Tales of Travel: Lisbon

It was a hot weekend in July 2009 when we visited Lisbon, the beautiful capital city of Portugal.

I spent the entire weekend drinking copious (and unusual) amounts of Diet Coke and feeling particularly unfit as we wandered around the city and surrounds…and a few weeks later discovered that I had been in the very early stages of my pregnancy with Tiny.

Ruins of Carmo Church, part of the convent that was destroyed in an earthquake of 1755

Lisbon is the vibrant, chilled out, slow-paced city that holds court as Portugal’s capital. Beautiful by day, soulful by night; an energetic, pastry-loving, tram-rattling place that seems not to care what the rest of the world is up to, and moves to its own fado-inspired beat.

Azulejos are everywhere, and in Lisbon….it just works!

Famous for azulejos (tiles), which cover every possible surface: buildings, metro stations, doors, churches, footpaths….they are everywhere and the history, colours and detail are amazing.

Cruising on Tram 28

It’s all about risking life and limb on Tram 28, trundling its rickety way up the winding hills; an experience not to be missed.

Looking out over the city from Castelo de Sao Jorge

It’s about exploring Alfama, getting lost amongst the cobbled streets that wind in and out, crossing each other in a strange dance, leading to Castelo de Sao Jorge, resplendent on the top of the hill. Amazing views over the city and the river towards Christi Rei, a minature Christ the Redeemer. Stumbling upon the best, most wonderful cafe (Santo Antonio de Alfama) where the salmon salad and the sea bream are to die for.

Cascais…find a spot and stick to it!

It’s about sweltering and battling with the sun-seeking, sand-searching hordes in Cascais, a popular beach town out of the city. Feeling caught between a rock and a hard place, between the blistering hot sand and the icy cold Atlantic Ocean.

Castelo dos Mouros

It’s about Castelo dos Mouros, in the fairytale town of Sintra – top of our “Castles We Have Seen” list. A 9th-Century Moorish castle, nestled 400-odd metres above sea level. The ramparts snake across the hill; stagger to the highest keep where the views are breathtaking and you can see the city in the distance.

Palacio Nacional da Pena

It’s about Palacio Nacional da Pena, an extravagant palace built by the nephew of crazy King Ludwig II of Neuschwanstein/Bavarian/Disneyland fame. The colours are faded and the facades are looking weathered, but it’s lavishly adorned in eclectic fashion. The views back to Castelo dos Mouros are impressive and it’s so peaceful being so high up in the hills.

Looking back towards Castelo dos Mouros

It’s about street peddlars with complete-and-utter crap to sell, and passing whispers of “Hashish? Cocaine?” if a dancing donkey isn’t to your liking.

At the top of Castelo de Sao Jorge

It’s about sticking to the cobbles outside the best Ginjinha bar in town, where the locals try not to spill a drop of the cherry brandy, and the tourists wonder silently whether they should eat the petrified cherry at the bottom of the cup.

Pasteis de Nata – seriously the best baked treat in the entire world!

And it’s about Pasteis de Nata – the gods’ and Lisbon’s little secret. Like a custard square, but baked into a light, flaky pastry shell, with the most delectable, silken creamy centre. Heaven in a pastry shell.

Advertisement

Tales of Travel: Scotland

May Bank Holiday weekend, 2009. The weather in London was scorching hot. We went to Scotland.

It rained.

After a night in an Edinburgh hotel with the worst food in the history of the world (for once, I was compelled to complain, and they sent us a letter apologising for the shoddy food! Really, who smothers delicious Scottish salmon in a jar of tomato pasta sauce??!), we wandered around this gorgeous city amidst legions of (mostly drunk) Leinster and Liecester rugby fans who were in the city for some important final match.

It was slightly surreal to be walking up George Street and onto Hanover Street/Leith Street/Heriot Row/Moray Place, and we could see why Dunedin’s settlers called it the Edinburgh of the South – the views looking out across the city and down the harbour were so familiar to us.

Edinburgh Castle

We went for a wander through the Princes Street Gardens which separate the old and new towns, and played like little kids in the Camera Obscura illusion rooms. The Royal Mile was full of old and quirky shops and pubs, and Edinburgh Castle was an awesome sight perched atop the craggy hill at the end of the mile.

Illusions inside Camera Obscura

We caught a bus back to the airport to pick up our rental car; usually the journey takes 25 minutes, but we were driving through the rugby-going hordes so it took a lot longer! They made for amusing drive-by entertainment though, especially the ones being told off by a little old lady for peeing against the wall of the building next to her cottage! Once we’d picked up Flossie, our rental car, we cruised on up to Inverness.

John O’Groats to Bluff!

Compared to Edinburgh, Inverness was grey and boring, a little chavvy and a little depressing. The next day, we drove up to John O’Groats, the northernmost point of mainland UK – the coastline was very reminiscent of New Zealand, speckled with gorse bushes and rugged beaches. There wasn’t much to see at the top, unsurprisingly, so we took a couple of photos and then drove on. We headed across the top of Scotland, stopping in Caithness for the Castle of Mey (the late Queen Mother’s residence in Scotland – definitely one for the scone-toting oldies!) and somewhere near Durness for lunch…which at 3pm on a Sunday in Scotland was coffee and cake at the only cafĂ© open for miles! Almost out of petrol, we had to detour to the only 24hr petrol pump around, then drove back down Loch Shin, through rugged, yet beautiful green and lush hillside. It may have been raining, but that only made the scenery even more dramatic.

That night, we made the potentially fatal decision to eat in our hotel again….and ended up having the most amazing meal, which Tall still talks about now, three years on!

Castle Urquhart and Loch Ness

On our last day, we drove down the mists of Loch Ness in search of Nessie (but she was away for the long weekend), stopping at the ruins of Castle Urquhart which is on the edge of the loch. The setting was very dramatic and eerie, with the mists rolling across the lake. We carried on down to Fort William and onto Crieff, where we went to the Glenturret Distillery. The tour was interesting, and we met possibly the laziest – and fattest – distillery cat in the world. Her predecessor, Towser, was 24 years old when she died, and currently holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s best mouser. I can’t stand whisky, but Tall tasted a wee dram, with minimal facial scrunching. Then it was back to the airport, bidding a fond farewell to Flossie and bonny Scotland.

So it was sunny in London. Pah. Scotland wouldn’t be the same without a bit of rain, would it?

Tales of Travel: Windsor

One wintery Saturday in December 2008, my friend Jess and I took a train from the grey, concrete jungle of London to the rolling green pastures of….well….just out of London, to Windsor.

(That's fake snow)

Windsor is a beautiful town, with cobbled streets and gorgeous old buildings, a crooked pub and quaint little stores (as well as the usual high street offerings). We spent some time just wandering in and out of shops and alleyways….and watching as Santa’s sleigh was pulled down the main street by reindeer.

We had lunch in a traditional English pub that specialised in pies; the ceilings were low and the decor didn’t seem to have changed since the 1700s, but the pies were really tasty and were washed down with crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Windsor Castle

After lunch, we wandered back up to Windsor Castle. The castle is simply beautiful, and the interiors were opulent and elegant and so very regal. It was amazing to think that we were walking the same carpets (mostly) as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Queen Mary.

Queen Mary’s dolls house was a highlight – the detail and craftmanship were phenomenal – and St George’s Chapel (burial place of 10 monarchs) was beautiful.

St George's Chapel

We could have toured Eton, or visited Ascot, but chose instead to take a relaxed approach to our visit; we both wanted to see the castle most of all, and once we’d seen that, we were quite content to jump back on a train bound for London.

All-in-all, Windsor was a great choice for a day trip from the capital – easy to get to, easy to navigate, easy to enjoy.

Tales of Travel: Belgium

After finding out he had to use or lose his holiday entitlement for 2007, Tall was feeling pretty morose at the thought of spending 10 wintery days stuck in our flat, twiddling his thumbs while I had to work.

When I let him know that my manager had agreed to some impromptu time off, he called an hour later to say we were off to Belgium for New Years Eve!

Ghent

A not-entirely-pleasant eight hours on a packed bus ensued (with a couple of hours on the ferry from Dover to Calais thrown in for good measure), but we finally arrived in Brussels, found our hotel by some fluke (someone-who-shall-remain-nameless forgot to get directions to our accommodation…), and headed out for a beautiful steak meal at a restaurant called Tara’s. We stumbled upon this place by chance, and it was one of those fantastic dinners that leave you feeling quietly pleased about finding somewhere amazing that is not mentioned in any guide books.

Ghent Castle

The following day, we took the train north to Ghent. Ghent is incredibly pretty and was my favourite place in Belgium. We toured the gorgeous castle and a number of beautiful churches, strolled the streets and the canals, drank delicious Belgian beer and ate our body weights in waffles. We stayed in an amazing budget hotel that was a converted monastery, close to the city centre, hidden amongst the cobbled streets. It was quiet and peaceful, intriguing and a little bit spooky.

Bruges Belfry

The next day – New Years Eve – we took the train to Bruges. This little city had a lot to live up to – we’d heard so much about its postcard prettiness. It is very pretty, but reminded me of a more touristy version of Ghent. More beer was drunk, chocolate and waffles were eaten. We climbed the belfry and wandered through the Basilica of the Holy Blood. We took a silent stroll in the Beguine Gardens which is eerily quiet – it’s a walled-in garden that belongs to the Beguinage, the houses ringing the outside; the expectation is that anyone who enters the garden will respect the silence, and simply wander the path in quiet reflection. Each year the nuns would take in five women who were experiencing “trouble” in their lives; no men were ever allowed into the houses while they were still home to the nuns.

Bruges

We spent the evening drinking assorted beers in cute little bars, followed by mulled wine in the town square with the rest of the city. There was a live band, and Tall joined in the singing of songs in Flemish, a language he most certainly does not speak!

Brussels town square

Then we headed back to Brussels for fresh market fish and moules-frites, street art and dirty gutters. We followed the crowds to the Manneken-Pis, which was tiny and unimpressive. – but we were some of the lucky few who saw him in all his splendour, rather than in one of the many, many outfits he is usually clothed in. Due to it being the holidays, most of the museums, churches and palaces were closed, so we spent a lot of time walking to try and warm ourselves up. We weren’t big fans of the capital, but perhaps visiting when the weather wasn’t so dismal, and when the attractions were open for business, would change our opinions.

Belgium is definitely an interesting country to visit, and it is easy to travel around – nothing seems very far when you’re relaxing on a train.

The chocolate really is as amazing as reported, the beers are delicious and so varied (raspberry flavoured beer? Yes please!), and the food in general is very tasty….unless you don’t like fries.

Tales of Travel: Cardiff

We visited Cardiff on a whim, one chilly weekend in December 2007. Tall and I were suffering a little from cabin fever in our first English winter, and decided that a cheap weekend away would be just the ticket.

We loaded up our trusty old car – Gordy, named after Tall’s grandfather’s favourite 10am tipple – and drove south-west, across the border into Wales. It was probably just our imagination, but the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees the closer we got to Cardiff, and by the time we arrived, Gordy’s seat warmers had had a pretty good workout.

Cardiff is quite a small capital city (the population is just over 340,000), and is really easy to get around both by car and on foot. The central shopping district was quite compact and the shopping wasn’t too bad. The Christmas Markets were in full swing, and to this day, Tall and I both drool in remembrance of the spit-roasted hog sandwiches we devoured there. Best roast pork ever. Seriously.

Cardiff Castle

We took a tour of Cardiff Castle, which was rumoured to once be the home of King Arthur, and “admired” the interior design by William Burges. I say “admired” because we found it all a bit fussy and gaudy, but apparently he was very influential in the 19th Century. At night, the outer walls of the castle were adorned with twinkling coloured lights, which I’m sure would have made Burges proud.

Butes Park

Next to the castle is Butes Park, named for the family who own the castle. We took a brisk stroll along some of the myriad of walkways criss-crossing the park, and really did admire some of the pagan relics.

Welsh National History Museum

One of the girls from our hostel suggested we drive 15 minutes out of town to St Fagans, home of the (free) Welsh National History Museum. This is an open-air museum set on 100 acres of land that was gifted to the people of Wales by the owner of St Fagans Castle. They’ve rescued many old buildings from all over Wales and lovingly relocated and restored them for the public to see how Welsh life was lived many many moons ago. The day was incredibly foggy and due to low visitor numbers, the museum was very quiet and the atmosphere was eerie as we wandered around. It was definitely worth a lengthy visit, and well-worth making the trip out of town.

We never made it back to Wales, but enjoyed this little taste. The Welsh truly are the friendliest, and we hope to go back one day to spend a bit more time exploring the other regions.