:30 as we exited the Anne Frank house we also left hungry, so we made for an Indonesian restaurant called Aneka Rasa that we enjoyed the last time we were in Amsterdam nearly 3 years ago. Being November, the Christmas lights were up all over the city and, like a sucker, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of magic from them.

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Of course a visit to an Indonesian restaurant meant another rijsttafel. This one was better than the one we’d had earlier in the week – less options for the main, but it came with cake and ice cream at the end. I know that hub was very happy with the cake on offer.

So yes. Amsterdam, we may not have gotten off to the best start. Maybe we just need to be a bit nicer to each other, like we were towards the end of the day if we are going to make this thing work. Although you may need to talk to some of your cyclists. Too many of them are arseholes. Until next time, we’ll always have Jacques Brel.

Going Dutch – Kinderdijk

The reason that we picked Rotterdam as the base of operations for this part of our trip was its proximity to one of the Lonely Planet places of interest. Possibly the most Dutch thing I could ever do whilst in the Netherlands: visit the windmill complex at Kinderdijk.

Since we are here in November we are WAY off season. This means that there are fewer boat trips to the Kinderdijk from Rotterdam. Especially in the morning. So we grabbed a sandwich (I have been asked by the hub to point out that the Dutch are very good at making sandwiches) and made our way to the Kinderdijk by metro and the hourly bus.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 59/100Sight: Kinderdijk Windmills
Location: Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
Position: #445

I don’t know how my husband expected me to react to first seeing all the windmills at the Kinderdijk. I don’t think it was the somewhat excited child that I ended up being. I think I explained it by saying that this was the closest I would ever be to being in a Dutch fairytale. Weird eh?

When I say windmill complex, I mean there were an awful lot of windmills everywhere you look. Almost like that episode of Pushing Daisies where they visit the windmill park – just nowhere near as colourful. Still, we were able to actually go inside these ones – so I now have an even greater appreciation for my flat.

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The thing is, the weather today was the sort of weather you would expect in the Netherlands on a day in November. Patchy rain, a bit overcast and a chill in the air. Somehow, this felt like the perfect way to experience the waterways of the Kinderdijk. Also, it made for perfect weather for the all the ducks, geese and herons.

Since we were not here in the main tourist season the windmills were pretty much all at a standstill except for one (the oldest one where you could watch the mechanisms via a live camera feed) that was free to move if the wind blew. Luckily for us, the wind did a few times and we were able to see it spin. It was quieter than I expected. Not at all like the Windy Miller’s windmill in Camberwick Green.

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We walked for a long time along the canals and got to some windmills where people lived (one person even had some sheep) before making our way back to Rotterdam via a ferry and a water taxi. I know that hub really wanted to do this boat trip and I was more than happy to oblige… that is until the gentle rocking of the boat caused me to fall asleep. Fun while it lasted!

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Of course, seeing how we were gallivanting around windmills for most of the early afternoon, we forgot lunch again. A kroket and some chips with peanut sauce (seriously. people of the UK, we need to get peanut sauce right and I don’t mean that bland satay crap. We need proper peanut/satay sauce) soon put an end to those hunger pains.

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The rest of the day? A bit of a mix. We rode the tram to see the Euromast (an observation tower), but didn’t go up as 10€ each felt a bit steep. Then there was some shopping for Christmas presents, souvenirs and another visit to the Markthal where I found some cheese for the food list (to be consumed on a future date).

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Fast forward to dinner and we gravitated towards one of the highest rated restaurants in Rotterdam (at least according to TripAdvisor). It was a Vietnamese restaurant called Little V and, honestly, it was one of the best meals I have had in the last few years. Walking through the restaurant just left me feeling transported to a place that was not a cool evening in Rotterdam.

So tomorrow then. We’re going to be paying a visit to Amsterdam to take in some of the famous sites that we didn’t have time for the last time we were there. Should be fun!