Tag Archives: lonely planet

The Great EU Quest: Sweden – Vasamuseet and Skansen

As is the tradition of my trips abroad, today was a museum day! The itinerary itself crystallised around the second of two Lonely Planet locations and I am very happy with how it turned out.

To begin the day we had more of the food that we purchased for yesterday’s dinner. Although we were still unable to finish off all the remaining kavring and limpa bread… so I know what’ll be for breakfast again tomorrow!

One thing I really love about the city of Stockholm is that it is built on 14 islands. We spent most of today on Djurgården since that appears very much to be the most fun island in Sweden. This island houses many museums, a theme park (sadly closed during our entire trip to Stockholm), a zoo and many other attractions. It’s like the real world equivalent to Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island… just without the weird donkey curse.

Because we are cheapskates we decided to walk from our hotel to Djurgården. It was only 25 minutes away since we’re staying just north of Gamla Stan so we had a nice leisurely walk along the waterfront before reaching our first stop.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 73/100Sight: Vasamuseet
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Position: #206

The Vasa Museum is one of two ship museums on the Lonely Planet list; the other being the Titanic museum in Northern Ireland. It’s one of those things I would have probably missed out otherwise as I’ve never been interested in boats or pirates.

It just takes that first moment of walking into the museum itself to get why this could be on the list. As museums go, Vasa Museum is pretty unique because of the story of the Vasa itself. A 17th century flagship built for great expense and decked out with beautiful carvings and paintings… only to sink less than 30 minutes into its maiden voyage and become the ultimate example of hubris.

What you see in the museum itself is the salvaged ship that has been brilliantly preserved and restored after being underwater for 333 years. All this and get the museum boasts that the boat you see is still 95-98% original. How? Well, because the water and the silt itself were favourable enough to prevent the ship from completely disintegrating.

I’d recommend getting onto one of the free museum introduction tours and making use of the free 17 minute movie that the museum offers. We ended up watching the movie in Japanese with English subtitles… which was interesting in of itself.

After leaving the Vasa Museum we made our way to Skansen – the worlds first open air live museum, which was founded in 1891. It is absolutely massive and I could see us having just spent the entire day here. The entire attraction is split nearly 50/50 between a zoo containing Scandinavian animals and buildings that have been relocated from other areas of Sweden for the sake of education and preservation.

Being a living museum, a lot of the relocated buildings have people inside dressed in traditional garb to explain things to the visitors. You also have onsite blacksmiths, woodcarvers and glassmakers who you can watch as they make their crafts which can, of course, be purchased in the gift shops.

The layout of Skansen really does help to breathe new life and give a new purpose to these buildings that would have been demolished otherwise. The wooden church is one of the more popular as people can actually get married in it. The yard also features some old gravestones… which really gave me the creeps.

For me, I loved the old farmhouses…but that might just be because they housed some of the farm animals from the children zoo. I mean, who wouldn’t be enchanted by a litter of piglets snuffling around looking for food. These piglets pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip to Skansen (where we ended up skipping lunch because I didn’t feel like spending £17 on a burger).

So yes, the zoo at Skansen. It contains many local animals such as lynx, wolves and wolverines… that is if you are lucky enough to see them, which we did not. We were far luckier with other animals, however. We managed to see the brown bears being fed and got very well acquainted with some moose.

The highlight of the zoo itself was a tie between the reindeer (including an almost pure white one) and the bison/wild boar enclosure (also containing baby animals). I don’t know what it is about the water in Skansen, but it appears to be really good for making baby animals.

After the zoo we engaged in the very Swedish custom of fika… or at least my husband did. I just opted for fizzy water because I don’t really like coffee. I’ll take the pastries though. I’m only human after all and we skipped lunch.

A final farewell tour of Skansen later and we boarded a ferry to get back to Gamla Stan from Djurgården so we could have a quick sit down in the hotel before heading out for dinner. The ferry ride itself went way too quickly at about 7 minutes. Wish I could have had more time to appreciate the views.

Dinner itself was at a restaurant called Nomad. Dinners out are expensive in Stockholm so we searched around for a place that felt reasonable in price but still had a good reputation. I hadn’t expected a fairly hipster restaurant, but there’s a first tome for everything.

Being in Sweden, I wanted to have some fish. To start was herring dressed in three different ways (my favourite was the one on the left, which was actually the plainest and yet was still very flavourful and sweet) whilst the hub had chanterelle mushrooms and cheese on sourdough toast. Both dishes were gorgeous.

For the main I had some salmon (because I keep seeing it everywhere) with dill potatoes and a mustard sauce. Again, this was delicious. The salmon didn’t always need the mustard as it was great just the way it was, but options are always appreciated.

And there we are the end of Day Two. As of writing this I’m not sure what I’ll be doing tomorrow. We have plenty of options; it’s just that we have to round them down. Hopefully we’ll cobble together another great day.

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The Great EU Quest: Sweden – Exploring Stockholm

List Item: Visit all EU countriesProgress: 18/28

Välkommen till Sverige!

Country: Sweden
Year first visited: 2017

After my first full day in Stockholm I am just so full of excitement at what I am going to be seeing on my remaining time here. Looking back at my other travel posts, it feels like I fall for cities pretty easily. But hey, rather this than spend money to be disappointed.

So yes, this is the first full day in Stockholm. We only made it to the hotel at about 11pm local time because our easyJet flight was delayed by about an hour. The only thing worth reporting is that the announcement on the shuttle train between Arlanda Airport and Stockholm Central was done by Björn from ABBA. Ain’t that just the coolest!

Having arrived so late the previous day we both basically slept through our alarm and ended up waking around an hour later than we hoped. That made it a bit of a rush job getting ready in the morning as there was a 10am walking tour I wanted to do.

Here’s the thing. If you told me a few years ago that I would be doing walking tours around a city I was visiting… I’d probably think future me was a bit sad. Sod it though, I’m in a new place and I want to learn as much about it as I can. Did I overdo it today by doing two of these walking tours in one day? Obviously, but my head is full of new useless trivia and my feet are glowing – so that’s a day well spent.

Anyway, we started the day doing a 2 hour free walking tour of the city north of the old town with Free Tours Stockholm. It really is one thing to be walking around the city and another to know some of the stories that go along with it.

For example, we walked past the gym where Swedish Crown Princess Victoria met her commoner husband. We also walked past the former bank building (pictured) whose bungled robbing led to the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. What can I say, those two hours went by in a flash.

At the end of the tour we were deposited on the border of Gamla Stan (the old town) in time for the changing of the guard. We didn’t stick around for this as we’ve seen it happen once before in Copenhagen and I couldn’t image this one being all that different. Instead we made our way straight to Storkyrkan (Stockholm Cathedral).

There’s been a church on this spot for ~700 years and it has been growing ever since. In the current incarnation the exposed brickwork of the vaults and columns make for a beautifully patterned interior. Unlike the rather sparse cathedral in Helsinki, there were some really notable pieces of ornamentation to see here.

Firstly there’s the alter which is a vision in ebony and silver. It’s very striking and unlike anything I’ve seen before in a church. The colours did make me think of the grim reaper, but I’m not sure that was intentional. You also have some extravagant royal pews and an insanely old statue made of elk antlers and oak which depicted the slaying of the dragon by St George.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 72/100Sight: Gamla Stan
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Position: #99

Much like with Tallinn, the Old Town of Stockholm is the big thing to see. The whole thing is on an island and it doesn’t take that long to navigate across. There’s a lot of little alleys and offshoots, which means multiple routes are necessary to appreciate it.

Before we explored, however, there was a desperate need for lunch since we skipped breakfast. Things being what they are with exchange rates (thanks again Brexit), Stockholm is a fairly expensive city. However, if you’re like me and are coming into this being used to prices in London… it isn’t too much of a shock. Also, it’s worth finding ways to make things cheaper. For example, look for lunch deals – some places offer substantially cheaper lunch options.

We found such a restaurant in Gamla Stan. Don’t get me wrong it still felt expensive, but everything is relative. Between us, my husband and I shared some Swedish meatballs and some elk meatloaf in a chanterelle sauce. I am happy that these were suitably Swedish food choices.

So we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Gamla Stan. With the brightly coloured houses and the sheer sense of history, I can really see how this is the most popular part of Stockholm for tourists. I plan on returning here on later days for some souvenir shopping and maybe breakfast on our final day.

We mooched a bit at the waterfront watching German cruise passengers being ferried onto dry land and made friends with some oddly cute seagulls before looping back to start the next walking tour at 4.

Now, was it a bit weird to have the same tour guide for both tours? Yes. Didn’t it matter? No, because he’s really good at what he does and was fairly easy on the eyes. Two more hours of history and stories passed by in a flash. I still vividly remember how an event in Stockholm led to the coining of the term ‘bloodbath’ and how some of the Americans in the group were getting a bit rankled every time our guide talked about the benefits of living in Sweden (e.g. paternity leave, free university fees, universal healthcare etc).

After this tour broke we walked across to the Southern island to checkout a larger supermarket and to get some good views of the Old Town from a higher vantage point. I don’t know if I am high enough to do the city true justice, but I think it’s a nice enough picture.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die
Food items: Limpa Bread and Kavring
Progress: 674/751

Coming to Sweden, there were three food items I wanted to look out for. Having read stories about the third I will not be trying surstromming here in Sweden. Instead, I will try this when I get home and can get some proper ventilation going. There would be a fourth if you count moose cheese… but I doubt I have enough in my bank account for some of that.

We did, however, find the other two items. Both of them are types of rye bread that can be found in Sweden. These formed our dinner tonight and breakfast for the next day. Trying to be Swedish we also bought some salami, cream cheesed infused with chanterelle mushrooms and a tub of shrimp salad with surimi and dill.

Starting off with the limpa bread. The name itself conjures up something a bit pappy to the point where I was expecting something akin to the Jamaican hardough. Instead think rye bread, then think malt loaf. Combine these flavours, give it a lighter texture and you have limpa.

It’s a rye bread with the hint of molasses and orange zest. It feels like it’s on the verge of being cakey, but the crumb texture isn’t right for that. We found this went really well with some chanterelle cream cheese. The woodiness of the mushroom really complimenting the bitterness of the zest and molasses.

The other bread from the list is called kavring. The initial whiff as you open the bag and the reassuring heft as you hold it definitely points to this as a rye bread. Darker than the limpa, but lighter and less dense than a lot of rye breads you can get. It’s like they remembered to add yeast to give it a bit of a rise.

Both of these are breads that I would happily buy if they were available in the UK. The fact that these both look near mass produced makes me weep when I think that, back at home, there’s no real equivalent widely available.

We finished off the evening with a cinnamon bun, because they are everywhere in Stockholm and they were on offer. Who can say no to a pastry swirl that moist with cinnamon sugar. I like these better than their American counterpart because they aren’t drowning in icing.

So yes, that’s he first day. Tomorrow will be my ticking off the other Lonely Planet site here in Stockholm: the Vasa Museum. Should be a special day.

The Great EU Quest: Spain – Figueres

For our final day in Spain we ventured out of the city of Barcelona towards the town of Figueres some 70+ miles away. We booked tickets on the highspeed train so the journey only took 55 minutes each way (regular trains take 2.5 hours, so this was a no brainer).

Breakfast was a feast after we confused the server at the train station’s sandwich kiosk… being the English person I am I felt that I would rather pay the extra 4€ than make a fuss at there being an extra sandwich. The sandwich I asked for (which was Spanish omelette) was perfect for breakfast and has inspired me to make my own when I am back in the UK.

So, why did we go to Figueres in the first place? Well…

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 69/100Sight: Teatre-Museu Dalí
Location: Figueres, Spain
Position: #361

 

It’s the home of the Dalí Theatre and Museum. The final Lonely Planet check of this trip and something of genuine interest. I remember back when there was the Dalí Experience in London and have since enjoyed seeing anything of his that I come across. Even his sketches and lesser known pieces are inherently interesting because of the surreal nature of things.

So it’s little wonder that this museum was incredibly interesting. The only issue was the abundance of tour groups. Mostly school groups. It just meant that, at times, it was hard to navigate around the narrow corridors of the museum or get a good view of all the artworks.

Still, that didn’t overly detract from the unique experience that having so much Dalí in one place affords. I mean where else can you have an entire room with furniture set up to show the face of Mae West if you see it from the right angle?

How about corridors filled with paintings of rocks that look like naked women, gilded money skeletons and busts crowned with bread? It’s a truly unique experience that I would recommend – just make sure to seek out Galatea of the Spheres. It’s a great painting that few people were paying attention to… which is a shame.

So, what do you do after all that? Well, we decided to go on a bit of trek to the Sant Ferran Castle. The museum of antique typewriters wasn’t quite tempting enough.

For a reasonable price (and some collateral) you can get access to the castle with its free audio guide. The audio guide is a brick where you need to press play and pause (because it is one continuous track) and actually speaks to you out loud rather than through earphones. Honestly, it all felt rather comical as images of groups of tourists with different guides all playing at the same time immediately sprang to mind. What an awful cacophony that must be.

I say must be because we were the only tourists there at the time. Other than people who actually worked at the castle we were on our own. This castle is massive and is, at least according to the guide, the biggest fortress of its kind in Europe.

Vast and empty. So it felt like we were playing a sandbox version of Uncharted with the audio guide acting as director’s commentary. We clambered up the parapets, observed the plains from high vantage points – which reminds me:

List item: Visit a Spanish plain to see if it rains there
Status: Completed

 

I think what we had was a pretty unique experience that others who come to the fortress in the summer time wouldn’t have. I mean, this is a site that was only in the triple figures for Facebook check-ins. I would find it hard to recommend this enough should you fine yourself in the Figueres area. The free audio guide alone (the interesting information, not the comical size) would be enough. The ability to explore in isolation is a bonus.

We still had a few hours left until our return train to Barcelona, so we figured it was time for lunch. It’s the first time I have ever had someone make fideua for me… And I have to say that I prefer the one I make more. Not just because of the fiddly shelling of prawns, but because I put chorizo in mine. It may not be as authentic as the one we had… but sometimes authenticity needs to give way if something tastes better.

Our final moments in Figueres were spent in the jewels section of the Dalí museum. Originally we were going to give this a miss because it didn’t sound as interesting, but boy were we wrong. I never realised just how much he did in the way of jewellery design.

So many of the pieces were exceptional. Some of them were able to move, including a beating heart of rubies within a golden casing. My favourites are the two pictured above: an elephant with a giant crystal on its back and a lapis eye that can be used to tell time. Truly this man was an amazing talent. I always felt this, but now I definitely know it.

An hour or so later and we were back in Barcelona. We took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe area of the city, just because it can be nice too see what remnants are left over from World Fairs. I mean, sure, this is no Eiffel Tower but this promenade has its own calming charms.

From here we, finally, managed to gain admittance to the Santa Maria del Mar. We tried a few days earlier, but it was during the 2-3 hour where you needed to pay and we didn’t see the point. So glad that we were able to get in for free as it was mighty impressive on the inside.

It was never going to beat the Sagrada Familia, but looking at the columns and ceiling work it feels like Gaudí might have got at least some inspiration from here. Even if it was the number and thinness of the columns used to support the structure. On the who it felt very pure and uncluttered… something I know Gaudí would have appreciated.

So here I am now. We polished off a dinner of paella and chocolate covered churros and now it it time to pack for the flight tomorrow afternoon. Thanks to EU customs I have 6 food list items that will be coming home with me and will likely become their own blog post incredibly soon.

I wish that we didn’t have to leave here so soon, but that’s the issue with not spending a full week somewhere. Somehow I doubt it will take another 27 years before I am back in Spain. Already the precursors of itineraries are springing up in my head – so maybe I’ll be visiting Grenada, Madrid or Seville at some point in the near future. I hope so.

The Great EU Quest: Spain – Sagrada Familia Day

For me it feels like the sites of today share the similar theme of different forms of worship. It’s a bit of a tenuous link, but one I think can apply to the first three things saw today.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 67/100Sight: Sagrada Familia
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Position: #16

How do I start talking about the Sagrada Familia? I mean this is something that is the definition of breathtaking and the damned thing isn’t even finished yet. 9-10 years until completion and its construction has taken the work of generations of architects, planners and builders.

The outside of the church is amazing enough. It’s absolutely massive and the tallest towers are nowhere near completion yet. Hell, only two of the three facades are nearly done – the other just looked it had barely been started.

The sheer level of detail on the facades themselves are incredible. At the moment we can see those dedicated to the nativity and the crucifixion (the third and final facade is still under construction as of writing this). They completely contrast with the other – the nativity side being more exuberant with its carvings of animals and beautifully designed leaf doors.

It’s things like the incredibly ornate doors and the cryptogram on the side of the passion facade that show just huge this project is. With most of the original designs lost due in a fire started by rioting citizens the design and building of the Sagrada Familia really has become a group effort. Oh and this is all just the outside.

That first time I stepped into the basilica itself was literally breathtaking. I just stood there covered in goosebumps and had to take a minute to register as much as I could. If I believed in that sort of thing I guess it would be called a ‘religious experience’, but for me I’ll just say that I was incredibly overwhelmed by the beauty.

Because of the vastness of the interior it is impossible to find one picture that truly showcases what it looks like. It doesn’t help that, thanks to Gaudí’s amazing use of light, the colour inside the basilica changes throughout the day.

Why? Because of the stained glass windows. The colours and positioning of the windows have been done for maximum effect – cooler colours on one side and warmer shades on the other. When we were inside there was a lot of light coming from the warmer windows which gave the space above the alter a soft golden glow.

To be honest, I did not want to leave. I wanted to just stay inside and keep exploring the nuances in Gaudí’s design. Like how the columns were all slightly different in colour and ridging. The jewelled names of the Evangelists. The long list of names that can be found within the windows themselves. Just wow. I now know what a real life version of the stone forest of Nausicaa looks like – and I know I have to come back when it is complete.

Alas, we still had many things to see so it was goodbye and onto the second place of worship some 9 stops away on the Barcelona Metro – which I want to pay a massive compliment to. We bought a 10 trip ticket and that’s really going to see us through the whole trip.

 List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 68/100Sight: Camp Nou
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Position: #470

So yes, when I said worship I don’t think I was too out of order to put football under that umbrella. Under the insistence of the guide we went to visit Camp Nou. I drew the line at the the 25€ to do the tour since I have no interest in football. I know it’s a bit of a cop out, but that’s expensive for something you don’t really want to do.

Still, that’s another Lonely Planet site ticked off… just not one that I found too interesting.

So, hitched another ride on the Metro and got off at the southern end of La Rambla – but first we took a turn around the marina, because why not. I keep forgetting that this is a seaside city. I had colleagues telling me to go to the beach, which I didn’t do because I have no real interest in beaches. I do love the water though, even if this was a wee bit cluttered by all the port buildings.

We eventually made it up La Rambla and into what would best be described as my place of worship: the food market. In this instance La Boqueria. It’s not as big as Borough Market or Tsukiji Fish Market, but it was so interesting to look around the place!

Sadly I fell short of my aim to find a place that sold fried bull testicles (or criadillas), so I guess I’ll have to wait for another trip to Spain before crossing that food item off the list. Still, I managed to purchase some list chorizo and cheese that I need to somehow get back to London in one piece. The list of food items that I am bringing back to the UK just keeps on growing.

After a short rest in the hotel room we were back on the road, well the metro, funicular and cable car, but you know what I mean. Our final destination was Montjuïc Castle so we could get some good views over the city.

The first thing that struck me was a weird smell that was very much like the smell of cooking Heinz Spaghetti Hoops. I guess there was a restaurant nearby and the wind was in the right direction? Or maybe a tomato field was on fire? I have no idea, but what I DO know is how gratifying it is to still qualify as a reduced fee for some of these Barcelona attractions.

This is possibly the best view you can get of the city of Barcelona. The seagulls appear to really appreciate it as they circle above the sea-facing parts of the castle. Be careful of their divebombing – the hub had a misadventure with one of them crapping very near him and just clipping his forearm. Gross.

We walked down the mountain, taking in the views of Barcelona on the way down and coming across the famous site where the Olympic diving competitions took place 25 years ago. I completely get how those fantastic pictures were taken now of those divers with the city skyline in the background.

Dinner was another tapas affair – this time at Cerveceria Catalana. I mention this restaurant by name because the food here was beautiful. We ordered 7 different dishes and the bill still came out to under 40€. Some highlights were the fried artichokes, the Spanish omelette and goats cheese with escalivada (that last one was the hub’s pick, and the boy did well there).

So yea, I really think we should have been here for longer. I mean, Barcelona is one of THE cities in Europe and we only had two full day to explore it. Still, we sure made the most of it. For our final day in Spain we are venturing to the nearby town of Figueres to take in the Dalí museum. Bit nervous about this considering the Picasso Museu yesterday… but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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.

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!

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!