Isla de la Plata: The Poor Man’s Galapagos

One of the (many) questions we asked ourselves when we decided to spend some time in Ecuador was could we afford to visit the Galapagos Islands? Along with the Amazon and Machu Picchu they are near the top of our “must-try-to-experience” locations. As we did the math for all three it was clear that for us a trip to the Amazon would work the best. It was a tough decision as we really wanted to get to the Galapagos but we just didn’t feel comfortable with the over $3,000 CAD price tag that we were looking at.

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Blue-footed boobies on Isla de la Plata

Then we heard about the “Poor Man’s Galapogas” and started doing a little research. As it turned out Isla de la Plata is located just about 100 km north of our base in Ballenita, so it was an easy decision to make the relatively short trip.

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The protected island is part of Machalilla National Park and is well managed

The main departure point for Isla de la Plata is Puerto Lopez, a fishing town of about 20,000 located in Manabi Province along the northern coast of Ecuador. We traveled by bus to Puerto Lopez from Santa Elena.

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The beach in Puerto Lopez

Most of the tours leave the main jetty around 10:00 so there is a large congregation of tourists, tour guides and other spectators milling about. It is a fairly new and attractive pier and loading the boats is well managed and done quickly from the floating dock.

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There is plenty to watch while you wait as the fishing fleet lands their morning catches right beside the pier. Dozens of boats ride the surf to the beach where they are greeted by as many trucks, workers and hundreds of pelicans and frigatebirds looking for any unguarded scraps.

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We booked our tour with Palo Santo in Puerto Lopez based on reviews of their commitment to environmental protection and promotion of the local community. Many companies are available to chose from in the local area but from what we saw Palo Santo was a good choice. Their boat was clean and in good condition, their guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and they paid attention to the safety and well being of their guests. The cost for the tour was $45 US each which is very reasonable.

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One of the guides relaxing on the trip out to the island

Isla de la Plata lies about 40 km from Puerto Lopez and takes just over an hour to reach by boat. Our boat, as well as all the others we saw, was covered and had a toilet aboard. Everyone is required to wear a lifejacket. During the months of June to October humpback whales migrate through this area and the town swells with visitors to see these magnificent marine mammals. The tours at that time include several hours dedicated to whale watching. At this time of the year however the boats head straight to the island. We did see 5 resident tropical whales on our trips back and forth.

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The name of the island is derived from one of two sources. Some say it is because of the treasure supposedly buried by Sir Francis Drake on the island. Others say it is because of the glistening silver colour of the large deposits of guano (bird droppings) which builds up on the island. Take your pick!

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The cliffs of Isla de la Plata

The island itself is about 4km long and is accessed by a small cove on the eastern shoreline. Wading ashore you are greeted by National Park staff and have an opportunity to wash your feet, use the facilities and receive a stern reminder of the rules of the island. As it is a protected area there is absolutely no collecting of any materials, you cannot leave anything at all on the island, you have to stay on the trails and are not to approach within 5 feet of the birds. You must be accompanied by a guide at all times and the numbers are limited to 10 per trail. These strict rules are necessary to ensure the birds are protected, are successful in their breeding, and the island remains in as natural a state as possible.

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The main landing area and visitor’s centre

As you head onto the trail you immediately notice how dry and arid the island is. The soil is brown and dusty and the vegetation is thin and sparse. Apparently conditions had been particularly dry over the past few months. The paths are well maintained and the first 800m are pretty much uphill culminating in 150 steps to reach the junction point of the main trails.

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There are three main trails and as the number of people are limited on each, our group of 16 was split into two smaller groups and we opted for the 2 km Fragatas loop which provided fine overviews of the island.

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Did we mention that the sun is very hot on the equator? It was clear in the late morning and after the climb to the top of the hill we were all sweating profusely.

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A few minutes later we had our first close up encounter with a blue-footed booby. It was a juvenile and not in its full plumage and distinctive blue webbed feet. As we soon discovered they paid little attention to us and went about their activities which at that time of day was mainly trying to stay cool.

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Juvenile blue-footed booby

It soon became apparent to us that we were at a privileged location. A male and his week-old chick were particularly endearing and the helplessness of the young featherless bird was obvious. The parents will stay with their young until they are proficient fishermen and then they are left on their own.

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Male blue-footed booby and a week old chick

Numerous small lizards inhabited the island and were equally as approachable as the birds. The island is also similar to the Galapagos in that it is a critical breeding area for many endangered birds such as the waved albatross. We were told that the collared-warbling finch, which we did spot, is endemic to the island. Other breeding birds on the island include red-footed boobies and red-billed tropicbirds which we spotted on the trip back.

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Following the path along the spine of the island we were treated to panoramic views of the shoreline below, the western tip of the island and suddenly scores of magnificent frigatebirds. As with the boobies, there were many young adults and fledglings. We only saw a few of the males with their characteristic inflated scarlet breasts inflated and these were at a distance.

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Juvenile magnificent frigatebird

The opportunity to approach these birds in their natural surroundings is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were fortunate to have had this experience. There are far too few places left where human impacts have not left a negative impression on natural habitats.

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Female and young magnificent frigatebird

After about 2 hours we descended the stairs and hillside to the landing area with its dark sand and gently rolling swells. We were exhausted from the heat and very sore, but undeniably satisfied with our experience.

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Boobie Selfie! Corny yes – but we couldn’t resist capturing this memory

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The main landing beach

Back on the boat we had a welcome meal of sandwiches, watermelon and cold drinks. The afternoon concluded with a snorkeling opportunity along with several other tour boats just off the shore of the island. We were pleasantly surprised by the health of the coral and the multitude of fish, several species of which were new to us.

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It rained on the ride back to Puerto Lopez, but we did see some stingrays jumping and a couple more whales. The group was quiet, several falling asleep, after a combination of fresh air, hot temperatures, a good hike and swim and the rolling of the boat.

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If you are in this part of Ecuador and don’t feel you have the means to make it to the Galapagos Islands we would highly recommend this trip. Regardless of how many offshore islands you have visited you will appreciate the natural beauty and balance of Isla de la Plata.

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Posted in 2017 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Puerto Lopez: A Visit to an Ecuadorian Beach Town

About 100 kms north of Ballenita sits the beach town of Puerto Lopez. With a population of about 20,000 its main industries are fishing and tourism. It is also the gateway to Machalilla National Park which includes Isla de la Plata or the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” which was our main reason for visiting.

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Fresh fish are landed on the beach each morning

We booked two tours and three nights accommodation through Palo Santo travel and boarded a bus at the nearby Santa Elena Terminal for $4 USD each for the 2 hour trip. The bus was comfortable, air conditioned, wifi equipped and there were few people aboard on a Tuesday morning. There was however the usual loud and violent movie dubbed in Spanish playing over the entertainment system.

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The bus system is comprehensive, cheap and colourful!

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The scenery on one side was spectacular views of the Pacific coastline and great looking beaches. Inland was mainly dry scrub land with a mix of pretty bleak looking towns and villages. We passed through the surfing town of Montanita where there were scores of hostels and seemed to be a much younger crowd.

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A typical small town along the Pacific coast

There is a major bus terminal (Terminal Terrestre) in Puerto Lopez, but we got off the bus in the centre of town. The major mode of transport is by tuk tuk which costs $1 US wherever you go. With our basic Spanish and some directions provided by the tour company we found our way to our accommodation.

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Tuk tuks were the best mode of transport – they were everywhere!

What we had booked for $20 US was somewhere between a motel, hostel and guest house. It was in the lower level of a large home that, like the grounds, seemed to be either not quite finished or in the early stages of decay. It was a comfortable enough room with a kitchenette and welcomed mosquito nets. There was even a large turtle to greet us in the hallway. The pool sure was refreshing!

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Bosque Marino guesthouse

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The rooms were comfortable and spacious

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We were so surprised to see this guy “strolling” down the hallway

Walking through the town we found it to be similar in many respects to most of the towns we have seen here. They are generally poor with dirt side streets which can be either very muddy or very dusty.

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Cinder block construction is the norm and most buildings are not painted. We have been very disappointed in the amount of trash that is common everywhere, even in people’s yards. There are many small shops that sell an assortment of food items, household goods and seemingly hundreds of flipflops.

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Along the main street of Puerto Lopez

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Unfortunately this is a common sight

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The entrance to a fascinating local clothing and dry goods market

We have been very impressed with the Ecuadorian people however. Wherever we go they greet us with smiles and a friendly hola or buenos tardes. This is not the same response that we have received in many European, North American or Costa Rican communities. From the youngest children, teenagers, working people and the elderly we have been treated with openness and courtesy.

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We felt comfortable and welcome everywhere we went

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The beach is a central point for tourists and locals and is also home to a wonderful daily fish market. A pleasant malecon (boardwalk) runs the length of the beach and there are numerous beach bars, small restaurants and shops, tour companies as well as public washrooms. The waves were quite high and we watched young people surfing and boogie boarding.

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Restaurants, souvenir shops and beach bars along the malecon

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We had supper at a couple different restaurants and the prices were very reasonable. You can pay $5 for a fish, chicken or meat dinner with rice or fries and $8 for shrimp. They also have a good range of ceviches, tacos, soups or spaghetti with various ingredients also for under $10 US. Drinks cost $2 US for a beer and $4-5 US for a glass of wine or a cocktail.

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After a good meal we really enjoyed watching the sunset with a cold cocktail at one of the beach bars.

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The main choices for finding food in Puerto Lopez are limited to either local markets or the Tia supermarket in the center of town. The local market is excellent and is located in a large building with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Smaller concession shops provide dry goods, milk and eggs. The Tia supermarket is located on the main street and carries a fairly good range of products at higher prices.

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Grilled chicken is common throughout all the towns we have seen

We were quite happy with our 3 night stay in the town but were ready to head home afterwards. We did the 2 tours which we will cover in our next posts.

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Terminal Terrestre at Puerto Lopez

A tuk tuk took us to the bus station for our return trip to Ballenita. This time it wasn’t air conditioned and was very hot, quite crowded and the movie was more violent and louder than the one on the ride up! We were relieved to get off 2 hours later at the Santa Elena terminal.

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How can this not put a smile on your face?

 

Posted in 2017, Slow Travel, Travel Tips | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Changing Continents One Flight at a Time

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Common wisdom tells us that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters, but that expression doesn’t always apply, especially with air travel. It is challenging to get jazzed about security checks at airports, long flights in small seats with no elbow room, paying hugely inflated prices for food and the seemingly endless stream of overwrought and impatient humanity. We had six flights on four different airlines ahead of us when we left Lagos, Portugal for our new home in Ballenita, Ecuador so it’s safe to say that we were looking forward to the destination.

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Manhatten skyline from Liberty Airport, Newark

In addition to the travel we would be facing several days in Nova Scotia in mid-January which can bring anything from brilliant sunshine to cold rain to blowing snow and bitter winds. As it turned out we were quite fortunate in that during the six days we were there the coldest temperature was -14 degrees Celsius and we only encountered about 2 cms of fresh snow. Coming from the Algarve and traveling to the Equator we would go through some pretty dramatic climatic changes.

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Praia de Luz – Algarve

As it turned out everything went quite smoothly and as we relax by our pool in 30 degree weather it seems a good time to go over our experience and see what we can learn for the next time.

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Our “front yard” in Ballenita

Our total distance traveled came out to 15,762 kms of which 14,426 were by plane, 1112 by rental car, 129 by bus and 95 by rail. On top of that were several taxis, hotel shuttles and airport terminal transfers. After we left Lagos on January 8th we spent 5 nights in hotels, 2 nights with Tim’s parents and 2 nights with friends.

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Thanks to our good friends Dave & Diane for hosting us in Nova Scotia

A lot of planning goes into these type of trips including hours of computer time and in this case some additional time on the phone trying to finalize our return flights in and out of Ecuador and Costa Rica. We try to cut costs whenever we can but sometimes shorter layovers, not travelling all night, or arriving in the middle of the night at unfamiliar destinations take precedence over cost. As a case in point, we elected to pay more at the Halifax Airport to stay in the adjoining Alt Hotel so we could avoid waiting outside in -14 degree weather for shuttles in the middle of the night. Choices!

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The train from Lagos isn’t pretty but is very efficient

The main airport in the Algarve is Faro, which is about 100 km from Lagos. We chose to take the train which is very reasonable at €7.30 each. Regular buses or a shared shuttle are other options. Our return tickets from the fall were through London and we flew on British Airways which operates regular flights due to the Algarve’s popularity as a vacation hotspot with UK citizens. There are cheaper flights available, however we had checked baggage and wanted to chose our seats so we opted for the $115 CAD one way cost to London. The checked bags fees alone are significant so always make sure you check the final price.

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We were sad to see Portugal fading into the distance below as we headed into the clouds. As you know from our last post we were leaving behind good friends, fond memories and a feeling of much more to see and explore. However we are returning in the fall and we knew that we had several months of tropical adventures ahead of us.

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Our flight back to Canada was with Westjet through Gatwick airport. We arrived fairly late that evening so an Ibis airport hotel provided a good night’s sleep before our departure the next morning. Gatwick felt familiar as it was where we had started our European adventure in September.

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We never miss an opportunity for a Star Wars plug – Gatwick Arrivals

Trans-Atlantic and other long flights can be tiring or they can be a good chance to read, do some writing, edit pictures or other pastimes. We are getting better at being prepared and making ourselves comfortable. Westjet has good inflight entertainment and we had snacks and water so the 7.5 hour flight to Toronto passed quickly and quite pleasantly. We would much preferred to have flown direct to Halifax but very few flights arrive there from Europe.

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Waiting for our flight in Toronto that evening we experienced one of those quirky and unexpected encounters that seem to happen so often when you are travelling. A family friend of ours, who is a young pilot, happened to be waiting for a flight to Nova Scotia at the same gate as we were. He was waiting in line but didn’t hold out much hope as the flight was completely booked. Much to our surprise as we waited for the cabin doors to close he walked aboard and had the last seat which was next to us! We had a great chat and laughed about it all to Halifax – sharing selfies with his girlfriend.

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Welcome to the reality of Nova Scotia in January. We were so pleased we had spent a little extra and didn’t have to go outside at 11:00 at night in -14 degrees as we are getting used to warmer weather! We rented a car for our 6 days in Nova Scotia. Believe it or not the rental agencies still charge extra to have snow tires which seems ludicrous in this part of the world. We headed out in our little Nissan Micra for several days of errands, dental appointments, restocking essentials and visits with friends and family. We were extremely fortunate in that we drove across the province twice and into New Brunswick and the roads were clear and mostly dry the whole time. We know from many years of experience that is not always the case in January!

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Our time in Nova Scotia turned out better than we hoped and we accomplished everything we wanted to without too much difficulty. It was our first experience with changing clothes in our storage locker and living out of our suitcases in Nova Scotia. Overall we were pleased with our whole visit and enjoyed catching up with family and friends along the way. We had some pleasant evenings with good friends and a wonderful lobster dinner with family.

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Relaxing at Tim’s parents home

Back at our airport hotel we arose at 3:00 AM to catch our first flight of the day to Newark, NJ where we had a 6.5 hour layover. Liberty Airport isn’t the most attractive but we always find it efficient and relatively easy to get around in. As we boarded our 5 hour flight to Panama City we were starting to get excited about going to a new country and the adventures that lay ahead. Our one concern with our flights was a short stop in Panama City and if our bags would make the connection. Fortunately we were a little early arriving so we had time to stretch our legs and enjoy the lively atmosphere in the departures area of the airport. We have never been to Panama before but the (loud) latin music, smiling faces and Spanish signs all seemed familiar to us.

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A short time later our COPA flight landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador. This was our first time south of the equator and in South America. It had been nearly 24 hours of continuous flights, security lines and airport terminals so we were getting a little weary. Clearing Customs was a bit of a wait but very simple when we reached the counter. We were thrilled when both of our suitcases appeared on the carousel and there was a smiling young man with our names on his placard to take us to our hotel, the Sonesta Guayaquil.

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The balcony courtyard at the Sonesta Guayaquil

The next morning’s experience at the Terminal Terriste was an introduction to both the seeming chaos of the terminal and the efficiency of the bus system here. With a little help we bought our tickets to Ballenita for the princely sum of $2.40 USD each and headed to the departures area where our bus was scheduled to leave in 11 minutes.

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View from our hotel across the airport

The bus operated by Liberpresa was comfortable enough and we settled in to get a glimpse of the scenery. The first part of the journey was through the suburbs and outlying districts of Guayaquil and it was eyeopening. The homes and most buildings were basic block construction with no paint, many dirt streets and seemingly thousands of small structures perched on the hillsides. Garbage was strewn along the roadside and seemed to flow over the embankments in places. We did keep in mind that this area is particularly susceptible to earthquakes due to its soil structure and location.

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As we approached Santa Elena, the provincial capital, the landscape was dry, parched and brown with scattered settlements along the way. As we pulled into the terminal in Ballenita the views were quite similar with the exception of many tankers anchored just off the coast awaiting their time at the nearby oil refinery in La Libertad.

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Looking west towards the Pacific from our street

A few blocks away was our Airbnb casita which is in a little oasis behind concrete walls on a dirt street about 5 blocks from the shore. The sun’s heat could be felt right away but there is little humidity so we weren’t overwhelmed.

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It has been several days since we arrived and we are starting to get a better sense of the town and its inhabitants. Very little English is spoken here and there are little to no tourist services but the people are friendly and helpful. The condo developments in the nearby expat haven of Salinas are visible just down the coast. Bird species which are new to us are everywhere and are attracted to the pool and trees on our property.

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The skyline of Salinas can be seen from the Ballenita shore

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Snowy-throated kingbird

We feel safe and welcomed here, the weather is great (if you like hot and dry), groceries are readily available, there are local markets and our little A-frame feels comfortable to us with the pool right outside. Drop back in and we’ll give you some glimpses of this part of Ecuador in the coming weeks.

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Posted in 2017, Travel Tips | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Slow Travel in Retirement: First Year Reflections and Looking Ahead

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New Year’s Eve in Lagos

We will look back at 2016 as a year of change and new beginnings. We have both been through some major changes in our lives, some good and some that were pretty tumultuous. In many ways however the leap that we finally took last year was one of the very biggest. If you have been following along this was the year that we actually did sell everything and head out to experience more of the world.

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Anne retired in April and we left Nova Scotia to spend three months in the beach town of Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. After over three decades of working lives and the attendant stresses we were ready for a break. In reality that is what the time in Costa Rica turned out to be. We still had our house in Nova Scotia to sell and it seemed that we were still tied to our old way of life.

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Minas Basin, Nova Scotia

We’ve written a lot about Costa Rica and still love many aspects of that beautiful country. The natural beauty, ecological diversity, tropical climate, laid back lifestyle and wonderful fresh foods are very appealing.

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Sunset at Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

However the increasing cost of living, cultural divide between the local and expat community and logistical challenges will in all likelihood preclude us from ever living there on a permanent basis. We can see ourselves spending more time there in the future and are going back this year for three months.

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Early morning in Atenas, Costa Rica

When we returned to Nova Scotia we realized for the first time the changes that our way of life had wrought in our relationships. We looked at life differently than most others around us and it was hard to settle into any sort of routine that we felt comfortable with. We had mentally committed to our new lifestyle and were anxious to start living it. Everything was complete except for the house which to this day remains a source of anxiety for us.

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Habitant River, Nova Scotia

So when we set off in September for England for two weeks of sightseeing in London and our first house sit, we felt as if we had really begun. And in many ways it was the first time that we began to comprehend the reality – and we loved it.

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In London we played the tourist but with our own spin. Extended hotel stays and restaurants are expensive and get tiring, so our first Airbnb experience provided us with a home base for two weeks. Very slow travel is our preferred way to go and we reconfirmed that after two weeks of rushing to see as many sights as possible, but it was a great visit.

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Our first house sit in Swindon was a good introduction to this great way to meet people, travel slowly, help others out and spend time in a local community. We learned a lot about German Shepherds, met a lot of friendly people and gained a better understanding of life in the English suburbs.

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You can read all about our train trip from London to Lisbon which speaks for itself but we can reiterate that it was a terrific way to see the vast countryside of France and Spain – plus we got to spend a night in Paris!

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Lisbon was our introduction to Portugal and what a great place to start! This was our first extended city stay but in many ways it felt like we were living in a smaller community. The atmosphere throughout the city was so different from anywhere else we have been, but yet it felt like home in many regards. The streets, the colours, the cafes, and the history all combined to put us in a good frame of mind.

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We had excellent day trips to both Cascais and Sintra and each one charmed us in its own way. Our son, Erik, and a friend came to Lisbon and they loved it as much as we did. It was especially good for us to be able to share the experience with Erik which is priceless. We will not forget the time we had in Lisbon and will return.

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Along the Cascais to Estoril boardwalk

Sometimes when you arrive in a new location something clicks and you feel comfortable right away. That’s pretty much how it was for us when we arrived in Lagos, and in fact the feeling has grown over the past two months we have been here.

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We had already spent over a month in Lisbon so we were getting used to the Portuguese lifestyle. When we got off the bus in Lagos, it looked different but had a lot of the things we loved about Lisbon.

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We do have to keep in mind that we are “winter-letting” (October – March) and here during the off season when the weather is cooler and there aren’t crowds of people. This has been a perfect time to slowly get to know our new home and we have discovered many aspects of Lagos that work really well for us.

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A great Indian restaurant in Lagos

The weather is a big draw. We had a few days of wind and rain but that was a great excuse to stay indoors and catch up on writing, reading and editing. The remainder of the time has been sunny almost every day. As soon as the sun comes up the temperature climbs and we were surprised at how warm 18 degrees Celsius can feel. There are very few days that you can’t get outside and explore, be active, or have a coffee or lunch by the beach. On the down side the evenings and nights are cool and our apartment is very cool.

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We have met some wonderful people here and have made great friends already. It helps to have the experience of people who have been on the ground in an area. The companionship, support and sharing of ideas and experiences is a comfortable feeling. We have been so fortunate to have found a group of friends we enjoy spending time with.

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The transportation links in Lagos are good in that there is both bus and rail service from here so it is relatively easy to get to Faro and beyond. Having a direct bus to Spain is a big bonus and we don’t have to tell you how much we enjoyed our trip to Seville and Cordoba. We are looking forward to more trips within Portugal, to Spain and beyond.

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Real Alcazar de Seville

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Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral

Not to diminish the joy of exploring nearby towns and villages. We have been to Sagres, Cabo de Sao Vincente, Luz, Portimao, Silves, Aljezur and Ferragudo and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

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Picturesque pool in Silves

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The spectacular coastline at Cabo de Sao Vicente

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Silves

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A wonderful restaurant in Luz

The town of Lagos itself feels just about right for us. While it does cater to tourists and the marina dominates much of the harbour it retains a lot of charm and personality. There is a great range of restaurants and cafes, a local movie theatre (which is great), and the streets are fun to wander and explore. All of the shopping and services you need are available either in Lagos or nearby.

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We are outdoors people by nature and love walking beaches, marshes, trails and country roads. Birding is a big activity for us and from what we have seen there are some excellent marshes, estuaries and woodland areas to explore.

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So at the end of the day we knew that we had no choice but to extend our time in Lagos. We had lamented the fact that we could only stay in Europe for 3 months so now we will base ourselves here and enjoy the best of both worlds. We can enjoy and explore Portugal as well as foray to amazing destinations within Europe at our own pace. We will also use the base as a staging area for future trips to Asia and Africa where we have dreamed of going.

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Cabo de Sao Vicente

The steps are now to apply for a 4 month Residency Visa which we will do this summer in Canada. We will return to Lagos in the fall and apply for a Residency Permit which we can renew after a year. Our fingers are crossed that everything will fall into place and we get the required approvals.

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We are getting ready for our first trip to South America and will be in Ecuador for two months, followed by three month in Costa Rica. Crossing the Equator, seeing the Andes and venturing into the Amazon rainforest are all exciting prospects and who knows what else fate will throw our way. Thank you all for following our little adventure this year and keep checking in with us to see what 2017 has in store.

Posted in Slow Travel | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Uncovering the Diverse Culture of Cordoba

We hated to leave the wonderful city of Seville behind but were excited to visit Cordoba, so we boarded an early morning train with anticipation. Another adventure in this most fascinating part of Spain. After a pleasant hour on the train through the Andalusian countryside we arrived in Cordoba.

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Cordoba is an ancient city with a turbulent history. Conquered by the Romans in 206 BC it was an important part of their empire for hundreds of years. After a brief rule by the Visigoths it was captured by Muslim armies in 711. During its time under Moorish rule it became one of the most important cities in the world and was a cultural, political, financial and economic centre. Both Christians and Jews were heavily involved in the life of the city.

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Cordoba’s importance faded through the 11th Century and it was eventually recaptured during the Reconquista in 1236 by King Ferdinand II of Castile. The population of Cordoba fell from well over 500,000 to just over 20,000 at one point in the 18th Century. It is amidst the changing fortunes of its rulers that the fabulous Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba was constructed.

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Cordoba today is a provincial capital with a population of just over 300,000. It has evolved into a modern city, but the centre retains much of the history of its storied past. The area surrounding the Mosque-Cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

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We stayed at the pleasant family-run Pension El Portillo which was clean, friendly and in a wonderful location in the old Jewish Quarter. Like so many of the buildings it had an interior courtyard that was decorated for Christmas.

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As you know by now we enjoy rambling these twisting streets and alleys and taking in the medieval charm and unexpected surprises.

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For us the highlight of our visit was the Mosque-Cathedral. Construction began in 784 AD as a mosque and was a monumental task, employing thousands of artisans and labourers using ivory, jasper, gold, copper and brass as decorative materials. It reached its current size in 987 with the completion of the outer naves and courtyards.

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We have visited many churches, cathedrals and palaces over the past few months but the magnitude, splendour and feeling of this one is beyond any others we have experienced. The exterior is grand in scale but when you first enter the hypostyle hall you will be in awe. There are 856 columns made of jasper, onyx, marble and granite. Pictures or words cannot recreate the feelings it invokes.

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The hall is surrounded by resplendent chapels which were reworked after the Reconquista. We were overawed by the art, the colours and the obscene amount of silver and gold adorning them.

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In the mid 12th Century the central nave was converted to a Catholic Cathedral and the effect evokes mixed emotions. The beauty and craftsmanship is beyond question, but like so many other parts of the mosque you are vividly reminded of the juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim architecture and the differing beliefs.

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We would challenge anyone not to be moved by the experience. It reminded us that in too many ways humankind is no more tolerant today than centuries ago.

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Just around the corner from the Cathedral stands the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos. Imposing on the exterior, walking the walls gives fantastic views across the city and the Roman Bridge which crosses the Guadalquivir River.

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p_20161208_101105There are some interesting Roman mosaics in the rooms of the Alcazar, but it was the gardens which captivated our imaginations.

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Being the holiday season it was quite busy but we still had many corners to ourselves and were delighted by the symmetry and elegance of the gardens. They must be particularly lovely in the spring!

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The Roman Bridge is big drawing point for the city and a walk across is a must, although we did find the modern walkway somewhat out of keeping with the ancient structure. For Game of Thrones fans you will be rewarded with some familiar views. Street performers and souvenir peddlers jostled for our attention and we had to have patience to get pictures without groups of people in the views. The walk across at night gave us some rewarding photo opportunities.

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The streets surrounding the Cathedral are fun but crowded with tourists, souvenir shops and some overpriced cafes and restaurants. However, with careful searching you can find reasonably priced restaurants that serve excellent food in superb settings like this courtyard restaurant we discovered.

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Another interesting visit is the Centro Flamenco Fosforito which according to Lonely Planet is one of the best flamenco museums in Andalucia. It is located in the legendary inn Posada del Potro of Don Quixote fame. There are some engaging exhibits which trace the history of flamenco and showcase some its greats. Entrance was free on the day we visited.

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To cap off our visit we took in the show “Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse” at  Cordoba Ecuestre which is housed at the Royal Stables of Cordoba. It combined superbly trained Andalusian horses with traditional music and dance.

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The show lasted 1.5 hours and the small grandstands were packed. The skill of the horsemen and the  rapport with the powerful animals was mesmerizing, especially when paired with the music and setting.

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The cost of €15 seemed very reasonable. In addition to the show the price of the ticket entitles you to watch the training sessions throughout the day. Located next to the Alcazar a visit to the stables allows you a more intimate encounter with the horses and a chance to enjoy the facility.

img_4675All too soon it was time to leave Cordoba and head back to Seville and then back home to Lagos. We were so fortunate to have uncovered some of her past and present treasures.

Posted in 2016 | Tagged | 7 Comments

Savouring the Andalucian Sunshine and Spirit of Sevilla

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One of the awesome aspects of being in Europe is that there are so many opportunities for travel to new destinations within a few hours by train, bus or air. So when our friends Dick & Anita suggested a trip to Seville and Cordoba we and another friend jumped at the chance. It was a 4 hour bus ride (€82 total return) to Seville from Lagos and then another 1.5 hours to Cordoba by train (€46 total return).

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Crossing the Spanish border from Portugal

We spent three nights in each city and loved them both. We left Lagos in the midst of pouring rain but after our first day we had brilliant sunshine and pleasant temperatures for the remainder of our trip!

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In Seville we stayed in the old Jewish Quarter and loved everything about the location. Our hotel was nice but a little overpriced for the services it offered.

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The narrow streets of Barrio de Santa Cruz formed a fascinating maze of courtyards, cafes, tapas bars and intimate plazas lined with orange trees.

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We were just a 10 minute walk away from the Seville Cathedral which is truly amazing. It is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, the third largest church and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The central nave is awe-inspiring and pictures cannot capture the splendor that surrounded us. It is also the final resting place of Christopher Columbus, although his tomb is a recent addition from 1892. The entrance costs €9 and is worth every euro. There are significant reductions for retirees (over 65) and students, so don’t forget your identification.

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The final tomb of Christopher Columbus

The climb to the top of the La Giralda bell tower provides you with breathtaking views across the city and beyond.

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The view to the west from the bell tower. The bull ring is in the center.

The cathedral is right next to the Alcazar so the plaza can be quite crowded and hectic. There were plenty of carriages selling tours but in spite of how romantic they are (and how much Anne wanted to take a ride) we both declined the €45 cost for a one hour ride.

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All the streets we walked were decorated for Christmas with wonderful lights, poinsettias, and a large tree of lights in one of the squares.

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To add to the Christmas atmosphere an excellent market was set up selling every type of creche figure you could imagine. Many homes and businesses have extensive nativity scenes that are open for public viewing and are marked by a large star on their doorways.

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While the Alcazar of Seville may appear a Moorish palace, most of it was built for the Christian king, Pedro the Cruel of Castile during the 1300s in the Mudejar style. Much remains of the original elegance but numerous restorations have been required due to fires and earthquakes. It has also been the location of filming for several Game of Thrones’ episodes.

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Be sure to allow yourself time to explore the adjacent gardens as they are splendid at any time of year. Wandering through them you are easily transported to another time.

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The short walk to the spectacular Plaza de Espana through parks and along bougainvillea lined boulevards was very enjoyable. The temperatures were in the low 20s and just right for being outside in this vibrant city.

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Plaza de Espana was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition and is a grandiose structure that has become a major attraction and landmark in Seville. It consists of an immense Renaissance-Moorish structure with towers at either end. The entire plaza is ringed by a circular canal with arched bridges leading to the central building. Ceramic tiles are everywhere and the benches representing the Spanish provinces are quite dramatic.

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Major films including Laurence of Arabia and Star Wars have used it as a location. It was used as the setting for Padme Amidala’s palace in the city of Theed on Naboo, in Episode II: the Attack of the Clones (2002). Being huge Star Wars fans we were especially excited to be there!

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Do you think I’m excited?

The entire city was full of life and vibrancy and you could feel the passion of the people on the streets. We were there on Constitution Day and the streets were full. The tapas bars were packed between 2-4 on all days and then it gets quiet from 4-6 so for us a good time to have our evening meal as we are not late night people.

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The selection of tapas was endless and we found that 2-3 would suffice for a full meal. They are generally around €3 each and most of the ones we had were excellent. They provide an excellent opportunity to try some local dishes like ox tail, Iberian ham or shrimp cakes.

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Andalucia is the home of flamenco and its influence was strong everywhere in both cities. The shops are filled with flamenco dresses, postcards and even dolls. Street performances were fairly common and attracted a large audience.

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An evening flamenco show for €18 was well worth the cost. It was about an hour long in an intimate setting. There were several to chose from in the area at around the same price. The one we attended had an audience of about 50 people and seemed to be a mix of locals and tourists.

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For more modern tastes the Metropol Parasols are worth visiting. The contrast between the 2012 structure and the classic Seville architecture is stark. It isn’t surprising that it created quite a conflict when it was erected. There is a winding walkway along the top for great views of this part of the city. To add to the contrasts a museum underneath preserves extensive Roman ruins and excavation is ongoing.

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This part of the city was quite interesting and was full of expensive boutiques within the charming old buildings. As always quirky and interesting sights were around every corner.

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The Barber of Seville?

As with any visit the time to leave arrived far sooner than we wanted. It was surreal to be here after all the travel shows and videos we have watched on Seville! The fond memories of this city will always remain with us and we will return.

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Up next, a short train ride away, we visit the charming medieval city of Cordoba.

Posted in 2016 | Tagged | 8 Comments

Welcome to the Algarve – Lagos in November

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The stunning cliffs of Ponta de Piedade

The Algarve region of Portugal is a very popular summer tourist destination, mainly for Europeans. We arrived in mid-November after most of the thousands of tourists had returned to their working lives, however there is a year round population of expats who make this southern part of Portugal their residence.

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Getting here for us was a pleasant 3 hour bus ride south from Lisbon to Lagos with the bus company Eva, one of the larger carriers in Portugal. We were fortunate to be picked up by our friends Richard Nash and Anita Oliver who maintain the excellent blog No Particular Place to Go. They have been living here for a year and introduced us to Lloyd’s Property Services who we are renting a condominium from until early January. It is wonderful to have friends in the area as they have been very helpful getting us acquainted with our new home.

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The view towards town from our 3rd floor condo

Lagos is one of the most popular Algarve towns and from what we have seen so far, for good reason. It is quite charming with a walled old town, a waterfront boardwalk and all the conveniences that you would expect in a large community. It also boasts the beautiful Meia Preia and the spectacular Ponta de Peidade which we will dedicate more time to in later posts once we have spent more time exploring.

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Meia Praia towards Portimao

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A very windy day at the harbour entrance

Lagos is a coastal town with over 2000 years of rich history.  It has a strong maritime tradition, and in the 1960s began to embrace tourism which is now the main economic driver. On a darker note it was also the gateway for the first African slaves into Europe in the 1400s. The current population of about 40,000 grows substantially in the summer. There is a large fully serviced marina that is well known to long distance cruisers. The marina is surrounded by shops, restaurants and a myriad of tour companies and is connected to the main town by a drawbridge.

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We are already quite taken with the old town which is partially surrounded by the remnants of a 16th Century wall. Fortifications from the same time period as well as beautiful churches offer further reminders of the past. The narrow cobbled streets, tiled buildings, street art and cafes all feel very Portuguese. We feel very comfortable here as there is much to remind us of Lisbon and we are looking forward to more time for our wanderings around town.

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We have a lovely one bedroom condominium with a gorgeous view across Meia Praia which offers stunning sunrise views.

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We are currently the only people in our entire building as it and the many others around were built primarily for the summer tourists. At a price of €600 per month plus utilities they offer great value in the period from late fall until spring. It is a spacious and modern unit with a pool but alas it is too cold to swim in this time of year. Our only complaint is that it is quite chilly with the concrete construction and tiled floors.

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We are on the third floor

As usual we are within walking distance of all of the conveniences we need. The Pingo Doce supermarket is 10-15 minutes away and we can walk to town in the same time.

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The town doesn’t have major malls but a short drive away brings you to the commercial area of Portimao. We did go there with friends and it has everything you would need and a whole lot of what you don’t need! We did like the fact that much of it is open to the air which is very appealing.

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We have much still to see and do over the remaining time we have left here. Walking the beach is always a favorite for us. We found a beachside restaurant about 1 km from our place which serves great cappuccinos – perfect for watching the waves in the sun of the afternoon.

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Bocce on the hard packed sand bike and walking trails

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On sunny days you can enjoy  beachside coffee in the afternoon

Dozens of nice looking restaurants and cafes can be found in town and around the marina complex. In the afternoons you can find a sunny spot for a coffee and while away a couple of hours chatting and people watching. For those couple of hours you can easily forget that it is late November.

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We are very happy to have access to green space after city living for the past few months. Several good spots are nearby for birding and we have already added some new species to our life list. A path around the pond behind the condo provides some great viewpoints and is a quiet place for a morning stroll.

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Eurasian coot

At the end of Meia Praia beach is a productive estuary which shelters many wading birds including flamingos. There are several species of shorebirds along the beach and the harbour’s edge.

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Sanderlings

We are just starting to get acquainted with the famous storks of the Algarve. There are two species here, the white and the black stork. They nest on the top of available chimneys, telephone poles, churches and other spots. We haven’t had the opportunity to observe them closely so we will add that to our ever growing to-do list!

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Both the birds and their nests are protected under law and are one of the icons of the Algarve. Portuguese farmers appreciate storks as they feed on small lizards, snakes, mammals and large insects which in turn protects the important bee population and reduces the use of pesticides.

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We are definitely enjoying our time here and will have plenty to do in the coming weeks. We are planning a trip to Spain with our friends for a few days, we will observe Christmas celebrations here and know that January will come all too quickly.

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We enjoy the relative peace and quiet of this part of the Algarve at this time of year and will use our time to continue to explore and learn more about this fascinating region.

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Loving Life in Lisbon: Where did Five Weeks Go?

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Five weeks can seem like an eternity or it can fly past in a blink of an eye. For us, it seems like yesterday when we arrived at the Santa Apalonia station in Lisbon and yet we felt very comfortable there, almost as if we have lived there for much longer. As we settle into our new lifestyle hopefully we will look back on each of our homes with such positive memories.

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This was the first time in many years that we lived in a large city and we weren’t quite sure how we would feel about it as we love open space, nature and relative peace and quiet. Lisbon seems to have been a good choice though and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We will miss many things about this fascinating city.

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Don’t overlook the Expo 98 site as it has a very different feel

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We loved our apartment and will miss the views of the Tagus river, the streets below us and the sounds of people going about their lives around us. Watching the various ships pass by on the river with a glass of wine was always a great way to spend an afternoon. We will miss the local mini mercados, pastelarias and cafes and their friendly owners.

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The beginning of the climb to our apartment

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Sunrise over the Tagus

We enjoyed the ease of getting around the city and even to the outer areas such as Cascais and Sintra. The buses, Metro and commuter trains were all efficient and inexpensive. The only exception was our local 735 route which was a little erratic. We always felt comfortable and safe getting anywhere we wanted to go.

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Rossio train station

Wandering the streets was our favorite pastime. The contrast of colours, the blend of old and new and the discovery of what lay around the next corner is captivating. No matter which neighbourhood we ventured into we always felt welcome and completely at ease.

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The people of Lisbon we met were always gracious if not the most outgoing. We were treated with courtesy and respect and more often than not our hola or bom dia was returned with a smile. Our limited Portuguese got us by quite adequately, although as always we would love to be able to converse more freely. Courtesy, friendliness and an honest attempt to use some phrases always goes a long way in a new country.

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We can’t say enough about the wine. Whether it was the the €2 bottle from the local Pingo Doce (one of the grocery store chains) or a more expensive €5 bottle they were all very pleasant. Too much so perhaps!

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Overall we found the cost of living to be very reasonable. Groceries were very affordable, wine and beer very inexpensive, fresh bread and pastries are available everywhere at a low price and as we mentioned, public transportation is well priced.

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We didn’t eat out a lot, but when we did we were always able to find a decent meal for under €10 each. There were plenty of higher priced options and we expect the meals would have been even better. Our son and a friend joined us for two weeks and we enjoyed showing them around and introducing them to some of our favorites spots.

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The Time Out Market is a fun gathering spot for drinks, food or conversation

The street art and graffiti were favorites of ours. We aren’t sure of the laws surrounding them but from what we have seen it is pretty common across Europe. Almost all available space is covered ranging from political statements, modern art and the more familiar tags.

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The miradouros, or viewpoints, are spectacular and popular in Lisbon. They are generally well known and marked but you can stumble across some wonderful ones by chance. Some of our favorites were Portas do Sol, Miradouro de Graca, Nossa Senhora do Monte, the terrace of the National Pantheon and of course the Castelo de Sao Jorge. You may have to jostle your way to some but for the most part there is plenty of room and you will find a mixture of locals and tourists vying for the best camera angle and the attention of the selfie stick vendors.

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The base of the National Pantheon

A short bus or tram ride away from the central city, Belem has a lot to offer and we loved the boardwalk, the parks and the Belem Cultural Centre. This is also the location of the Jeronimos Monestary, Monument to the Discoveries and the Belem Tower. On one of our visits we took in a fantastic show there by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

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The Grand Auditorium at the Belem Cultural Centre

There is free admission on the first Sunday of each month at both the Jeronimos Monestary and Belem Tower but not surprisingly there are long lines of people taking advantage of the savings. On the plus side, there are terrific markets at the Cultural Centre and in the park on that day.

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Waiting in line at Jeronimos Monestary

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Our visit coincided with CEUCO XIV (Oenogastronomiques Brotherhoods)

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Belem boardwalk. The monument was under repairs.

We never tired of watching the cars drive the narrow streets and parallel park. North Americans could certainly take lessons as it is amazing how many cars can be parked along the sides of the streets.

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If you add in the construction, the trolleys and the buses, and just watching how people get around the city it is a great way to spend time. There are hundreds of small cafes and pastelarias dotting the sidewalks as well as many parks so you always have a place to rest your feet.

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Of course Cascais and Sintra were big hits with us, so we would recommend looking through our posts on those if you’re interested.

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We had to return to the weekly flea market, Feira de Ladra, and would recommend it for anyone who visits Lisbon. It operates on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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As for other stereotypical activities we did manage to see some local fado and we did eat sardines. Most of the fado is late in the evening and quite expensive but we found a small cafe/bar in our neighbourhood where amateurs performed on Saturday afternoons and it was excellent. We only rode the trolley once and enjoyed it, but it was more fun watching them trundle past overflowing with tourists with cameras and selfie sticks popping out the windows.

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The tile work around the city is fabulous and deserves a full post alone

The Praca do Comercio and Baixa are the tourist hubs in central Lisbon. When the cruise ships are in they can be quite crowded but the buildings and setting is impressive. Inevitably there will be vendors and street performers, most of whom were not too aggressive. You will be approached to buy selfie sticks and sunglasses which often is a front for other less legal products.

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Elevador Santa Justa in Baixa

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Balancing rocks on the riverside at Praca do Comercio – a different type of street performance

There was very little that we did not enjoy about Lisbon. Dog owners and people in general did seem careless about waste and in the local areas you could see the results on the sidewalks. This seems strange as there are garbage receptacles everywhere, and many city employees sweeping, tidying up and even watching you – seeming to dare you to throw something on the street.

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This all contributes to the charm of Lisbon that we felt. It is not pretentious at all, it feels very safe and we did not feel any resentment towards visitors which we have encountered in other places. The central part of the city is compact enough that you can access most everything you want on foot although be prepared for hills. With the addition of the transit system, including the trolleys and funiculars there wasn’t anywhere that we couldn’t easily reach.

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Overall it was a wonderful five weeks in which we gained a great introduction to Portuguese culture and peered through a small window into life in a European city. We explored and experienced a lot but there remains much to discover as we continue to move along in our nomadic lifestyle. In our next post we will still be in Portugal as we are now in Lagos in the Algarve.

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Leaving Lisbon by bus on our way to Lagos

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , | 12 Comments

One Day is not Enough: Enchanting Sintra

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Sintra is a wonderfully picturesque town set amongst the hills northwest of Lisbon. It received a well deserved designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. As the top recommended day trip from Lisbon its popularity is also a problem as it now attracts so many visitors that it can be extremely crowded and frustrating to visit, particularly in the summer. You can read all about the challenges of a summer visit in this post by our friends Kemkem and Federico over at Nextbiteoflife.

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The cooler climate and wonderful scenery of the pine covered hills has attracted the nobility and elite of Portugal for the past several centuries, and they built lavish and extravagant palaces around the area. It is also a strategically important location which prompted the Moors to build a castle atop the hills in the 8th Century.

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Looking across Sintra to the Atlantic Coast

There are many guided tours from Lisbon but we chose to take the inexpensive commuter train from Rossio Station. You can also get a train from Oriente Station. Either one costs only €1.80 with a transit card each way (€2.10 without). Our advice is to get one by 9:00 in order to arrive at Sintra before the large crowds. The suburban railway to Sintra is now one of the most congested commuter lines in all Europe. In October when we first visited, the lines for the buses in Sintra became long after lunch and the interior of the palaces were crowded.

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The 8:11 commuter train to Sintra from Rossio Station

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We had the whole coach to ourselves for most of the way out

The train stops in the lower portion of Sintra and you can walk to the central town which is about a 1.5 km walk uphill or take the designated tourist buses. They begin at 9:30 (9:15 in high season) and save you a lot of time and energy walking up the steep hills. For first time visitors arriving from Lisbon the €5.00 package (Route 434) is probably the best option. It is a complete loop that includes three of the most popular sites: the Palacio Nacional de Sintra (€10.00), the Castelo dos Mouros (€8.00) and the Palacio Nacional de Pena (€14.00). It operates on a hop-on hop-off basis but you can only do the loop once so if you skip one you will have to pay again. On our second visit we also used the Route 435 bus which goes to 4 sites and costs €2.50.

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National Palace and central Sintra from the Moors Castle

We were on the first bus and among the first people at the National Palace. By the time we finished our visit however, several tour groups had arrived and it was getting a little busy. There are many rooms open for viewing within the palace and we particularly enjoyed the tilework.

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The National Palace with its iconic conical chimneys

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When we visited on a damp November day, we skipped the National Palace and went straight to the Moors Castle and were rewarded with a deserted site and amazing views coming in and out of the clouds.

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The old town itself is very charming and has wonderful buildings lining the streets with many souvenir shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It was pleasant when we visited but must be very congested in the busier months.

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The Circuito de Pena Bus 434 which runs 4 times hourly

Heading up a narrow, steep and winding road in which the bus has to back and turn a couple of times we arrived at the entrance to the Moors Castle site. We had bought our tickets for all three attractions at the National Palace and in addition to saving 6% on the admission we didn’t have to wait in the lines at the ticket office.

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It is a very pleasing stroll up the hill to the castle entrance where you will have your ticket validated. Be prepared for plenty of walking, and a lot of it uphill but it is absolutely worth it.

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The site is well maintained and interpreted making for an informative and pleasant walk to the summit of the hill. Archaeologists have uncovered human habitation on the hill dating back to the 5th Century BC and you will see storage silos and burial sites along the way.

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Medieval storage silos

We were not expecting the stunning views from the castle walls. King Ferdinand II was a strong supporter of the arts and was inspired by the landscapes when he purchased large tracts of land including the castle site. The view took our breath away and reminded us of pictures we have seen of the Great Wall in China.

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There are washrooms, a small gift shop and cafeteria in the castle site itself and many pleasant spots to have a picnic or just take in your surroundings. A word of advice – take the pathways to the left to reach the top of the castle and descend along the walls. The pathways are much easier on the knees as it is a large ascent. We did it this way and as we made our way downwards along the walls we were constantly meeting people out of breath coming up.

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The next stop on this circuit is the fantastic Pena Palace. It was constructed in 1842 – 1854 by King Ferdinand II on the ruins of a 15th Century monastery. The Romanticist style drew inspiration from Bavarian castles such as Neuchwanstein Castle. By the time we arrived in the early afternoon it was quite busy. Another note is that the bus drops you off at the bottom of a 500m uphill climb but you can chose to take the shuttle at an additional cost of €3.00 return ticket which you can buy at the gift shop.

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The contrasting colours of the castle are quite stunning and each view produces a different perspective. As you enter the gates of the palace you immediately enter a world of fanciful designs, often outlandish in nature but ultimately delightful and visually arresting.

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The interior of the palace is as whimsical as the exterior. Themed rooms ranging from Moorish to Egyptian, all housing an array of exquisite paintings, ornately carved furniture and objects from across the former Portuguese colonies.

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For us the views and the fantastical nature of the castle itself and the setting was what caught our attention. Wandering on the narrow turrets and walls and through the labyrinthine courtyards yielded striking views and endless photographic opportunities.

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Our son and a friend visited us in early November and we wanted them to experience this wonderful town. It was a damp and cool morning when we arrived but we chose to start our day at the Moors Castle. It was practically deserted and the atmosphere was wonderful with low clouds swirling around us.

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While we did not have the sweeping landscape views across the peninsula we were rewarded with occasional glimpses of the Pena Palace.

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In the afternoon we took the 435 bus to the Quinta de Regaleira, a romantic palace and chapel which is renowned for its gardens and grounds. Completed in the early 20th Century the parklike grounds include grottoes, underground caves and tunnels and an enigmatic “initiation well” which you can descend to the bottom of by way of a very interesting spiral stairway.

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We were enthralled with the grounds and every nook and cranny felt as if it was right out of a fairy tale. This would be the garden that inspires a child’s imagination and maybe even frightens them a little.

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Moss-covered grotto

We only scratched the surface of Sintra and even two days did not do it justice. There are so many options within the area that you really do need a game plan before going to ensure that you get the most of the time that you have. Be prepared to lose some time in waiting for buses and lines but you can find solace in the views and surroundings while you wait.

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There are many other sites in the Sintra area that look fascinating and well worth seeking out. We spent two very interesting days there and would return again – if we are here in low season!

Posted in 2016, Travel Tips | Tagged , | 13 Comments

To the Beach: Cascais and Estoril as a Day Trip from Lisbon

Looking through the guide books the coastal towns of Cascais and Estoril always rank among the top day trips from Lisbon. Commuter rail from Lisbon to both towns is efficient and inexpensive. We love beach towns so it was a simple decision for us to make a trip to the coast.

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These two towns, along with Sintra, make up what is often referred to as the Portuguese Riviera due to their similarities to the more famous Italian and French locales. It is known as a luxury resort area and has long been associated with the wealthy and famous of Portugal.

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Getting there is easy from Lisbon. A train runs every half hour from Cais de Sodre station which costs just €1.80 each way with a rechargeable transit card. The train is clean and comfortable and passes through the picturesque coastal suburbs to the west of Lisbon. It takes just 45 minutes to reach the last stop at Cascais, or you can get off along the way at various stops in Estoril.

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We chose to get off at the last stop in Cascais and began our wanderings there. It is good to go early and you will find the town quiet and the benches overlooking the ocean practically empty. We know, it is Portugal but there is a MacDonald’s close to the station where you can find clean washrooms and very good coffee to go for €0.75. We are always looking for little ways to cut costs.

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From the station you can choose to go towards the main Cascais beach and downtown which affords wonderful views to the 15th Century  Cidadela de Cascais atop the hill. The port offices are housed in a magnificent building as well.

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We liked the harbour as it houses not only a massive marina but is also a working fishing port. You can wander to the end of the pier for good views and watch the fishermen landing their catch or repairing their gear.

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There is a scenic boardwalk up a moderate hill towards the fort and marina. The views are incredible in every direction, the atmosphere is very Mediterranean and it feels like you could be on the set of a James Bond movie but more on that shortly.

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As you stroll along the fort walls and pass the marina you can pick which yacht looks just right for your next nautical adventure. There is a decidedly upscale feel to the whole marina area but it is very pleasant, accessible and a stunning backdrop for a walk or to stop and relax for a while.

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Further still you reach Santa Marta Lighthouse and museum which was built in 1868. If you have time you may wish to walk further along the beautiful cliff top sidewalk to Boca do Inferno where there is an interesting cliff formation. We didn’t go that far but found many spots where we could walk out to the cliffs.

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On the way back into the main part of town is the beautiful Museu Condes de Castro Guimaraes. The museum was closed for lunch when we were there but we enjoyed a picnic in the inviting Marechal Carmona park and gardens and were entertained by peacocks, roosters, chickens, pigeons and wild birds.

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We are certain that all of these areas are likely very busy during the summer months and may not be as relaxing and inviting as we make it sound, but there certainly seems to be plenty of space and more than enough Portuguese atmosphere to go around.

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Back in the town again the boardwalk which extends to Estoril is great for strolling, jogging, biking, sitting or just watching the waves, sailboats and people. Hotels and upscale buildings line the hills across the street and the boardwalk has a great selection of restaurants, cafes and ice cream stalls. The prices are on the high side but you are paying for the location, views and setting. We checked the prices at a few and main courses ran from €12 and up.

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There are several sandy beaches along the boardwalk which stretches for around 4 kms. When we were there on two separate days in October there were many people enjoying the sun, several playing in the waves and a few actually swimming. The water was cool but great for wading barefoot along the waters edge.

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The services along the boardwalk are really good. Several free washrooms, drinking water fountains, sand washing stations, a bike path, outdoor exercise equipment and ample seating are available. Steps onto the beaches are wide and not too steep. We have seen pictures of the beaches in the summer months when they are entirely covered with loungers and umbrellas so clearly the off season is more relaxed.

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Fishermen cast from the finger piers along the way, shorebirds chase crustaceans in the tidal pools at the waters edge, and cruise ships and yachts glide by offshore. Combine this with the palm trees lining the boardwalk and the stately homes and you can easily pass several hours along this stretch.

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The train stations in Estoril are easily accessible from the boardwalk and you can purchase tickets at any one or use your transit card to catch the next train. The frequent and dependable service makes it easy to match to your own schedule and pace.

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While in Estoril you can make the short walk through a pleasant park to the Casino Estoril which was the inspiration for Ian Flemming’s Casino Royale. The exterior wasn’t what we were expecting but it is apparently extravagant inside.

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So this is definitely worthwhile for a day trip from Lisbon. You can do it inexpensively, as we did, and just buy a €1 beer from a mini mercado and picnic in the park or along the beach. Or you can splurge a little and have a seafood meal at one of the numerous excellent looking restaurants.

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Whatever your preference there is certainly more than enough to do for a very pleasant day by the coast. On a sunny day in October with a light breeze carrying the smell of the Atlantic Ocean it couldn’t have been better for us!

 

 

Posted in 2016 | Tagged , | 8 Comments