Porto – The land of Port wine

7 01 2018

I love port wine. So since I was already in Lisbon, it will be a shame if I don’t pay a visit to the home of port wine, Porto. Well known for its wine, beautiful Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and yummy seafood, the second largest city in Portugal is well underrated and overshadowed by Lisbon. Given that there is much less tourists here versus Lisbon, Porto emits a more laid-back feel. The colourful city is split by river Douro (translated as the “river of gold”) with many nice bridges spanning across the river, the most picturesque being Ponte de Dom Luis I bridge (or in short Ponte bridge).

The city’s old town lies in the Ribeira district which is a world heritage site. The narrow winding cobblestone streets and churches somehow creates an old-world feel to this city.

The city’s Sé cathedral with its 12th century Gothic rose windows is a must-see. A visit to the famous book shop Livraria Lello Porto which is one of the world’s most beautiful bookstore will not disappoint. For Harry Potter’s fan, this bookstore used to play host to JK Rowling who once taught English in Porto. The São Francisco Church is also another impressive church to visit. Though the exterior may not look astonishing, the lavish design inside this Baroque and Gothic-style church where almost every inch is covered in gold will make you go wow!

For shoppers, Santa Caterina will be your heaven. Just make sure you spare some time for sightseeing and also head to the nearby cafes for the yummy Pastéis de Nata (custard tart) for your in-between shopping breaks 🙂

Tips:

1) For wine lovers, cross Ponte bridge to get to the south bank to the town of Vila Nova de Gaia to visit the famous port cellars.

2) Some spectacular views of the city can be seen from the Ponte bridge and also from the top of the hill (behind the cathedral) where you can catch a nice shot of the river, south bank and the Ponte bridge.

3) Porto can be reached by air and also via a fast train from Lisbon. You can refer to my Lisbon blog here for details.

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Lisbon the city of hills

6 01 2018

I love cakes and pastries and one of my favourite is the Portuguese egg tarts. I always wonder if the Portuguese egg tarts that we have in Asia are indeed those that one will find in Portugal. Coupled with my love for port wine and the desire to see the iconic yellow trams, I decided to pay a visit to this western most country on continental Europe. Well, a “simple reason” to make a trip to the capital of Portugal lol.

It is hard not to fall in love with this hilly city. Yellow trams snaking up steep streets, black and white cobblestones, beautiful monuments, and of course the wonderful custard cakes Pastel de nata and many more, you will surely find something that you like in this city.

The first thing I did was to rush down to Torre de Belem (Tower of Belem), one of Lisbon’s iconic sight. This UNESCO World Heritage site was built in early 1500s and was once a fortification to guard Lisbon and the mouth of River Tagus. Looking at this beautiful tower, I can imagine how the Portuguese sailors felt back in the 16th century when they saw this tower, their first sight when they sailed home.

From the Belem Tower, you can see a bridge looking similar to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge spanning across River Tejo. This is Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge which commemorates the revolution of Portugal from the Salazar regime on 24 April 1974.

Across the river stands the statute of Christ Cristo Rei with his arms raised similar to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio Brazil. This is another Lisbon’s most iconic monuments and was built in reverence for Portugal avoiding the horrors of WW2.

Walking around the city central, you will not miss Arco da Rua Augusta, a beautiful arch at the open square of Praça do Comércio. A short walk away from the arch is the square of Rossio, paved beautifully with black and white cobblestones and has a column with a statue of Dom Pedro IV, the first emperor of Brazil. Walk further and you will reach Praça dos Restauradores and the obelisk, a monument to commemorate Portugal’s liberation from Spain. Here, you can get a good view of how Castelo se São Jorge and see how hilly Lisbon really is. For the singles looking for a partner, the statue of Saint Anthony in front of the Igreja Santo Antonio May well be of help to you. Apparently, if you can throw and land a coin on the book of Saint Anthony, your wish will come true. Let me know if this works for you!

I love the old Alfama district with its labyrinth of narrow streets that climb the hill from the Tejo estuary up to the castle, many nice cafes, boutique shops and small bars.

For me, the best way to wrap up the trip apart from sightseeing is shopping! Well most girls like shopping isn’t it? 🙂 Avenida da Liberdade, the Champs Elysee of Lisbon, is the place to go where you can literally shop till you drop (or broke lol). The closest metro station is Avenida which is 5 to 10 minutes away.

Other nice sites to visit are the Jeronimos monastery, the majestic Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of Saint George) which was the ancient seat of power for over 400 years, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the Sé de Lisboa Cathedral and many more.

One last thing, I did my countdown and welcome a new year in this city with lovely fireworks!

Side trips from Lisbon

(1) Sintra:

Sintra, which used to be a summer retreat for the Portuguese nobility, is now the most popular day trip from Lisbon. Extravagant palaces, grand residences, lush forests set amidst the cooling hills of the Serra de Sintra makes this town super charming. Sintra is connected to Lisbon by an inexpensive train service that departs from Rossio train station in central Baixa. The journey takes around 45 minutes. Thereafter, you can take Sintra 434 tourist bus from the train station to the town centre, Pena Palace and Moors Castle.

The historic center of Sintra with its cobbled streets and traditionally painted buildings and the Gothic-Renaissance styled Palacio Nacional de Sintra are must-see if you visit Sintra. Of course, don’t miss out the ruins of the Moors Castle constricted in the 9th Century by the Moors to protect the fertile lands of Sintra (though it was unable to defend against the Christian crusades) and the nearby Pena Palace designed by King Fernando II. You can also hike up to the Cruz Alta (530m), the highest point in the Serra de Sintra and will get to see wonderful views over the Pena Palace.

(2) Cabo da Roca

We all like to visit the “far-most point” and the westernmost point of continental Europe is one of the breathtaking site to visit. The high steep cliffs facing the Atlantic Ocean with strong winds and crashing waves will let you see (and feel) the dramatic forces of nature. Cabo da Roca can be reached by bus number 403 from Sintra and takes around 40 minutes though the timing is not regular so you will need to check the timetable. A better alternative (though more expensive) is to either drive or take a taxi.

(3) Devil’s Mouth and nearby Cascais

The Devil’s Mouth (Boca do Inferno) near Cascais provides an unobtrusive point along the coast. The nearby charming town of Cascais,a fisherman town, is also worth a stop. Cascais is easily accessible by train from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre train station and the journey takes around 40 minutes. From there, you can take the taxi to Devil’s Mouth or rent a bicycle and cycle there.

(5) Porto: Fancy some port wine? The city of Porto is just a train ride away. Check out my blog on Porto here!

Tips:

1) Getting to/from airport: The more cost efficient way is to take the aerobus. There’s also metro available though the aerobus is more hassle-free. Again if you have 4 people, you may want to take the taxi which is around 15 euros.

2) Given that this is a hilly city, it also provides many nice viewpoints for you to snap wonderful photos. Some nice viewpoints include the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, Miradouro de Santa Catarina, the roof tops of the Alfama district.

3) If you can not navigate around the hilly city, there are trishaws which can take you around.

Food:

1) Do try out the Portuguese egg tarts. They are delicious. Almost every shop I tried are pretty good.

2) I love the Portuguese seafood rice. Around Alfama area has some nice family run cafes. I went to the first one (can’t remember the name though) and the food is good!

3) If you ever go to Sintra, there are many nice residents in this charming town. If you like a traditional Portuguese restaurant, do head to Restaurant Curral dos Caprinos which is one of the locals favourite. This is 10 minutes away from the town center but well worth the effort to visit.





Seville – Lonely Planet’s #1 city to visit next year

22 12 2017

I have heard so much about Seville and how beautiful this city is. I am blessed with wonderful weather during my stay in this awesome city that makes me LOVE this place even more.

The streets were lined with orange trees or more accurately during my visit, the oranges fell onto the roads creating yet another beautiful sight. The old town is lovely with the plazas full of horse-drawn carriages, transporting one (including me) back in time to fairy tale land.

I was quite surprised when I was told that Seville (or Sevilla as called by the Spanish) is the fourth largest city in Spain. The sights are all closely gathered in the old city which misled one to think that Seville is a small little town.

The most famous landmark in the city is Real Alcázar which was the palace to a couple of Spanish monarchs in the past. The Alcázar used to be a fort for the governors of Seville in the eighth century but was subsequently converted to a palace by the subsequent rulers which resulted in a beautiful mix of Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. If you are a Game of Thrones fan or have watched Lawrence of Arabia, you will find this place familiar as it was used to shoot some parts of the shows. Apparently, the royal family still use the upper floors when they are in Seville so keep a look out for them if you do visit.

Near the Real Alcázar is the Cathedral which you surely won’t miss with its impressive architecture. The Cathedral was built in the 15th century and is the third largest church in the world. I love to read stories about Christopher Columbus and thus was thrilled to know that Christopher Columbus remains rest in the Cathedral.

Take time to wander through the cobbled streets of the Santa Cruz quarter and along the band of the lovely river. Other nice sites to visit are the lovely gardens in Casa Pilatos.

I especially love Plaza De Espana with the beautiful buildings and tiles. Visit there during the late afternoon as the afternoon sun shining on the plaza gives it a nice colour.

Tips:

– Seville is the home of the flamenco shows so don’t miss it.

– I enjoyed the bull ring tour at Plaza de Toros which is extremely interesting and informative. The tour is free from 3pm onwards but you need to arrive early to queue for the free ticket which they only start to give out at 3pm.

– See my blog on Madrid and Barcelona for add-on to your Seville trip.

Food:

1) Carrillada de Cerdo: This is one of the most traditional pork cheek stew. One word – delicioso!

2) Serranito de Lomo: This is THE sandwich that you need to have in Seville. The seared pork loin (there’s a chicken version now) is topped with Serano ham and grilled green pepper is the signature sandwich of the city.

3) Cola de Toro: Well we heard from the bullring tour that when the bull is killed, its meat is then sold to restaurants to turn them into delicacies, one such is Cola de Toru (bull tail). I am not so sure if there are so many bull meat though and this may well be oxtail. But regardless this tapas is lovely. Sorry bull.

4) Torrijas: This bread dipped in eggs, deep fried to goodness and covered with sugar syrup, sweetened milk or honey is a must have desert. Ask if they can serve this with some ice cream which makes this already tasty desert even more heavenly.





Madrid in a day

21 12 2017

I must say my initial plan to stop by Madrid was not so much because I want to see the city but because Spain is the cheapest place to catch a flight to Morocco. I have been to Spain previously though it is limited to Barcelona and its surroundings. I mean when one thinks of Spain, the most popular city that pops up is Barcelona isn’t it? Ok this blog isn’t about Barcelona so if you are interested, you can read more in my separate blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/barcelona/

Now talking about Madrid, the first thing that came to my mind is its football (soccer) team and of course many of my Spanish friends are from this city. I have not really researched on this city before I came as it was more of a “stopover” destination. Well I am pleasantly surprised that this city has so much more to offer than what the ignorant me has thought. Below is what I managed to cover in one full day and I surely need to go back again!

The Parque del Retiro is Madrid’s main park with the famous Crystal Palace (completely made out of glass) is a beautiful place to stroll around.

From there, you can walk to Calle de Alcalá and the Alcalá Gate, the stunning Plaza de Cibeles and Puerta del Sol, the city’s best-known square.

Plaza Mayor is another famous site. This plaza once used to have bullfights, tournaments, markets and even (scary) executions!

Another must see is the Royal palace. Though it’s the official residence of the royal family, they don’t live here and it is only used for state functions. Across from the palace is Madrid Cathedral where official state ceremonies are held. Though this may not be the nicest cathedral in terms of look, it is one of the nicest place to view Madrid’s skyline.

For those bullfighting lovers, make sure you visit the Plaza de Toros which is the home of bullfighting in Spain and arguably the world. The building is beautiful so even if you can’t get tickets to the show, it is worth a visit to see the building.

If you have the time, Casa del Campo park which has an amusement park and zoo and the Parque del Oeste where an Egyptian temple (the Temple of Debod) can be found are interesting places to visit. Too bad time does not permit me to visit these places. Next time!

Tips:

⁃ Travelling to/from the airport: There are four modes of transport – Metro, train, bus or taxi – each takes around 30–40 minutes with taxi being the fastest (and most expensive). You can ask the information counter at the airport on which mode of transport is most convenient for you to reach your hotel. If you have 4 people, the taxi may add up to a very reasonable cost for each and save you the hassle.

⁃ Central Madrid is very walkable but please wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking a lot. If you find it too tiring or is travelling a little further, the metro is a cheap, convenient and fast way to navigate around the city. They sell single tickets, a set of 10 tickets (which is cheaper) and tourist pass. Map out your route to determine how many times you are going to take the metro and you can do your sums on what works best.

⁃ If you are in Madrid on a Sunday, head to the El Rastro flea market along the streets between Plaza Mayor and Puerta de Toledo.

Barcelona and Seville are good extensions to your Madrid trip which I have separately blog.

Food:

– Do try the local speciality of Chocolate Con Churros. This is essentially long churros served with a big cup of melted chocolate which spells YUMMY!

– I am a paella and Sangria fan so Spain is a food heaven to me. The second photo is taken from the restaurant opposite the Central train station (just beside McDonalds) but I can’t remember which restaurant I had fo the first photo. Anyway I must say most of the restaurants that I stepped into are pretty good. Well it is Spain after all!





St Peterburg: Chasing my USSR dreams

29 01 2017

Though not a fan of cruises for fear of getting seasick, I mustered my courage to go on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg when I found out that this is the only way to travel to Russia without a Visa. As a kid, I used to stare for a long while at the Soviet Union covering a large part on the world map. Stories of Stalin, the Cold War and the KGB always never fail to fascinate me. Hollywood added my curiousity of USSR (and submarines) with movies like The Hunt for the Red October and Crimson Tide. So no words can describe my excitement when I boarded Viking Cruise to sail across the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. 

The cruise was a little choppy but manageable. Thankfully I was not seasick. But I did get a scare of my life late at night when I was woken up by loud crashing sound as if the ship hit some hard objects. When I drew open the curtains and saw that the sea was frozen and sea ice was floating all around, the first silly thought that came to my mind was Titanic lol. I almost freaked out and thought that the ship was going down. Then I recalled that this ship has ice breaking ability and managed to composed myself to remain calm. Hilarious haha 🙂

The last leg of the journey as the ship cruise into St Petersburg was nothing short of spectacular as the ship broke its way through the wholly frozen sea to the port with snow falling. Of all the cities that I visited, I would say that St Petersburg is one of my favourite. I love the Hermitage Palace and its collections, the colourful churches including the famous Cathedral of the Holy Saviour on blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Issac’s Cathedral and many more. Even the metro stations with elaborated decorations which double up as bomb shelters during wartime are landmarks themselves. 

Given that the Visa free entry is only valid for 72 hours, it is a pity that I can’t spend more time in Hermitage Palace as well as visit Moscow. For my next trip, I will get the visa and spend a good amount of time there.

Tips:

– Cruise from Helsinki or Estonia to St Petersburg will get you to Russia Visa free for 72 hours.  See my blog on Finland and Estonia.

– Do try the local Russian pancake. There is a local fast food chain Teremok which serves cheap and yummy Russian pancakes. 


– Take a ride on the metro. Each stations are decorated differently and to me they are an open art museum.


– Walk around the city. You will be amazed that even non-touristy sites have also interesting architecture.


– Don’t shun away from Russian winter. There are not many places in the world where you can see frozen sea and rivers. 





I finally made it to Stockholm!

27 12 2016


Whenever I met up with a friend, she will keep rattling about how beautiful Stockholm is. Well not just her, many travellers to this city have all crowned this city as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. So when I visited Norway, I intended to make a side trip from Oslo to Stockholm but regretfully, I didn’t manage to find time from my tight itinerary. So a year later when I was planning a Nordic trip, I deliberately put Stockholm as one of my must see destination.

I was glad I did. The city is indeed beautiful, set on hundreds of islands in a lagoon. In the old town, one can find beautiful architecture with yellow buildings and cobblestones streets. Want to understand more on the Swedish history and culture? There are plentiful museums such as Vasa museum and Skansen. I particularly love the Skansen (Open Air Museum) which showcase various Swedish buildings across different periods and is a good place to understand Swedish culture and of course take nice photos. Or why not just take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront and the Old Town (Gamla Stan) where sights such as The Royal Palace,The Parliament House, Gustaf Adolf’s square, King’s Garfen, etc?



Food wise, Sweden is not all about Swedish meatballs. In fact, the locals laughed that Swedish meatball is the invention of a furniture shop (aka IKEA) and not their national cuisine. So what is Sweden national cuisine? Nothing specific but the country does have plentiful seafood so seafood stew and mussels are my top favourite.



Tips:

– Take flybus to Central station which is a lot cheaper than the express train. Savings in terms of time via express train is around 25 minutes but price is almost double.

– There is a changing of guards at the Royal Palace daily at around 12pm. You can check with the hotel concierge for the exact timing as the timing differs depending on the season.

– Sweden uses Swedish Kroner. However, you do not need to change to any local currency as credit card can be accepted almost everywhere even if you are making a small purchase. For public transport (eg bus and tram), just buy the tickets from the ticket machine which accepts credit card.

– For hotel, I was staying at Radisson Blu near the bus/train station. A very decent hotel in a good and continent location.





Copenhagen – In search of the Little Mermaid 

1 08 2016

Many children would have read the story of The Little Mermaid or watched the Disney cartoon version of it. So it is no surprise that seeing The Little Mermaid has always been on my bucket list. However, many times that I wanted to plan a trip to Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark, friends would say that there is nothing much to see there apart from the “little statute” and hence all these years, the city seems to always got dropped off my travel plans. Finally I just decided that I just have to see it no matter what and planned a 2 nights stopover in this city.

This city does have more to offer than The Little Mermaid. If you have ever been to Copenhagen, you will understand why Lonely Planet has described this city as “the coolest kid on the Nordic block”, “edgier than Stockholm and worldlier than Oslo” and that this Danish capital “gives Scandinavia the X factor”. 


The Old Harbour with its striking colours commonly seen in the Scandinavian countries exhibits an old world charm and reminded me of Norway’s Bergen Harbour.



The walk along the Old Harbour to the royal Amalienborg Palace, the Christiansborg parliament building and the Renaissance Rosenborg Castle (which has a museum containing royal artifacts and beautiful gardens), and of course the famous Little Mermaid statute. Tivoli Gardens is also a famous amusement park and pleasure garden that attracted many tourists and locals but as I was visiting in early spring, it was not opened yet 😦



There are also a lot of museums and nice restaurants for the foodies to indulge in but yes Copenhagen is on the top list of the most expensive city in the Nordic region so budget for this 😜

Tips:

– Transport to/from airport: Airport to city via train or metro (need 3 zones m). May be more worthwhile buying 24 hrs tickets which costs DKK 80 (one way already cost DKK 35).

– The metro doors close pretty quickly so be prepared 🙂

– Denmark uses Danish Kroner. However, you do not need to change to any local currency as credit card can be accepted almost everywhere even if you are making a small purchase. For public transport (eg bus and tram), just buy the tickets from the ticket machine which accepts credit card.

– There is a parade and change of guards every afternoon marching from Rosenborg Castle through the streets and ending up Amalienborg Palace around 12pm. 


– If you are catching a late flight into Copenhagen or an early flight out, you may want to stay in Hilton Hotel which is located just beside the airport. I would say that this is not the most luxurious hotel but I love the convenience of not having to drag my luggage to the city center.