So….Cruise vs DIY?

So did we do it better than taking a cruise?

Well, if you take out having to lug our suitcases everywhere, on and off trains, to and from airports and up and down all the steps we ended up having to navigate, then we obviously would have had a better time of it on a cruise.

BUT, we were able to immerse ourselves a lot more in the cities we stayed in and this, to me, is invaluable.  We were under no time constraints when it came to most of the things we wanted to see and do (unless it was those imposed by ourselves when we chose to do guided tours).  It was particularly lovely in spots like Venice and Capri to enjoy the place once all the day trippers had left.  We ate what we wanted, where we wanted and when we wanted.  We could stop when and where we wanted.  We got to use all sorts of public transport and we got out of the cities too.  We saw so many more countries and sights on our itinerary than if we had been on a cruise.  And there’s nothing like staying in a place for a few nights to get into its groove.

I loved the fresh markets we came across – being able to buy and cook with fresh local produce was a great experience, not to mention being able to interact with the locals.

I’m not saying don’t go on a cruise, they definitely have their place and there are people who absolutely adore cruising, but for us and the way we travel, d.i.y is the way to go.  Maybe just with less luggage next time….

The main thing I learnt out of this trip was that while it was great to tick off some of the major icons of the world, I actually much prefer going to a place that is quieter and where you can appreciate it for being itself.  I much preferred Barcelona and Lisbon over Paris and Florence.  Those flag carrying big tour groups were so annoying and I got so sick of being harrassed by people trying to hawk me stuff whenever I came near a popular sight.  I hated having to line up for everything, although to be honest, we didn’t have to do very much of that, we just moved on if there was a huge queue.

Where would I go back to?  Lisbon and Barcelona.  For sure.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my Laos trip in November.  Even more so, because I know it will be a much more intimate experience.

If you’re interested in any of the facts from our trip, here they are:

We stayed with:

Parkroyal on Pickering, Chinatown/CBD, Singapore

Citadines La Ramblas, La Ramblas, Barcelona

Hotel Convento do Salvador, Alfama, Lisbon

Villa Montmartre, Montmartre, Paris

Citadines Lyon Presquile, Lyon

Chateau de Trigance, Trigance

Private Residence (AirBNB), Vieille Ville, Nice

Locanda Ca’Amadi, Cannaregio,Venice

Villa Il Mosaico, Florence

B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri, Anacapri, Capri

Casa Di Eddy, Termini Station, Rome

We flew with:

Singapore Airlines Perth to Barcelona and from Rome to Perth

TAP Airlines from Barcelona to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Paris

HOP Airlines from Nice to Venice

We took trains between all other cities, a waterbus in Venice and the high speed ferry between Naples and Capri

We drove with:

Sixt (between Aix en Provence and Nice)

We bought these city cards to help save us money – they included free public transport:

Lyon City Card

Lisboa Card

Roma Pass

We used these tour companies (everything else we did ourselves):

Urban Adventures in Barcelona (Tapas Walking Tour)

France Tourisme in Paris (Versailles)

Tour Azur in Nice (Monaco Evening Trip)

Florencetown in Florence (Pizza and Gelato Making)

Dark Rome in Rome (Vatican Tour)

Coop Culture in Rome (Domus Aurea)

If you have any questions about our trip though, please ask me!

Sintra

After an unexpectedly long tram ride on the historic No. 28 this morning (he was going too fast to see what the stops were and they are not printed anywhere inside the tram – take note travellers), we finally arrived in Rossio, a few minutes walk away from the square.

It’s a glorious morning, the sky a brilliant blue (the blue sky in Lisbon is something I’ve never seen before and will always remember) and the warm sun is breaking out, making it a perfect place to stop and enjoy breakfast on one of the sidewalk cafes.  It’s a Saturday morning, so the stalls and shops are just opening up and people are out jogging and enjoying the day as it begins.

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A simple breakfast of toasted sandwiches and a cappucino settling in our stomaches and it’s off to find the train station.

This morning we are heading out of the city, catching a train to Sintra, about a 40 minute ride away from Lisbon.  Over the years I have discovered there’s something wonderful about getting out of the city and into the countryside for a day while travelling because of the incredibly different experience you normally get, which enhances your travels!  There’s something calming about not just sticking to the big cities.

Arriving in Sintra, along with hoardes of other tourists, you can feel the cool, fresh air immediately.  Soon enough most are bundled onto tourist busses and transported to any number of attractions in the area – mostly castles of some kind.

We have decided to start at Quinta da Regaleira which was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family.  The residence itself is intricately decorated in neo-manueline style with elaborate details to be seen everywhere you turn.

But the garden is equally amazing with waterfalls and hidden grottoes throughout the grounds, surrounded by the sweet smell of wisteria.

It took a while to get to Pena National Palace, but it was worth the journey.  The multi-coloured, mish-mash of buildings that make up Pena National Palace is truly a sight to behold.  With it’s middle eastern design and bright colours, I’ve heard people describe it as more of a nightmare than a fairytale so I can’t wait to see for myself.

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Pena Palace (feather palace) was the creation of King Ferdinand, an artistic king, who wished the palace to resemble an opera and I guess you can see that his wish has been achieved.  The palace was built so that it could be seen from any point on the hill where it sits, high above Sintra and it’s surrounding towns.

Arriving at the grounds there is a small bus that will make the ride up the windy hill to the palace for an additional 3, or of course you can walk.  There is lots you can do at the palace apart from exploring the inside, the grounds are set on a large park where you can go horseriding or walking.  At the top is a cafeteria and of course the usual gift shop – but you can buy quite a range of products here including some local tinned fishes, liqueurs, biscuits and pate’s.

It’s been a beautiful day in Sintra, well worth the train ride.  It’s such a shame to leave as we have both loved Lisbon and felt we could easily have justified an extra week here.

On the Pasteis trail

For breakfast this morning we head up the street to a little deli advertising a breakfast special.  In fact it’s the only dish they serve for breakfast, but that’s fine with us and before long we have coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, french toast (cheese and ham toastie) and a pasteis de nata – Portuguese egg tarts.  All for €7.50.

Pasteis are a big thing in Lisbon and you’ll find them all over the place.  The trick is to find the good ones!  Once you have a pasteis in front of you, the best thing to do is sprinkle a little cinnamon on it and savour every bite.  These ones – our first – are incredible.  Bigger than a lot of those I’ve seen, they are beautifully sweet and flaky and the cinnamon does add a certain touch.

Today we are spending the day in beautiful Belem.  Belem is the cultural corner of Lisbon, housing some of the most incredible museums and monuments in town.  We walk down through the alleyways of Alfama until we reach the bus stop for route 728 to Belem.

The Museum of Coaches is the first thing on our agenda this morning and whilst this may seem a little boring to some, let me assure you the work on these beauties is just incredible and not to be missed.

Normally I would not be interested in visiting a museum of coaches either, but watching an episode of The Amazing Race last year, curled up on the couch during the freezing Melbourne winter, they just happened to be racing in Lisbon.  Lisbon wasn’t even on our radar at that point, but after that I kept seeing it mysteriously appear in Facebook posts, Pinterest Posts, magazine articles and I knew – we had to add it in.

The Museum of Coaches as seen on the Amazing Race (though they didn’t even show much of it) had me hooked.  Elaborate pumpkin style coaches (why am I thinking of Kath and Kim here now…), all gold gilded, standing in silence, in homage to eras long past….

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Another monument that I glimpsed on the episode of the Amazing Race which initially inspired my trip, was the Discoveries Monument (Padrao dos Descobrimentos), although I didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time and initially had a little trouble trying to locate it.

It’s a statue, shaped like the prow of a sailing vessel and lined at its base with Portugal’s most famous explorers, of which there are a number!  It was built to honour Henry the Navigator, who led Portugal’s discovery expeditions into the New World during the 15th century.  Inside the prow is actually a maritime museum, which is interesting, but perhaps the best part of this is the elevator to the top which plies you with birds eye views of Belem.  Stunning.

It was from here in Belem that Vasco de Gama left to explore India in 1497 and also here where Christopher Columbus anchored on his way back to Spain after discovering the Americas.

Speaking of Christopher Columbus, history has it that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus introduced syphilis to Europe.  Apparently.  Well, I’ve just finished reading “They Got it Wrong:  History”, a book which begs to differ.  Studies apparently show that syphilis may well have existed in Europe long before Columbus even set foot in the New World.

It is true that the earliest known break of out Syphilis in Europe occurred soon after Columbus’ return in 1493.  The disease ravaged Europe with an estimated 5,000,000 deaths – in an age without antibiotics, the disease caused serious damage to its victims skin, joints, stomach, heart and brain with death resulting within a few months.  In east London, an excavation of medieval hospitals unearthed skeletons dating from 1,200 to 1,400 which showed clear signs of syphilitic disease.  There are also recent discoveries in the ruins of Pompeii which indicate presence of the disease, with the remains of twin children who died in the eruption of 79CE showing almost certain signs of congenital syphilis.

So there you go Chris, off the hook.

Anyway, I digress.

Just further up the coast is the Torre de Belem – a fortified tower built as part of the Tagus River defence system.  At the bottom is a small prison, where there is barely enough room to stand up straight. I can only imagine how freezing cold anyone unlucky enough to be chained up in here would have been.  Regardless it’s a stunning relic of Lisbon’s past and many flock to see it.

One of Portugal’s most famous street artists is Bordala II.  He is known for using rubbish to create 3D art – think animals glued to walls and painted trash.  Just behind the Belem Cultural Centre, you can find one of his biggest pieces – a giant racoon made from car tires, computers, printers and other machines.  Unfortunately I didn’t notice the work until I was already down the street and had just happened to look back in that direction, but I still managed to capture a snap.

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Monasteiro dos Jeronimos took 100 years to build, commencing in 1501 for the order of the Heironymites.  It survived the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon without much damage at all.  It is incredibly intricate in design and it is best to go late in the afternoon when the sun bounces off the sandstone giving it a honey coloured glow.

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 I am no novice to the world of custard tarts.  I’ve been to Macau where the Portuguese spent enough time to leave behind the recipe and then transferred it to Hong Kong (where I’ve also tasted the tarts) – in my opinion, the Macau ones are so much better than the Hong Kong ones, though the quality of those in Hong Kong does vary.  But the question is – will they taste as good as all the ones I’ve tasted before (not to mention the ones at our local IGA (independent grocer) store?  Sacrilege, you might say.  Well, let’s see.

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When you arrive at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem the first thing you notice is the queue outside.  They have been making pasteis de nata since 1837 so you could say they have the recipe down pat.  You need to go into one line to make your order, where you’ll get a receipt and ticket for your order.  Then you need to line up in the collection queue to collect your order.  Service is certainly not with a smile – they are far too busy for that – rather it’s a production line feel to your transaction, but the end product is great.  These tarts have a different appearance – more eggy and the pastry is really, really crunchy and flaky.  Some would say the best in Lisbon, I beg to differ finding the ones from this morning to be more to my liking.

For the final leg of our journey home we jump aboard the historic No. 28 tram, crammed full of tourists (pretty much only tourists these days).  The tram’s yellow body squeezes itself through the narrow streets of Alfama, narrowly missing cars and other assorted things (sometimes including humans) which come in its way, squealing and braking down the hills.

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i must mention all our transport in Lisbon has been free and we scored some pretty good discounts, if not free entry to everything we saw in Belem today, courtesy of the Lisboa Card.  I normally don’t go for these sort of city discount cards because I think you never get the value out of them, but this is one occasion where I’d say it’s a great idea to get one.  We’ll even be using it tomorrow for our day trip to Sintra.  So go ahead and check it out.

Liking Lisbon

It’s a good day to leave Barcelona.  The city is covered in misty, drizzly rain as we lug our suitcases to Plaza Catalunya to catch the Aerobus back to El Prat for our flight to Lisbon.  Our flight is delayed by over an hour due to strikes in France, which have thrown everything out of whack, but our friendly driver is waiting for us at the other end and assures us it is no problem.  He tells us about the city as we drive to our hotel, and we chat about all sorts of things, including a great restaurant that he recommends for seafood.  We like Lisbon already.

Before I start, I should give a shout out to LisbonLux which is an absolutely brilliant website instrumental in continually inspiring me to travel to Lisbon – thanks for the hotel recommendation and all the other articles you posted with gorgeous attention grabbing photos that had me adding more and more and more to our itinerary!  GoLisbon is also awesome.

It’s thanks to an article in LisbonLux, that we found our newly opened accommodation in the Alfama area of Lisbon.  Hotel Convento Do Salvador is a converted Convent as the name cleverly suggests.  Alfama is one of the oldest districts in Lisbon (and in fact it is pretty much the only suburb that survived the great earthquake of 1755 due to its solid foundations), and our hotel is nestled amongst the cobblestones and windy streets of this homely little district.

Inside, massive works of art by renowned contemporary Portuguese artists hang from stark white walls.  And there’s a large tiled mural in the looming over the reception desk in the reception area – as you move away from the beautifully decorated tiles, you see the face of a woman appear.  The staff are friendly and welcoming, with plenty of advice for your stay.

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After a few glasses of sparkling under the sun hanging over the courtyard, we are ready to explore Alfama for somewhere to eat dinner.  Up the cobblestone streets and around the corner, not far away at all is Porto do Sol, a restaurant/bar set in a square overlooking Lisbon out to the sea.  It’s a simple menu, so we just go with pasta, but it hits the spot along with our cocktails and the view.

A few steps away is a small kiosk selling drinks – one of which is ginja – the local sour cherry liqueur – which of course, we have to try.  It’s really nice, almost like a port but with an obvious cherry flavour and I can see myself downing a few more of these over the next few days, possibly even in the next few hours as our hotel bar sells it too!

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Of course not all ginja’s are created equal and although the one from the small kiosk was really nice, the hotel bar’s ginja kicked it’s ass all over Lisbon with its smoother, richer flavour.