Tag: European travel

Cheltenham and the Cotswolds of England

 

 

 

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As part of our 2018 UK tour, we spent a couple of days in Cheltenham, England and surrounding area. As the home of the flagship race of British steeplechase horse racing, the Gold Cup is the main event of the Cheltenham Festival, held every March.

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Fortunately, we missed all that hooplah, and it was a quaint, peaceful, cozy town, or borough, as they call them in England.

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We stayed at the most adorable bed & breakfast you ever saw (above). In all honesty, they sold themselves as a hotel (The Beaumont House Hotel), but it had a very B & B feel to it.

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Checkout the view from our bedroom window. That’s Jana relaxing out back at the table.

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As part of our time here, we took an excursion out into the beautiful Cotswolds. The Cotswolds is a rural area of south central England covering 2,038 km2 (504,000 acres). It’s roughly 25 miles (40 km) across and 90 miles (140 km) long. The area of the Cotswolds is the second largest protected landscape in England (second to the Lake District).

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When you close your eyes and think of the rolling hills of rural England, this is it! Grassland harbour thatched medieval villages, churches and stately homes built of distinctive local yellow limestone. Time seems to stand still here.

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I half expected to see Frodo and Gandalf emerge from this house (above).

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Some of you may actually recognize this house, above. Try and picture the scene covered in snow. This was Bridget Jone’s parent’s house in Bridget Jone’s Diary. Parts of Braveheart were also filmed near here.

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But be sure to book a professional tour guide if you want to find all the most beautiful and interesting spots. We really enjoyed our time here.

 

Bath, England

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Beautiful and historic Bath. Known for it’s 18th century Georgian architecture, hot springs, and of course Roman-built baths. It’s located about a hundred miles west of London and is situated in the valley of the River Avon.

The Baths of Bath

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These extremely well preserved baths were built around 70 A.D. and are a must see attraction. The presentation goes well beyond just the main bath area itself.

All of the ancient artifacts that were uncovered are also displayed here. Wander through caves where the springs and private bath areas were.

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You also need to swing by the Royal Crescent. Amazing architecture by John Wood built in the 18th century. Oh yeah, that grass is supposed to be green this time of year. It’s been an unusually hot, dry summer in Europe.

 

The No.1 Royal Cresscent (above) is the very first one that was completed and it’s open to the public. It is decorated in the style of the time to give you an idea how the wealthy lived in downtown style back then. Definitely worth an hour or so to visit.

The city of Bath just seems to have a natural, inherent beauty:

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And of course, being on the River Avon is a big help:

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With all this, plus great restaurants and shopping, this is a no-brainer if you’re ever looking to escape London for a day or two.

Spend some time just wandering around this beautiful, relaxing town as you take in all the sites and shops. This was our second visit to Bath, and we wouldn’t hesitate to go again.

 

 

 

Kew Gardens

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The Royal Botanical Gardens, located in Kew Park are the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world”. Founded in 1840, the exotic garden at Kew Park in Middlesex, London, is a beautiful 300 sprawling acres of greenhouses and gardens.

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Each of the greenhouses is meticulously maintained and elegantly presented. There are a dozen plant houses in total.

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Unbelievably beautiful and immaculate interior gardens. And well documented with detailed descriptions of each presentation. But who reads that crap anyway? Oh wait, is that Bryan down there reading the plaque?

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And is that Melissa photo bombing me?! You see her there? What a punk!

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And speaking of photo bombing, if you look closely in these great pics, above, you should be able to see the giant koi fish.

And it’s not just the greenhouses that are beautiful. The entire 300 acre park is absolutely amazing. It takes 750 employees to maintain it all.

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That’s the pagoda tower in the backdrop, above. We didn’t go to it, but supposedly you can climb up it and get a great view of the surrounding area. But the Treetop Walkway also offers a great view, and we did go up there:

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The pictures kind of speak for themselves. And the view was just incredible!

In addition to the dozen or so greenhouses, there were also another dozen buildings that weren’t greenhouses. The pagoda tower, restaurants, museums… you could easily spend an entire day here. We really enjoyed it.

 

St Albans, England

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The Cathedral

St Albans is a small town in  the commuter belt north of London. It is also the sight of a famous cathedral, you guessed it, St Albans Cathedral. St Albans, the man, was executed on this site about 1700 years ago for proudly standing up in the name of Christianity.

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Let me start by saying this place is a photographers dream. The cathedral is probably the most photogenic place I have ever been to. The cathedral  and grounds are absolutely beautiful.

Inside are breathtaking art presentations and architectural wonders.

 

The Roman Theatre of Verulamium

 

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Not far from the cathedral is the amazing ruins of the 2nd century Roman theatre.

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You can see in the artists rendition, above, how the theatre would have looked back then.

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You can still hear the ancient clapping and feel the ghosts wandering around this rare excavation. In addition to theatre, it is believed the site was also used for sporting events and public executions.

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Right behind the ruins is a huge park. Within the park are remnants of the old Roman city wall, a museum displaying ancient artifacts uncovered at the site, and a beautiful lake. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon.

 

 

Helsinki, Finland

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Helsinki was originally established as a Swedish trading town in 1550. It existed as a small and inconsequential town plagued by wars, poverty, and diseases for the next 200 years. The Swedes built the Sveaborg sea fortress (which we visited, see further below) in the 18th century. While this helped improve the city a little, it wasn’t until the Russians defeated Sweden in the Finnish war in 1809 that things began to turn around. Russia annexed Finland as the Grand Dutch of Finland. The Russians used Finland as sandbox for testing neo-political and financial concepts in hopes of eventually upgrading their own outdated ways. Thus, the Russians invested heavily in the infrastructure of the city. That is why most of the city has Russian architecture.

Bicycle Tour of the City

We took the overnight cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki. We met our tour guide at the main square and did a five hour bike tour of the city. It’s a great way to learn your way around and get to know the city. Funny thing about the square. If you look closely at the picture (above), there is a restaurant on the left called Memphis! Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try it out. Maybe next time….

The Three Magnificent Churches of Helsinki

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There are three must see churches in Helsinki. This (above) is the Uspenski Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It was finished in 1868. Note the Russian architecture.

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This one (above) is officially the Temppeliaukio Lutheran church. But it is commonly known as the Rock Church. Inhibited by the high costs of building on such rocky terrain, the architects decided to go with the natural flow of the rocks. At the time, it was highly controversial and many frowned on the idea of a church built in a rock. But the architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen did not back down and completed construction in 1969. Once people saw the end result and went inside, they loved it!

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This (above) is the Helsinki Cathedral. It is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki. While it has undergone several “facelifts” over the years, the original church was built from 1830-1852.

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And here it is again from the direct front. The fellow with the bird on his head is Alexander II. He was the Emperor of Russia at the time and was largely responsible for building up Finland. Incidentally, he met his demise in St. Petersburg, Russia, where an assassin blew him up. We visited that site later in our trip.

All the Rest

Great restaurants and pubs, beautiful parks, and amazing artwork abound throughout this city.

 

Suomenlinna Island

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This is the island I previously referred to as the Sveaborg fortress. It was constructed during the Swedish occupation in the second half of the 18th century to defend against the ongoing war between Russia and Sweden. But it ultimately surrendered to the Russians in 1808, ending some seven centuries of Swedish occupation of Finland. Over the next 109 years, the Russians occupied and improved upon the fortress as it became a significant defensive resource for the protection of the then capital of Russia, St. Petersburg. As late as 1917, it was fortified with massive artillary units and anti-aircraft defenses and used as a small submarine base.

 

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There is actually a submarine on display on the island. But not a Russian sub. This sub was built in 1933, so it pre-dates even the u-boats. In fact, it was ordered by the Germans and built by a Dutch engineering firm.

Now I’m not saying the Germans copied this model for their earlier u-boats, but she does bear a striking resemblance.

she was used by the German Navy as CV-707 for about a year, but then purchased by the Finnish state in 1936 and christened Vesikko. She served in the Finnish navy, including during the Continuation War through 1944.

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She began her life as a museum exhibit in 1973 and has since entertained around one million visitors.

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But the island was not only a substantial fortress of the time, it was also a city within the city. Even today, there are nearly 900 people that live on the island.

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We spent well over half of a day walking around and taking in the beauty and history of this amazing fortress. Many of the ammo bunkers and caves are open. And no, that’s not a hobbit house!

Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland

Ageless City

There is something eternally young about Krakow. The city literally dates back to the stone ages, and it wasn’t bombed during WWII (a little bit, very minor damage). It was rebuilt after the Mongol invasion razed it in the thirteenth century and has, for the most part, remained intact.

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Thus, it is technically a very old city. But there is just something about it as you are wondering around, admiring its many historic styles of architecture, beautifully landscaped parks, and its eloquent and distinctive old town. It just feels young, vibrant, and thriving. Would that any of us could age as well as Krakow!

 

So many things to see and do in this great town. Just walking around, you will experience the beauty and art that is everywhere. Around almost every corner is a shady park with some music or dance festival underway.

 

 

St. Mary’s Basilica

As with most European cities, it also has some of the most beautiful, old churches.

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One of the churches here is particularly famous. It is called St. Mary’s Basilica.

 

 

We went inside this one and it is chock full of amazing sculptures, paintings, and lots of gold.

Wawel Castle

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On the south side of the old town, the Wawel Royal Castle presides over the city. We walked up to it and toured the gardens, but didn’t go inside.

 

Polish Food!

 

And then, of course, there is the food! Polish sausage, pierogi dumplings, potato pancakes (and with pork goulash), yum yum yum!

 

We even tried some Polish craft beer. And as you can read, above, it was the BEST beer in the world!

 

Wieliczka Salt Mine

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We took a tour bus out to see the Wieliczka salt mines. This is one of the oldest and largest salt mines in history. It began commercial mining in the thirteenth century. It halted production in 1996 because the price of salt fell too low to continue mining it.

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It is 287 kilometres (178 mi) long! There are nine levels. We only went down to the third level, which put us 135m (442 ft) underneath the surface.

 

 

It was extremely interesting to see whole caves, walls, statues, and steps all carved directly out of the salt down there.

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They even had a salt statue of Pope John Paul II (in case you didn’t know, he is from the Krakow area).

 

There is even a full chapel, made completely from salt.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

 

We also visited the concentration camp. This is a very emotional topic and locale, so I won’t dwell on it, other than to say it is definitely worth seeing. It is important to remember our past in hopes that it will never be repeated. It is presented as a museum and was extremely well done and educational.

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We also went by Schindler’s factory as part of a bicycle tour, but we didn’t go inside. The tour went by each of the places that were used in the movie.

We Love Krakow!

 

There is so much to see and do and love in Krakow. We had a really good time and would absolutely come back here.

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And….we were so honored that they named a street after Jana!

 

 

More Portugal

More Portugal

When we visited Portugal with our friend, Marie, we did a lot of things there. So many, in fact, that The Travelin’ Man almost couldn’t keep up. I KNOW, right? It’s true. I did publish articles on our experiences with Lisbon, Porto, Belém, and Sintra. In case you missed those or want to see them again, click on these links:

  • Lisbon, capital city of Portugal
  • Porto, city on the river Douro
  • Belém, Royal retreat
  • Sintra, magnificent castle and palace

We also explored some other areas that I am not going to do a full article on. But they were special and fun, and I got some great photos that I wanted to share. So here is the final submission for Portugal…

The Vineyards of Pinhão and Alijó

We hired a van to take us out into the Pinhão and Alijó areas. This is deep into the vineyards of Portugal where much of the port wines originate, as well as other Portuguese wines.

 

We took a rabelo boat up the Douro river, which cuts right through the middle of the amazing vineyards. The area is absolutely breathtaking. Magnificent rolling hills that fold into the Douro river. Enjoy:

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Venturing Out

We hired a driver from Choice Car to take us from Porto to Guimarães. Then we went from there to Braga.

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Our driver was Miguel Carvalho. He was friendly, professional, and knowledgeable of the area. Thank you, Miguel!

Guimarães

 

Here, we visited the very distinctive medieval Castelo do Guimarães:

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Braga

 

The beautiful and divine Bom Jesus:

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On our way back in, we stopped and walked along the beach:

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This is on the Atlantic side; we were waving to all our friends in the US.

 

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

We met up with our friend, Marie, in Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal. Our time in Lisbon, including a fantastic day-trip out to the Sintra mountains is documented in previous articles.

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After touring in and around Lisbon for a couple of days, we relocated to Porto via a three hour train ride. The above picture was some of the tiled artwork inside the train station at Porto. Just amazing. A small example of the culture of Porto.

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While in Porto, we ate at some great restaurants, took a magnificent food tour, and took in the beautiful city. We even went to a Port wine tasting. While we really enjoyed our stay in Lisbon, there was something about Porto that appealed to us more.

 

We also did two separate day-trips. One was out into the unbelievably beautiful vineyards deep in the foothills of Portugal, and the other was out into the less traveled towns of Guimarães and Braga. Both of these excursions are documented in a separate article (or will be soon).

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Porto sits literally right on the banks of the Douro river. Like Lisbon, it is a very hilly town, so you may want to hit that stair master a few times before coming out!

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The food in Porto, very much like Lisbon, is excellent. We did splurge on one really fancy restaurant while we were there. It was on the top tier, overlooking the city (see above). It was called Yeatman’s. Spectacular views from up there! Great food and drinks as well.

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While we’re on the subject, there is a drink they make here that is named after the town itself called Porto Tónico. We noticed that each bar or restaurant had their own version of the drink, and some were better than others. It’s a cocktail made with white port (a fortified wine made from white Douro Valley grapes), tonic water, and usually a citrus garnish, most often a dehydrated orange slice, but this varies by bar. The porto tónico tastes like a cousin of the gin and tonic, but refreshing like an aperol spritzer. Simply delicious and low in alcohol.

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There is artwork scattered throughout this creative city. We encountered this giant rabbit during our travels here. I had no idea why it was here, so I looked it up online. It was done by a man who goes by Bordalo II. You can see his signature there on the bottom right. He made this completely out of things he found in the city. And as it turns out, the guy is actually pretty famous. He has also done similar artwork in Paris, Dublin, San Nicolas (Aruba), Tallin (Estonia), and Hamburg. It makes me mad because I have been to some of those places and had no idea. If I had known I would have sought them out. Oh well. But we are planning a tour in Ireland later this year. Maybe we’ll swing by Dublin for a quick photo op!

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Check these boats out (above). These are called “rabelo” boats. They were used way back in the day before railways to transport the port wine (and people) from vineyards in the Douro Valley. They are unique to Portugal. We rode on one that is similar, but bigger when we visited the Douro Valley. That article will be coming soon.

The Great Porto Food Tour

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One of the highlights of our stay in Porto was the walking food (and wine) tour. Jana always says there is no better way to get to know a city than to take a guided walking tour. And the food, she says, is part of the adventure. With a walking food tour, you get to do both of those things at the same time. And if you are lucky enough to get a really good, local guide, as we did, you will not only experience the food, but you will go where the locals go to get it. We enlisted Porto Walkers as our expert local guide to show us around. Our guide, Alex, not only showed us these great food treasures, but also briefed us on the history of the area and of the food itself. It was very enjoyable and educational.

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Our first spot was the local marketplace. All manner of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and breads. Alex took us to several different places within the marketplace where we got to taste some of the loacal snacks, breads, and cheeses.

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There is a restaurant within the marketplace that specializes in sausage. They bring it out on this special plate-grill. Unfortunately, the flames didn’t come out well on the iPhone picture, above, but if you look closely you can see them. The fire is coming from the special plate-grill. You turn the sausages yourself, cooking them the way you want them. The one in front isn’t burned, it’s a blood sausage. I’ve never been a big fan of blood sausage, but Alex convinced me to try it, and man it was awesome! It was paired with some great vinho verde. We all enjoyed this so much that we vowed to come back on our own for a sit-down meal here.

 

When Alex brought us to this place (above), he asked if this was a place we would have come on our own. Well, we probably wouldn’t have gone in, even if we had been able to find it. Once you step inside, your nostrils are rewarded with the smell of great cooking, and the place was packed with locals. We got some very traditional Portuguese dishes here and some refreshing vinho verde.

 

They love the pork in Porto. I should say they love the pig, all of it; that plate on the left has two treats on it. One is pig’s ear, the other is pig’s intestines! Um, ok, a little too fancy for my palate, but no one leaves this place hungry…

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They also brought out the traditional ham and cheese sandwiches, YUM, and some fish sandwiches. And a nice glass of espadal to top it off – fantastic. And uh, for the record, Jana did eat some of the pig’s ear which she said was great, but she passed on the intestines. I find that surprising, considering she ate some haggis while we were in Scotland.

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We stopped at a cute little side cafe for some espresso. I am a big fan of espresso, I just love the flavor of it. In Porto (and Lisbon), they add just a spot of milk to the top of the espresso. It’s called ‘uma bica’, and even though it’s just a drop of milk, it really smoothes out the espresso. I drank it that way the rest of our stay.

 

Every place we went on this tour was delicious and entertaining. The food was the very best of Porto. The cod cakes (above) literally just melt in your mouth. And there were three or four places where we got to try out some of the port wines.

There was this one place we went to where we all just sitting there, enjoying our food and drink when, suddenly, one of the waitresses just busted out into song! It was fabulous and completely unexpected.

 

And of course, what food tour anywhere in the country would be complete without a taste of Pastel de Nata!? We watched as they made them right in front of us got ours right out of the oven. Exquisite!

I could just go on and on about all the things we did in Porto. Be sure to check for ‘Portugal’ under the ‘Destinations’ button on the web site to see other places we went while in Portugal. I do still have a couple of more articles coming in for Portugal, so be sure to follow me on the site so that you will get notified when these stories are published. It was a wonderful, magical place to be. We really enjoyed our stay and will probably be going back with some other friends as part of a riverboat wine tour that begins and ends in Porto. That’s gonna be awesome!!

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

During our vacation in Portugal, we toured with our good friend, Marie, from New York. We all met up in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. During our stay in Lisbon, we took a day-trip to Sintra. It was a relaxing one hour train ride through the beautiful Portuguese countryside.

Sintra is a small resort town in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains. While we were there, we visited the Palace of Pena and the Moorish Castle. Both are spectacular sites to see and should definitely be on the top of your list if you are ever in this part of the world.

Spoiler alert: following is some really fine photography! No drones or helicopters were used for these pictures. I don’t even have a selfie-stick. But if I did, I’d be using it to pat myself on the back. But seriously, amazing pictures considering they were all done with just my iPhone. It was also helpful to have such perfect weather! You should definitely be viewing these on your PC or tablet.

The Palace of Pena

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It began in the Middle Ages, as just a simple chapel on top of a mountain. In the 15th century, King Manuel I had a monestary built around the chapel. (I took the above picture by hanging out of a watch tower window at the Moorish Castle. Hey yall, watch this!).

For the centuries that followed, it became a quiet, peaceful place that housed about twenty monks. But the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 reduced the monestary to ruins. All that remained was the original chapel.

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In 1842, King consort Ferdinand II began constructing the palace around the chapel. The palace was to be the summer home for the royal family. Construction continued through 1854. Throughout the construction, he and his wife, Queen Maria II, frequently intervened in the matters of design and architecture of the palace. These choices are clearly evident in the end product. It manifested into a beautiful Ramantic style castle that looks part royal palace and part Disney.

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This is easily one of the most photogenic palaces I have ever been to. It has been a public museum since the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910. In fact, the last ruling queen of Portugal, Queen Amélia, spent her last night here, at this palace, before leaving the country in exile.

Over the years, this has become one of Portugal’s most visited monuments, and it is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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After visiting the palace, we stopped at a cute little cafe and had a light lunch while sitting around the old well. Then it was off to the Moorish Castle!

The Moorish Castle

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I got the above picture by hanging over the balcony off the Queen’s bedroom in the Pena Palace on an adjacent mountaintop. Worth it.

While the Palace of Pena is one of the most photogenic places I have been to, the Moorish Castle has to be about the most unique castle I have visited. It was built during the 8th and 9th centuries during the Muslim occupation. Not only is it perched high atop a mountain, but it is literally imbedded into the mountains and surrounding terrain.

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And on the inside, it’s not like a traditional castle with a keep in the middle. Once inside the castle walls, there is a vast, open area.

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There are beautiful trees there now, but back in the day it was cleared out. The formal keep is further inside, to the north, and the stables and other buildings are scattered around the edges. The castle is essentially a 450 meter (about 500 yards) perimeter situated atop and within the mountainous cliffs.

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This is a view from the outside. It took us about a half an hour to make it up the hill this far, and there was a lot of huffing and puffing. I can only imagine soldiers back then with all their armor and weapons. Significantly heavier than my iPhone and a water bottle.

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Not to mention, imagine coming all this way to attack and then being confronted with these massive boulders and cliffs (above). You could forget getting any siege engines up here.

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And the views from up here are just spectacular! Well worth the climb up. Almost in the center, at the bottom of the mountain is the cute town of Sintra. Over to the right, up on the hill is yet another palace. It isn’t the Palace of Pena. I tried to find it on maps but it isn’t marked. Like I said before, palaces and castles dot the horizon everywhere you look.

So, yeah, it was a great day adventuring up in the mountains of Sintra. Climbing, hanging out of windows and towers taking pictures while trying not to drop my phone. More climbing up the towers. But then came the dilemma of how we get back down the mountain. Interconnecting bus routes (slow, hot, crowded, time consuming). We could walk back down (LOL LOL LOL). Or we could rent a car with a driver. It was a short discussion.

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Belem, Portugal

Belem, Portugal

While we were in Lisbon, and before joining up with our friend, Marie, we took a quick train ride down to Belém, which is a suburb of Lisbon. It is where the Belém palace and other notable attractions are located. And it is said that Christopher Columbus hung out here for a while after returning from the new world.

Belém is a melting pot of national monuments, historical buildings, and modern symbols of Portuguese culture. Extravagant parks and breathtaking architectural marvels abound in this small but significant area of Portugal’s coast.

This is an area that was particularly popular during the era of Portugal’s monarchy and is where the Belém palace is located. The monarchy essentially ended in 1910 and was replaced by the Portuguese First Republic, and it was completely eradicated  by 1919. Belém was minimally impacted by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 1755. So, most of the area, including the Belém palace, remains intact today.

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See above, the Tower of Belém. Completed around 1520, this is an example of some of the older structures that have survived the test of time, and the earthquake of 1755. In fact, this is probably one of the more famous towers of the world and is informally known as the symbol of Belém.

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Then there are the more modern marvels, such as the Monument of Discoveries, which was inaugurated in 1960. And check out that sky; we couldn’t have asked for better picture-taking weather!

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And take a look at the front of this thing. Is it a cross, or is it a sword? Exactly. The Belém palace is also located in this area. And of course the monastery.

 

The monastery has a full and colorful past. The original building was inaugurated in 1495. The monastery is also the origin of one of the finest and most controversial pastries in Europe, the Pastéis de Belém.

 

Lots of other places imitate these sinful tasties, but the originals come from the monastery, and that recipe is still guarded today. Even the name of the pastry, Pastéis de Belém, is unique only to those made at the monestary. All others (imitations) are called Pastel de Nata. We had them here and in other places. You really can taste the difference, albeit subtle, but they were better at the monestary.

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You would be forgiven if you thought this was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But it’s actually the 25 de Abril Bridge in Belém. Our guide claimed the company that designed this, the American Bridge Company, had bid on, but lost the bid for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. While I cannot confirm that, I can confirm that they designed the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Small world, eh?

The list for things to see and do in Belém is much longer than I have represented here. We spent about three hours just touring the things I have documented here. To see everything, you could easily spend a full day in this area. We really enjoyed our visit to Belém and would come back here again.

 


(I Apologize for the improper spelling of Belém in the title. Search engines are more responsive to Belem vs. Belém, so that is what blog writers generally use. Sorry about that. I only used the improper spelling in the title.)