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Clare

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  1. Day 11: Toledo

    Our plan for today had always been to visit Toledo, but perhaps because it was at the end of the holiday, I hadn't put quite as much time into planning the logistics of it as I had some of our earlier days. This manifested itself first of all this morning over breakfast, when we realised that we didn't actually know which of the Madrid stations the trains to Toledo leave from. Oops! Tim consulted the Renfe website and eventually we established that they leave from the station Puerta de Atocha, not to be confused with the nearby metro station of Atocha. It was eight stops to get to Puerta de Atocha on the metro, which didn't sound too bad, but we keep underestimating the sheer size of Madrid. It turned out that, including the walk from our apartment to the relevant metro station, it would take the best part of an hour to get there. The first train to Toledo we were therefore going to be on time to get was the 11.20. We figured that would be okay and set off. There was another slight blip in our plans when, having bought the metro tickets, I accidentally inserted mine in a turnstile machine which was out of order. The turnstile gave me the ticket back, but when I tried to put it through a properly functional turnstile, the machine beeped and wouldn't let me through because it thought the ticket had already been used once. I was temporarily stranded! Tim suggested that, seeing as I did technically have a valid ticket, I should climb over the turnstile barrier. There was no way I was going to be able to do that. In the end I managed to crawl under it The metro journey was long and we arrived at Puerta de Atocha with about 10 minutes to spare to buy a ticket. We thought this ought to be fine, but we were wrong! First of all, our lack of experience with Spanish train stations meant that we initially started trying to use the wrong sort of ticket machines. It turns out that there are two types of Renfe ticket machines; one for local trains and one for long distance trains. When we eventually found the correct machine to buy tickets for long distance trains, there was still technically enough time to buy a ticket and get to the train... but the ticket machine told us that the 11.20 train was full A train being full is not a concept we have in England, where there is no relationship between the number of tickets they sell and the number of seats on the train. But the Spanish trains seem to operate like the fast trains in Italy, where you can only board the train if you have a ticket with an allocated seat, and so trains really can become "full". We were rather disappointed, but we really did want to go to Toledo, so we decided to buy tickets for the 12.20 train instead. Luckily that still had some spaces left! This unexpected delay meant that we had just over an hour to kill in a Madrid station. That didn't seem the most appealing prospect, although the station building itself is quite impressive. We decided to go outside for a stroll. Upon exiting the station, the first thing we saw was the incredibly grand building of the Ministry of Agriculture. Consulting the map, we realised that the station wasn't far away from one of Madrid's large parks: Buen Retiro. We remembered it from our previous visit to Madrid and so decided to go for a stroll. It's a really beautiful park. I particularly enjoyed walking around the rose garden. We also found a pleasant lake... ...with an artificial waterfall. It's a big park, so we only succeeded in seeing part of it before we realised that we needed to head back to the station if we were going to successfully catch our 12.20 train. We thought we knew which way we needed to go, but we took a wrong turned and ended up having to retrace our steps, which cost us several minutes. We arrived back at the station with 10 minutes before our train departed. That sounded like it ought to be fine... We'd reckoned without the complexity of Spanish train stations, however! We knew our train was departing from platform 14 and we saw a sign pointing to platforms 13 - 15 almost straight away. But then it turned out that there are difference entrances/exits to platforms depending on whether you are departing or arriving, and we were walking in the direction of arrivals. Then we realised that it order to get to the departure platforms, we needed to go up several flights of escalators. We managed that and got to the entrance of the platforms with a few minutes to spare... only to belatedly remember that to get on a train, you have to pass through security! Luckily there wasn't too much of a queue and it was just a case of showing our tickets to a ticket inspector and then passing Tim's bag through a scanner. With two minutes left until our train departed, we had a mad dash along the concourse towards platform 14. I didn't think we were going to make it but thankfully we did, managing to jump onto the train about 30 seconds before the doors closed and continue walking down the carriages as the train pulled off until we found the one we were supposed to be sitting in. Phew! The journey from Madrid to Toledo is pretty short, taking around 35 minutes, so we arrived just before 1pm. When we stepped off the train in Toledo, the first thing we wanted to take photos of was the train station itself! It's a really amazing building, with stained glass windows that wouldn't look out of place in a church. It also has a really ornate roof. There were various tour guides standing outside the station, trying to sell tickets for various tourist buses around the town. One of them threatened that it would take 35 minutes to walk from the station to the old town. We decided to risk it, confident that after the steep streets in Portugal, we ought to be able to handle any hills Toledo had to throw at us As we walked along the road away from the station we got our first glimpse of the town. Wow. Toledo is situated on the Tagus river, which is the one that we'd seen entering the sea at Lisbon earlier in the week. The train station is on the opposite side of the river to the main town, so first of all we needed to cross the river via the Puente de Alcántara. This beautiful bridge was originally built by the Romans and now has two fortified gates, one at each end. As we crossed the bridge we had a wonderful view up towards the town and the Alcázar. Once we were on the far side of the river, we began our ascent up to the town. There was a staircase we could have taken but it looked really steep, so took a gentler route following the curve of a road. There were some great views as we climbed. In particular, I loved this church with the patterned roof tiles. Eventually we made it up to the town centre. We calculated it took as about 20 minutes, so not as long as the tour guides had been telling people down at the station. As it had taken us so long to get to Toledo it was pretty much lunch time, so our first priority was to find somewhere to eat. As we walked through the narrow little streets of the old town looking for restaurants, we got a tantalising glimpse of the cathedral. Some of the restaurants in Toledo looked quite expensive, but we found a cheap little pizzeria that was completely empty when we arrived at 13.30. In England that might mean that there was something wrong with the food there, but in Spain it just meant that we were too early for the lunchtime rush; it was full by the time we left an hour later! The pizza was delicious but Tim wasn't very happy when the one he ordered unexpectedly came covered in some sort tomato and gherkins salsa. After lunch we set out to explore more of Toledo and soon tracked down the cathedral. The cathedral is absolutely enormous, and very beautiful. Because of our late arrival, we didn't have as long as we'd hoped to spend in Toledo, so we didn't sight-see in a very structured manner, instead just wandering through the streets and admiring the different buildings. There was a lot of very interesting architecture. The most striking building in Toledo is the Alcázar, a large fortification which was originally a Roman palace and then restored by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the sixteenth century. It was also the site of a famous siege during the Spanish Civil War, during which the building was badly damaged. Today it has been restored and houses a military museum. From a viewpoint on the edge of the town, we could see across the river towards the castle of San Servando. This was initially a monastery, which was converted into a fortress by the Knights Templar to protect the bridge into Toledo against a potential Muslim attack. Near to the castle, on the same side of the river, is the Toledo Infantry Academy, a centre where officers in the present day Spanish army receive training. Too soon it was time for us to climb back down towards the bridge. We went out through the Alcantara gate... ...and across the bridge once again. Luckily our journey back to Madrid all worked smoothly and we were ready on time to meet up with our friends in a suburb of Madrid at 19.30. We visited their home first of all and then went out for dinner at a local restaurant. We had some beautiful chorizo to start with, followed by steak and some amazing lemon pancakes. It was a lovely evening and a lovely end to our stay in Madrid. Tomorrow afternoon we will be flying back to Birmingham, with the Spanish airline Iberia. We've had a great holiday, discovering Portugal for the first time and revisiting Spain. I've loved everywhere we've been, but I think the absolute highlights were exploring the Buçaco forest and seeing the wonderful palace at Sintra. I think we will definitely be back to this part of the world one day (and hopefully next time plan our visit to Toledo a bit better!)
  2. Day 10: Madrid

    As we arrived in Madrid pretty late last night, we didn't have any time to see anything. Once we'd had breakfast this morning, we therefore wanted to head into the centre of town and see some of the parts of the city which we remembered particularly enjoying when we first came to Madrid in 2014. The apartment we're staying in is quite close to several metro stations, so we were able to jump on a metro to the central station of Puerta del Sol fairly quickly. It seems like a ride on the metro to anywhere except the airport is €1.50 which is extremely good value. There's a large square at Puerta del Sol, with various roads leading off from it like spokes. We decided to follow one of the main roads which would take us in the direction of the royal palace. As we walked along that road, the first impressive building that we came to was the Casa de la Villa, which used to be Madrid's town hall. It's an impressive building with towers which wouldn't look out of place in a Nordic country. From there it wasn't far to walk to the Almudena Cathedral, which is located next to the royal palace. It's an absolutely enormous cathedral. On one side there's a statue of Pope John Paul II who consecrated the cathedral in 1993. Around the corner from the cathedral is the Palacio Real de Madrid, the official residence of the Spanish royal family. The palace is huge too. You can pay to go inside, but we contented ourselves with a photo through the bars of the fence Once we'd spent some time admiring the palace and the cathedral, we wanted to seek out a church which we particularly remembered from last time we were here. We caught sight of it in the distance and tried to walk in the correct general direction. Our route led us through the Sabatini gardens, which are in front of the royal palace. They're lovely peaceful gardens, with some impressive hedges... ...and some great views back towards the royal palace. We were getting closer to the colourful church now. The irony of this church is that when you're close beside it, you can't actually see the beautiful dome. So we ended up accidentally walking past it, and found ourselves in a neighbouring park, which is home to the the Temple of Debod. This is an ancient Egyptian temple, which was donated to Spain by the Egyptian government in recognition of their assistance with preserving historical monuments during the building of the Aswan Dam. When we realised our mistake, we turned around and walked towards the views of the church again. Eventually we tracked it down The church is called Santa Teresa y San José and the roof is made from coloured mosaic tiles. It's really unique. From there we walked back towards the palace, through another of the pretty parks which is situated alongside it. We needed to walk across to the opposite side of Madrid, to where the Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain) is located. Our friend Jorge works there and had offered to give us a private guided tour, which was too good an opportunity to miss. The exterior of the library is very grand. There's very tight security and in order to be allowed in, we first of all had to pass our belongings through an airport-style scanner, and then show our passports at a security desk to be given special visitor badges, including our photos. We weren't able to take photos inside the library, but it was really fascinating. There was a really grand staircase and a beautiful reading room. We were also able to see behind the scenes, from where the books are first received into the library, to where they are processed, catalogued and finally stored. It was amazing to see the rows and rows of shelving, and in particular the rows of antique books, with shelves full of books dating back as far as the seventeenth century. After the tour we went to have lunch with Jorge at a place called Café Gijón. That was quite an exciting experience too, as it was a posher place than we might have dared go into on our own. There was a fixed price lunchtime menu for €12.50, with various options to choose from. We both had a clear soup to start, then I had a steak and Tim tried some Galician ham, which was in a sort of paprika sauce. Drinks and pudding were also included in the price. I expected to get a glass of wine, and ended up with half a litre! Overall it reminded me a bit of a coffeehouse in Vienna; both in terms of the atmosphere and the slight unfriendliness of the waiters After lunch, we walked back into the centre of town, wanting to find some bookshops where Tim could stock up on Spanish novels. We walked past the Palacio de Cibeles, an incredibly ornate building which is the home of the city council. We continued along a street called Gran Via, where there were some really beautiful buildings. We must have been enjoying looking at them too much, because we ended up walking further than we intended, ending up at a gate called Puerto de Toledo. We didn't intend to see it, but it seems quite fitting, because tomorrow we're going on an excursion to Toledo To get back on track, we tried to walk through the Campo del Moro park. This is another beautiful park by the royal palace and it looked like it was criss-crossed by a useful network of paths. We tried to follow them in a direction which we thought would lead us out close to where we wanted to be, but unfortunately several of them were closed for maintenance, so we ended up going round in a big circle and having to retrace our steps. En route though we passed this lawn which was covered in what looked like some sort of parakeets! Eventually we made it back to the centre of town and were able to visit the bookshop, before going back to the apartment for a short break. In the evening we went out once again, this time to a Lebanese restaurant with a group of local Esperanto speakers. The food was excellent and we got to try some different desserts and tea which we would never normally have ordered We've had a great day in Madrid and tomorrow, as mentioned, we're going to travel slightly south to Toledo, a town which looks really beautiful in pictures. Although it may be on a hill
  3. Our flight to Madrid wasn't until 17.15 this afternoon, so we had some free time to spend in Lisbon this morning. We decided to use the time to visit an attraction we hadn't seen yet: Parque Eduardo VII. The park is not far from the centre of Lisbon, and the guidebook said that it had some great views out over the city. We took a metro from the Baixa Chiado station near our apartment to the aptly named station Parque. This turned out to be the most unusual metro station we'd visited in Lisbon, with all sorts of pictures and engravings on the walls. This one seemed to be something to do with exploration of South America. When we came out of the station it wasn't immediately obvious where the park was. The first indication we got was when we caught sigh of this pavillion. From there we climbed up some steps and we were in the park. We'd come for the views, but the first thing which caught our attention was this very odd fountain! Once we turned away from that though, we found the views we'd been expecting We could see all the way down the park towards Lisbon and the river estuary. As you would expect of a park in Lisbon, this one is on quite a steep slope. Fortunately, for once we were actually walking downhill, back towards the town. When you get to the end of the park, there is a huge statue of the Marquis of Pombal. The Marquis of Pombal was the Portuguese prime minister during the eighteenth century and is remembered today for his strong leadership after the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. From his statue, we began to walk down Avenida da Liberdade, which is a long boulevard, lined with greenery and statues. We found the monument to the Portuguese fallen in WW1... ...and elaborate water features like this one. Soon we were back in the centre of town. There was just time for one last lunch in Portugal before it was time to start our journey towards the airport. There is a metro line which runs straight to the airport, so the journey was quite easy (although a bit crowded) and excellent value at only €1.65 each for a ticket. We arrived at the airport just after 3pm and everything seemed very straightforward with dropping our bags and security. Unfortunately, once we got through security we realised that our flight was delayed for about 20 minutes. It ended up being delayed by at least half an hour and there wasn't really any explanation, which was a bit frustrating. Boarding the plane seemed to take forever, but eventually we were on our way and we had some really clear views of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside as we flew towards Madrid. Both landscapes looked very mountainous, and some of the Spanish countryside in particular looked very arid. We landed in a sunny Madrid at around 8pm (having lost an hour due to the time difference between Portugal and Spain). It's tempting to complain about the delay, but on the other hand we did only pay €20 each for our flight with TAP, plus another €20 each for the luggage, so it's probably the cheapest flight we've taken in a long time. And we got a free biscuit One thing that was really nice about flying between two Schengen countries was that we didn't have to go through passport control on either side. So there were no long queues once we arrived in Madrid, just a bit of a wait for our luggage to come off the carousel. Madrid's airport is also linked to the city centre via a metro, although the tickets for this one are a bit more expensive (€4.50 each). As luck would have it, the apartment I had booked was not far from where the metro line from the airport terminates, so we were able to get straight onto one train, sit on it for 20 minutes and then arrive in the vicinity of where we were staying. It took a bit of time to find the apartment once we got off the metro... and then when we found the correct building, we had to ring the owners because there was no indication as to which of the multiple flats in the building it might be... but eventually we found it and it seems fine. Tomorrow we're looking forward to seeing some of Madrid, a city which we really loved when we first visited here in 2014, and catching up with some friends
  4. Day 8: Sintra

    Our plan for today was to take a day trip to a town called Sintra. Sintra is situated about 30km outside the centre of Lisbon, in a hilly forested area which is supposed to have a cooler and more pleasant climate than Lisbon itself. It is famous both for its pretty old town and for the unique palaces and castles which are dotted around the surrounding area. It's very easy to get to Sintra via a local train from Lisbon's Rossio station. It only cost us €4.50 each for a return, which seems like a bargain when you're used to buying train tickets in the UK, and the journey took around 40 minutes. The train station is slightly outside the centre of the town and so when we got off the train, we first had to try and navigate our way to the historical centre. The first indication we had that we might be on the right lines was this. This rather spectacular building is Sintra's town hall. Wow! From the town hall, the road led upwards towards the rest of the town centre. As we walked we got a glimpse of this rather unusual building on the horizon... ..as well as this enormous castle which was towering high above the town. Soon we had come quite a distance from the town hall... ...and we were in the centre. At this point we realised that Sintra is an incredibly touristy place. There were herds of tourists travelling around in open top buses, tourist trains and electric buggies (which seem very popular in Portugal, so that tourists can avoid the inconvenience of walking uphill). This meant that the prices of all the restaurants were quite expensive too, at least compared to the amazingly cheap prices we'd experienced earlier in the holiday in Luso. We found somewhere to have lunch in the end though, where we had a nice view of a clock tower in one direction.., ...and what turned out to be the Palace of Sintra in the other. The Palace of Sintra is a very unusual looking building, but apparently is the best preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal. The main reason I'd wanted to come to Sintra was to see a far more exciting palace, however; the Palácio da Pena. Once we'd finished lunch, we began to follow signs towards it, firstly passing the clock tower I'd been admiring while I ate my pizza... ...and then beginning to follow an uphill road. After we'd been walking for a while, we saw a pretty sign for a park and thought it might be nice to explore. No sooner had we stepped inside the gate, however, then we were ambushed by a tourist information man who started explaining to Tim (in Spanish) that this was only a good park to come to if you wanted to have a picnic, and that instead we should be following a path up the hillside behind us. Unbeknown to us, he had directed us onto the Villa Sassetti hiking trail, which leads from the centre of Sintra to the Palácio da Pena. I think the guidebook had assumed that anyone who wanted to visit this palace was going to take some sort of tourist bus, so we had no indication of how much uphill was going to be involved. We soon had some good views out across the surrounding countryside though. Partway up we passed the Villa Sassetti, after which the trail is named. We passed through some formal gardens... ...and then the path became increasingly rocky. Or, at least, surrounded by increasingly large boulders! As we turned around to catch our breath, we realised that behind us we had a brilliant view of the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors), which I had dismissed as being too high up to climb to. It didn't look it was that much higher than us now, compared to how it had been back down in Sintra. A few minutes later, we finally, we got our first glimpse of what we were actually walking towards. The palace itself still looked quite a long way away, but we were now within striking distance of the palace gardens. A ticket to go into the palace buildings itself is quite expensive, but for €7.50 each we got a ticket to enter the grounds. And the grounds themselves are quite impressive, although the Portuguese theme of rather murky lakes continued! There was still some uphill ahead of us. By this point I was starting to feel a bit jealous of the people who were whizzing past us in electric buggies We were getting closer though And finally, we were there! The reason I wanted to come and see the palace was that it looked so extraordinary in all the pictures I had seen. It didn't disappoint when I saw it in real life There was originally a monastery on this hilltop site, from some time in fifteenth century, until it was eventually destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The Portuguese king Ferdinand II acquired the ruins of the monastery in 1838 and decided to transform them into a palace which would serve as a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. He certainly succeeded in building something which stood out! Without tickets to go inside the palace itself, we were able to get as far as the main gates and enjoy some close up views. We may have taken just a few photos It was late afternoon by this point and we knew we still had a long climb down ahead of us, so eventually we had to turn around and go back through the gate to begin our descent. We walked back down the road rather than take the hiking trail again, which was probably a bit more direct. As we got closer to Sintra, I turned around and saw something that looked familiar on the top of a hill in the distance. Could it be...? Yes, it looked like the 'red' side of the palace where we'd just been It also looked a very long way up, so I began to feel a bit more justified in having tired legs! By the time we got back to the station in Sintra, I was definitely looking forward to a 40 minute sit-down on the train. It was a really exciting day and overall we've had a brilliant time in Portugal. It may have been our first visit here, but I feel like it probably won't be our last. Tomorrow we are changing countries though, with an afternoon flight to Madrid. I like Madrid, but I feel like it's going to struggle to beat this
  5. Day 7: Lisbon

    Today we had a whole day to spend in Lisbon. We started out by retracing our steps from yesterday evening around some of the streets in the upper town. We also succeeded in finding some squares which we hadn't seen yesterday, such as this one which is home to Lisbon's town hall (I think the photo has come out a bit blurry because it was so incredibly sunny!) From the upper town we walked back down towards the waterfront and along to the Praça do Comércio. We walked through the archway and then began exploring the streets of the lower town. There were some really beautiful buildings; some with tiles... ..and some without. From here we climbed upwards a bit towards Lisbon's cathedral. Another cathedral that looks like a castle! We were hoping to climb up to the actual castle which we can see from our apartment window. As we made our way through the streets, I was excited to see some of the old-fashioned yellow trams which still run on the steepest routes in Lisbon. They all looked extremely crowded, though! As we passed through this square, we looked up and realised we could see the ruins of the Carmo Convent, which is just round the corner from our apartment. The convent was destroyed during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and has never been fully rebuilt. We passed the beautiful Rossio railway station again... ...and round the corner from it found this rather unusual theatre, which seems to have a botanical garden as part of its facade! From here our route was more steeply uphill. This part of Lisbon is called the Alfama, and it's the oldest area of the city. There were lots of beautiful buildings, many with very elaborate tiles. We climbed as far as the castle walls and were hoping to go inside. Unfortunately, the queue for tickets was horrendous and looked like it might involve an hour or so of waiting. Much as we like castles, it didn't seem worth it for that, so we decided to just enjoy exploring the neighbourhood instead. Yesterday I felt like the tiled buildings in Porto were more impressive than the ones in Lisbon, but every street in the Alfama seemed to have a new surprise Some of the tiles were historical... ...while some were religious... ...and some were just wonderful patterns. After walking through the narrow streets for a while we emerged at an unexpected viewpoint over the city. From here we were able to see the monastery of São Vicente de Fora and the Church of Santa Engrácia. We were also able to see an enormous cruise ship, which I suspect might be the reason why the queues for the castle were out of control! We had been going to get lunch at this point, but now that we'd seen this part of the city from afar, we wanted to explore in more detail. First of all we found the enormous monastery, which was originally founded in 1147, although this church dates from the eighteenth century. We walked through an archway beside the monastery and into a busy square where a market was in full swing. The Church of Santa Engrácia was just around the corner from there. This church is well known in Portugal because construction started in 1681, but the building was not fully completed until 1966. It was definitely time for lunch by this point so we set off into the lower town again. We decided to play it safe today and opt for Italian food We did a bit of book-shopping after lunch and then went back to the apartment to cool down and get out of the sun for a bit. Later in the afternoon we ventured out again, intent on visiting the Lisbon suburb of Belém. Belém is quite a way outside of the main centre of town, so we needed to take a train there. We thought we had this all figured out, but when we got to the station things went a bit wrong. We bought tickets and sat on a train which looked to be going in the right direction and which was due to depart in a few minutes. We sat and sat and sat and it didn't go anywhere. There was no audible announcement (in our carriage at least) but everyone else on the train obviously knew something we didn't, because they suddenly all got up and deserted it en masse. We then had to try and find another train bound for Belém, which was difficult when the only departure boards indicating the destination of the trains was in the main hall of the station, which we couldn't access without invalidating our tickets... It took a while, but eventually we found another train and were on our way to Belém. The reason we wanted to visit Belém is that for a small suburb it has lots of interesting monuments. Just outside the station in Belém is this park, featuring a statue to Afonso de Albuquerque, who once ruled Portuguese India. The pink building which you can see in the background is Belém palace, which is home to the president of Portugal. Round the corner from the palace is a beautiful botanical garden which has an enormous avenue of palm trees... ...and some rather unusual ducks. We walked around the botanical gardens for a while and then went to admire the Jerónimos Monastery. It's hard to convey how huge this monastery is because it's barely possible to fit it all in one photo! Monasteries were abolished in Portugal in the nineteenth century and so the building is now used for other things. For example, the EU Treaty of Lisbon was signed in the monastery in 2007. From here we walked right to the far side of Belém because I wanted to see one of the area's most iconic buildings: the Belém Tower. The tower was built in the early sixteenth century as part of a defence system on the river. When it was originally built it was situated on a small island in the river. After the 1755 earthquake, however, the course of the river Tagus changed and the tower is now right by the shore. It's a very elaborate building and we enjoyed looking at it Now that we'd seen the tower, there was only one more big Belém sight to tick off our list: The Monument to the Discoveries. This enormous concrete block was erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary since the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who played an important role in early Portuguese exploration. It's quite a striking monument, with both sides showing a different procession of figures, all connected with Portugal's history of navigation and exploration. It was nearly 7pm by the time we'd finished seeing everything, so time to head back to the apartment. As we turned around from the monument, we realised we had a fantastic view back towards the monastery. We've had a great time in Lisbon today; it's a really beautiful city, and there's so much to see that we've walked nearly 12 miles (and climbed 106 staircases!!!).
  6. Today it was time to leave Coimbra behind and travel to the (hopefully quieter!) Lisbon. I had booked the train tickets in advance and had specifically tried to choose seats which were next to one another on the online train diagram, so I was disappointed when I took them out of my bag this morning and found that I had seat 18, while Tim was in seat 12. I had no idea what I could have done wrong! We checked out of our apartment in Coimbra and walked towards the train station of Coimbra A, where we had to wait for a train to take us to Coimbra B. In the amount of time we spent waiting we could probably have actually walked from one station to the other; the train journey only takes two or three minutes once you're on the train, so I don't think the stations can actually be very far apart. At Coimbra B we then had to wait for the intercity train to Lisbon. It was a bit chaotic when the train arrived, with lots of people trying to get up and down a pretty narrow platform, but we found the carriage we were looking for and stowed our luggage. Then we started looking for our seats. Imagine my surprise when I found that seat 12 and seat 18 were next to each other after all!! Portuguese trains seem to have a rather bizarre numbering system! But we were glad to be unexpectedly sitting together We were on the train for around two hours before we arrived at Lisbon Santa Apolónia. Unlikely all the other train stations we've visited during this holiday, Santa Apolónia has the advantage of actually being located fairly centrally in Lisbon, so we didn't have to search for another train connection on from there. We were supposed to be checking into the apartment at 15.00, so we just about had enough time to get lunch somewhere. We found a place somewhere a few streets away from the station, but it turned out not to be a very inspiring meal. Our table was partly in the sun and under a terrace with a vine, which looked very pretty but meant there were an awful lot of flies. The food itself was okay, but not as good as what we've had elsewhere in Portugal so far. Hopefully we were just unlucky with our choice and the rest of Lisbon will be better! I didn't think it would take us long to get to the apartment, but it turned out to be a bit complicated. First of all we had to negotiate the Lisbon metro system and try to buy tickets which would take us a few stops uphill into the old town. When we arrived at the correct station, there was a seemingly neverending series of escalators to take us from the platform to street level. And then we had to negotiate a rabbit warren of hilly little streets. We made it in the end, about 30 minutes late, and then had to face the next challenge; climbing to the fifth floor with all our luggage. I had realised belatedly when it was too late to cancel the apartment that it was located on the fifth floor of a building with no lift. Quite a few of the reviews which had appeared online since I booked it were complaining about the stairs, in particular saying that they were very steep and narrow. They were indeed very steep and getting the suitcases to the top was a bit of a struggle. Eventually we made it and although I had long since lost count of the number of floors we'd climbed, we got to a point were there were no more stairs. Unfortunately, there was also no sign of any description indicating where the apartment might be. Tim had to call the number on the reservation and - fortunately - it did turn out that we were in the right place. A lady came and unlocked a series of doors, leading us up yet another staircase(!) and into the apartment. Once we'd got our breath back and were able to look out of the windows, it felt like the climb had been worth it though. As well as views out over the estuary, we could see over the roofs of Lisbon towards a castle. After a bit of a rest, we set out to explore Lisbon. Our apartment is located in the Bairro Alto, the upper part of Lisbon which is situated on a hill above the riverfront. A few streets away from the apartment we found ourselves in the square Praça Luís de Camões, which has in its centre a large statue of one of Portugal's poets. As we walked down the neighbouring streets we found a succession of pretty churches... ...and also one of Lisbon's theatres. Our route was taking us downhill into the lower town and towards the sea. Lisbon is situated at the point where the river Tagus enters the sea and despite the fact that it seemed like a calm and sunny day, there were some pretty strong waves here. We strolled along the waterfront for a while, as far as the Praça do Comércio. The statue in the middle of the square is of King José I on a horse, who for reasons which are unclear (to me) appears to be surrounded by snakes. At the far end of the square is the Rua Augusta Arch, which was built to commemorate Lisbon's reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in 1755. From there we walked through some of the busy shopping streets in the lower town and found another pretty square. From here we had a view up towards the castle which we'd seen from our apartment window. Night was starting to fall by this point so we decided we'd better start heading back towards the upper town. We were astonished to find that this beautiful building which we passed on our way is a train station. A series of staircases and winding streets led us back to the upper town. In comparison to some of the streets we've experienced in Porto and Coimbra, Lisbon doesn't actually feel that hilly, but possibly we're just getting used to continually walking up slopes! Our first impressions are that Lisbon is a really beautiful city and we're looking forward to exploring it more tomorrow
  7. We had an unexpectedly free day in our schedule today, because we'd managed to see Coimbra more quickly than I'd expected. Originally the plan was to spend Saturday sight-seeing in Coimbra and visit the Roman ruins at Conímbriga on Sunday, but travelling between Porto and Coimbra didn't take as long as I expected and so we managed to see most of the main sights of Coimbra on Friday afternoon and bring everything forward by a day. Tim spent some time reading the Portugal guidebook last night and came up with the idea of visiting a place called Buçaco, where there is a famous forest. It seemed like it would be possible to get the forest via a nearby station called Luso-Buçaco, so we decided to give it a go. There are only three trains a day from Coimbra to Luso-Buçaco and the first one isn't until 12.21, so we had a rather relaxed start to the day in Coimbra. When it was finally time to catch the train we found it was very good value at €2.60 each for a journey of around 30 minutes. The station of Luso-Buçaco is - confusingly - neither in Luso or Buçaco, but somewhere in the middle of the surrounding countryside. We had some great views as soon as we stepped off the train. The guidebook said that the town of Luso was a 15 minute walk away from the station, so we set out to find it. I expected Luso to be quite a small place, but when we eventually arrived it was larger than I expected and there were some rather grand buildings. It turns out that it's a popular spa town and that there is some famous mineral water that comes from here. As we were walking through the town we saw several signs pointing to a lake, so we followed them. We soon found the lake, which seemed rather murky. I hope this isn't where they get the mineral water from! We did a loop around the lake but still felt a bit underwhelmed by it! It was after 1pm by this point so we decided to make the most of being in Luso by having lunch there. We had passed a restaurant on our way to the lake, so retraced our steps to there. It turned out to be a great find; the food was beautiful and the prices were amazing. €1.20 for a glass of wine and €0.70 for a coffee. Portugal definitely wins the prize for the cheapest country we've visited in western Europe, and prices like this are probably cheaper than some places in central Europe as well! After lunch, we set off in search of the Buçaco forest. The guidebook had said that it would be a 2km walk steeply uphill from the centre of Luso. After some of the streets we've experienced in Porto and Coimbra, I was dreading finding out what qualified as "steeply" uphill, but actually it turned out not to be too bad We started climbing up above the town and soon had a view of a little square with water fountains. People were parking nearby and emerging from their cars with armfuls of plastic bottles to fill up, so I'm guessing this is where you can get the mineral water from. From there the road did lead uphill, but we were distracted from the gradient by the rather unusual roadside decorations. For reasons which were unclear, the edges of the road were strewn with a combination of greenery and paper flowers. Soon we were high enough to have a view of the whole of Luso... ...and then of the surrounding countryside. Much quicker than I'd expected, we arrived at a sign which suggested we were almost at the Buçaco forest. The entrance - just around the corner - was very grand. We passed through the gate and followed a path towards the forest. The side of the path was lined with cactuses. We entered the forest and passed by another rather murky lake. Lakes don't seem to be Portugal's strongest point Soon we were deep in the forest. The Buçaco forest has an unusual history because the area was first settled by monks, who built a monastery here and surrounded the forest with high perimeter walls. They took looking after the trees very seriously, threatening in the seventeenth century to excommunicate anyone who was caught harming a tree. There are hundreds of different species of tree in the forest, many of which were introduced by Portuguese explorers returning from foreign countries. We found some enormous bamboo... ... and also some huge ferns, which lined one of the paths we started climbing up. I don't know what type of tree this was, but it was so big that we could only fit a fraction of it in the photo. We emerged at the third murky lake of the day... ... and found another surprising feature. This the Fonte Fria, a cascading water stairway in the middle of the forest. The stairs looked like hard work, so we continued upwards on a forest path. We eventually arrived at this very unusual building: the Buçaco palace. The monasteries in Portugal were dissolved in 1834 and the forest then passed into the hands of the government. Some time after then this palace was built. Initially designed as a royal residence, today it is a luxury hotel. It's rather a bizarre building, but there are some pretty gardens outside it. From the hotel we walked into the forest once again. There was a bad storm in Portugal in 2013 which destroyed a lot of trees in the forest. This particular tree, which came down in that storm, has now been turned into a bridge. The path we were following began to lead downhill, and we soon found ourselves at the top of the water stairway. Walking down it felt a lot easier than walking up it would have been! Soon it was time to retrace our steps back out of the forest. We enjoyed the views as we walked back into Luso. The train back was at 18.35, so we still had time to stop at the extremely cheap restaurant for a drink. As we sat down, we heard what sounded like very loud drumming approaching. It turns out that all the flowers we'd seen in the street earlier were there because there was a festival in Luso today. As far we understood, it was in honour of the town's saint (but we're not sure which saint that is!). People were carrying banners with pictures of lots of different saints, so it was hard to tell. I felt sorry for the men who had the job of carrying what looked like a very heavy statue of Our Lady through the streets! Lots of people had adorned their doors with flowers and some had also scattered flowers and greenery outside their houses. The most confusing element of the celebrations were probably the people hanging tablecloths out of their windows, though! By the time we had finished our drinks, the procession had passed us and we were just about the start walking to the station when we realised it was coming around the corner again! We followed it for a while, before eventually having to dodge past it or risk missing the evening's only train. Fortunately we made it to the station on time and were soon on our way back to Coimbra, after what has been a tiring but exciting bonus trip
  8. We didn't have quite as peaceful a night's sleep last night as we would have hoped, because it turns out our apartment is incredibly noisy. From the early evening to the early hours of the morning, we were subjected to very loud blaring music Initially we thought it might be coming from the apartment above us, but now that it's started again this evening, I think it's coming from one of the bars in the street downstairs. The incessant loud music was bad enough, but it was made worse by the people in the apartment next door, who seemed intent on shouting and banging things at random until late into the night as well. The walls in this building obviously aren't very thick! We were actually getting up comparatively early today (by holiday standards) because we wanted to catch a bus at 09.30. Our aim for the day was to visit Conímbriga, one of the largest sites of Roman remains in Portugal. The pictures we'd seen of it online looked really impressive, but getting to it seemed to be quite difficult. The ruins are situated a couple of kilometres outside a village called Condeixa-a-Nova, to which there is an intermittent bus service from Coimbra which becomes even more infrequent on weekends. A handful of buses a day continue from the bus station in Condeixa-a-Nova to Conímbriga itself, and it was one of these that we were trying to catch. I'd done my research on the internet in advance and knew that we were looking for a bus stop somewhere outside the train station, near the river. We found it without too much difficulty and were relieved when the correct bus turned up only a couple of minutes late. The fare to Conímbriga was only €2.50 each, which seemed quite reasonable. After about half an hour of (fast!) driving on winding country roads, we arrived. It cost €4.50 to get into the ruins and the neighbouring museum, which didn't seem too expensive either. As soon as we walked through the entrance to the main site, we were confronted by some beautiful mosaics. They seemed amazingly well-preserved. We started exploring the ruins The location was very scenic and we had some lovely views of the surrounding countryside as we walked around as well. In some places, helpful info-boards told us what we were looking for. In other places we just had to guess. These looked like they might have been the remains of some sort of drainage system. These were definitely the remains of the old forum. As we walked around it, we also had a nice view of the church in the nearby village of Condeixa-a-Velha. From there we saw the remains of the thermal baths.... ...and also where there might once have been an amphitheatre, although these benches looked rather new. From the benches we could also see the remains of part of the aqueduct. The most exciting thing though was the Casa dos Repuxos (the house of fountains), where there was a beautiful garden with tiny little fountains. There's a machine to put 50 cents in to make the fountains start working Once we'd finished walking around outside we went into the museum, which had some information about Roman life in Conímbriga. There were some more mosaics here... ...as well as a model of what the forum would have looked like when it was complete. A lot of the rest of the museum was just bits of pottery, which didn't hold our attention for too long, so we finished looking around with time to spare before the bus back was due. We decided to walk into the old village, which was only half a kilometre away. It was a small place, but pretty. We stopped in a cafe for a drink and I was delighted when Tim came back from the bar with one of these. This is a pastel de nata, a famous Portuguese pastry which is basically like an egg custard, but a bit sweeter. I'd wanted to try one ever since we decided to come to Portugal and I wasn't disappointed; it was really delicious After that we walked back to Conímbriga, where I was relieved to find that the one bus back of the afternoon arrived on time to pick us up and take us back to Coimbra. We had a rather late lunch in Coimbra, before exploring one of the local bookshops to get some Portuguese books for Tim. We'd been struggling to find a supermarket round by where we are staying, so Tim asked the guy in the bookshop where we might find one. He directed us to a place near the train station which we found without much difficulty and started stocking up on some essentials. We were just reviewing the wine display when I smelled one of the worst smells I've ever encountered in my entire life. I turned around and saw this.... This is bacalhau (dried and salted cod) which is another famous Portuguese speciality and appears on restaurant menus all over the place. The smell really was horrific; I guess some Portuguese specialities are more appetising than others
  9. This morning it was time to travel on to our next destination: Coimbra. On paper, Coimbra is only a one-hour train journey away from Porto, but in practice it's a little bit more difficult than that. For a start, intercity trains do not leave from the São Bento railway station which we'd visited the other day, but from an out-of-town train station called Porto Campanhã. I hadn't appreciated this distinction when I was booking our tickets in advance online, so our first challenge was to use the ticket machines in São Bento to buy tickets to Porto Campanhã. We were now wiser than we had been at the airport the other day and managed to avoid falling into the trap of buying one ticket with two journeys loaded onto it (although it is still a very easy mistake to make, as that's what happens if you click to say you want two tickets!). There are plenty of suburban trains between the two stations and the journey only takes about 5 minutes, so we ultimately arrived at Porto Campanhã with about 30 minutes to spare before our 10.52 train. The benefit of buying the tickets online was that we had reserved seats on the train, which turned out to be particularly good news when we saw how many other people were waiting to board it. Happily there was enough space to store luggage on this train and people seemed to automatically sit in their assigned seats, so we didn't have to turn anybody out of ours Soon we were on our way to Coimbra... or, to be more precise, to a station called Coimbra B which is not to be confused with Coimbra A. While Coimbra A is in Coimbra itself, Coimbra B is in a random location somewhere outside it, and the intercity trains only go to Coimbra B. So when we arrived there, we had to wait another twenty minutes or so for a local train to take us from Coimbra B to Coimbra A. It seems like a rather strange way of organising a rail network! The main journey itself was really enjoyable though. As we left Porto we first travelled alongside the river Douro before crossing it on one of the bridges and travelling along the coastline, where we had brilliant views of sea and sand dunes Our first priority when we eventually arrived in Coimbra was to find lunch. This turned out to be difficult, although not because it was full of fish restaurants like Porto. The main problem with Coimbra seemed to be that it was full of kebab shops! It took a while, but in the end we did find a proper cafe that was serving more appetising food. We sat outside in the sunshine with our cases, while I ate a delicious bolognese pizza and Tim had a steak, which admittedly wasn't quite as good as the one we had in Porto yesterday, but still looked quite nice. The place where we'd had lunch was in Coimbra's lower town, which is a beautifully flat place. Unfortunately, I had the impression that the apartment I'd booked was going to be somewhere more uphill. Tim consulted the map and sure enough, this was the road we needed to take. It's times like this that I'm very glad that we've got cases which are very easy to pull We made it up that hill, around a corner, then up another hill, and finally arrived at the correct building. I'd had an email from the owner the night before giving us door codes, both for the main building door and for the door of our apartment, so we were able to just walk straight in. It turned out to be a nice spacious room, though maybe not with quite as many cool features as the apartment in Porto When we stepped outside again shortly afterwards to start exploring Coimbra, we decided to start by walking uphill as far as possible, to get the most strenuous bit of sightseeing out of the way first. Just around the corner from our apartment, we caught sight of this rather unusual entrance to a park. We decided to explore. The park was nice and peaceful, but when we got to the top of it we found that we emerged in what looked like a fairly standard residential area, so we retraced our steps and started walking uphill in a different direction; towards Coimbra's university. The university is what Coimbra is best known for. Founded in 1290, it's the oldest university in Portugal and it's situated at the top of a rather large hill. When we climbed up a succession of enormous staircases to get to the university grounds, the first thing which greeted us was this huge statue of King Denis, who founded the university (initially in Lisbon). We walked past some of the more modern university buildings... ...and because we were so high up, soon had a view out across the river Mondego and the surrounding countryside. From there we walked through a gate... ...into the older part of the university, which is really pretty In the middle of a large square, we found this statue of a guy who looks a bit like Henry VIII but who is actually King João III, the person responsible for permanently moving the university from Lisbon to Coimbra. There were also some more lovely views of the river From the university, narrow cobbled streets lead down through Coimbra's old town. We soon found Coimbra's old cathedral, which was first built in 1139 at which point Coimbra was temporarily the capital of Portugal. Again, it is a cathedral which looks quite a lot like a fortress. By this stage we were coming lower down and had some closer views of the river. We also found some colourful and tiled houses to rival those in Porto Finally we got to the bottom of the hill and found ourselves in one of Coimbra's main squares, which turned out to be just across from where we'd had lunch. The square was just across the road from the river. We started walking across the bridge and soon had some lovely views back up towards Coimbra. The large buildings on the top of the hill are the university. On the far side of the river, we found the ruins of the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha. The monastery was built in the fourteenth century but abandoned at some point in the seventeenth century because it kept flooding. A new monastery was then built further up the hill. As we walked back across the bridge towards the town, Tim caught sight of an amazing view; the jet of water in the middle of the river was catching the sunlight in a way which made it look like it was generating its own little rainbow Before we started the long climb back up the hill, we wandered around some of the streets in the lower town. There aren't as many tiled houses here as there were in Porto, but there are still some very pretty ones. We wanted to try and find again one of the squares which we'd discovered while looking for lunch. Eventually we tracked it down. This square is home to the Santa Cruz Monastery, which is famous for being the burial place of Portugal's first two kings. Once we'd admired the monastery for a while we'd exhausted the sights of the lower town and it was time to go back uphill to our apartment again. Coimbra is a really interesting town, but one of the main reasons we built it into our itinerary is that we want to visit the Roman ruins at a place called Conímbriga, about 17km south of here. We're hoping to do that tomorrow, if we can get the bus timetables to work!
  10. Day 2: Porto

    We had quite a lie in this morning after our early start the day before. Once we were up, Tim went out to see what Portuguese bakeries had to offer in the way of breakfast, coming back with some delicious pastries. Before we left the apartment to explore more of Porto, I did something I hadn't done yesterday and opened the window to see the view from our balcony. It was really beautiful After that, we set out on some more of Porto's hilly streets. Our first destination was the Torre dos Clérigos, the enormous bell tower of one of Porto's churches. The guidebook said that there were only 200 steps to the top, but it looked very high to me! We went inside and found that, rather bizarrely, it was more expensive to buy a ticket just to go up the tower than it was to buy a ticket to go around the museum inside and then up the tower, so we unexpectedly found ourselves going around a religious exhibition first. It was actually quite cool because we were following a route around the edge of the church, with various windows where we could look into the interior. We were already quite high though, so in places the views were quite vertigo-inducing! Once we had walked around the edge of the church and through a few rooms of statues, we were finally able to join a queue to go up the staircase of the tower. It seems like they must limit the number of people who are allowed up at any given time, because there was a man standing at the base of the staircase who was only letting new people up once existing people had gone down. Once we started climbing we could see why; it was very steep! Eventually we got to the top and we could see for mile across Porto. As we walked around the edge of the tower, we had a good view of Porto's cathedral, which we were planning to visit later in the day. Once we were safely down on the ground again we could see just how high we had been (the balcony just above the clock). We'd already done quite a lot of uphill for one day, so we decided to try and find a flatter route through Porto's streets. We soon arrived in Praça da Liberdade, Porto's main square. The big statue in the middle of the square is of a Portuguese king, We walked up to the top of the square... ...where we found Porto's city hall. We also found this pretty church. It's hard to see on the photograph, but some of the walls were covered in little blue tiles We'd been walking in this direction because I wanted to go to São Bento Railway Station, the main train station in the centre of Porto. Unusually, I didn't want to go to the station to catch a train or even to buy a ticket, but rather to admire the beautiful tiles which I'd read that the interior of the station was decorated with. It didn't disappoint - I've never been in a station quite like this The tiled pictures on the wall are depicting important scenes from Portuguese history. Unfortunately we didn't know enough about Portuguese history to understand what they were. My favourite tiles were actually not the historical ones, but these pretty little ones depicting a train After the station, we made our way slightly uphill to the cathedral. It's quite an imposing building, which looks more like a castle than a church as you approach it. From the courtyard in front of the cathedral we had some amazing views out across the rest of Porto... including towards the tower that we had climbed earlier in the morning. From the opposite side, the cathedral did look more like a conventional church As we walked round the far corner of it, we began to get a view out across the river. We had the impression that the entrance to the upper level of the big bridge across the river was around here somewhere, and eventually we found it. By this stage we were getting pretty hungry though, so we decided to leave crossing the bridge until after lunch and descend back into the town in search of food. As we walked back along the main streets, I had to keep stopping and taking pictures of the beautiful tiled buildings. Like this one... ...and this one. Soon we were back down at the colourful riverside We strolled along for a while, admiring all the buildings. And the views of the bridge. Then it was time to search for a restaurant that wasn't just serving fish. That took a while! Eventually we found a tiny little place on a side street which was advertising meat on its menu. We went to sit inside and found we had a great view of the chef cooking everyone's meals in the kitchen. We both ordered steak and were amazed to see the chef take what looked like half a cow out of the fridge, hack some slices off it and put them in pan. When the food came, it was some of the nicest steak we'd ever had in our lives We went back to the apartment for a brief rest after lunch, before setting off towards the bridge. On the way, we unexpectedly found this beautiful church a few streets away from our apartment. Eventually we got to the top of the bridge. I was worried that it was going to be scary to walk across because it's so high, but when you're at the top it actually doesn't feel that high at all. Trams run down the middle of the bridge, and people can walk on either side. As we started walking across the bridge, the first amazing view we had was of this purple-flowered creeper, which seemed to be completely taking over the hillside. As we got further across the bridge, we had views of the river... ...then views of the colourful houses along the waterfront... ...and finally, views of the cathedral towers, right at the top of the hill. Once we were on the opposite side of the river, we were in a place called Vila Nova de Gaia, which used to be a separate town, but which is now part of Porto. We were able to stroll along the waterfront there, for more views back across to where we had been earlier in the day The historic port cellars are on this side of the river, and we were able to see some of the wooden boats which used to be used to transport barrels of port along the river. We also found a truly enormous Portuguese flag, which we'd seen yesterday from the opposite side of the river. Then it was time to go back across the bridge. We went along the lower deck this time to spare ourselves the long climb up. Once on the other side we walked along the riverfront once more and then back to our apartment. We've had a wonderful couple of days in Porto and would definitely come again. Tomorrow we're off to Coimbra; I hope it's as nice as it is here (and that Coimbra has faster wi-fi, as it's taken a very long time to upload the pictures for this blog!!)
  11. Today was an exciting day: our first visit to a brand new country I had looked at flights to Portugal a few times over the past couple of years, but always given up after a few minutes because they seemed prohibitively expensive. When we were looking at flights earlier this year, however, we found that there were now relatively cheap Ryanair flights between Birmingham and Porto (well, cheap if you're prepared to fly on a Wednesday, at least!) and that seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. I'm not sure I've ever been flown on a Wednesday before, but it turned out to be a lot more relaxing than flying on a Saturday. It took less than five minutes to drop our bags at the Ryanair desk (compared to the 45 minutes we would normally build into our schedule for this on a Saturday morning at Stansted!) and probably only ten minutes to get through security. The only place which turned out to be hell on earth was Wetherspoons, which was so full of hen parties that we failed utterly to get a table and ended up having breakfast in the much more expensive (but significantly quieter!) All Bar One in the old terminal 2. I had made the mistake again of thinking that flying from Birmingham would be nice because it wasn't such a long journey to the airport, and then booking a 7am flight, which actually involved leaving home at 4am. So I may have accidentally slept through most of the flight itself, waking up just as we were starting our descent to Porto. First impressions were that Portugal looked much greener and much hillier than I had anticipated. We had some wonderful views firstly of mountains and then of the sea as the plane came down. Porto airport seemed fairly quiet too and we were through passport control in a couple of minutes, which was a relief after the extremely long queues in Milan last week From my research I knew that the best way to get into the centre of town from the airport was to take the metro, so we set about trying to find that. This is where things became a bit more chaotic! Although there were quite a few ticket machines in the ticket hall, enormous queues had formed at each one as a succession of tourists tried to figure out how to use them. We joined what we thought was the shortest line, but some people seemed to be finding it exceptionally difficult to buy a ticket, or else weren't sure which station they wanted to go to, and it moved very slowly. Once we got to the front, we found it was a bit confusing because buying a ticket firstly involves purchasing a reusable ticket card and then consulting a long list of destinations to find out which zone the place you want to go to is in. We thought we had got this figured out and tried to buy two tickets to São Bento, the main train station in the centre of Porto. Unfortunately what we ended up doing was loading two journeys to São Bento onto one reusable ticket card (and the rules on the machine stated that each person has to have their own individual ticket card), so we had to go through the performance twice to try and get a second ticket. In the middle of this the machine froze for several minutes and refused to do anything. Tim tried in vain to attract the attention of the attendant who was supposed to be helping people use the machines, but eventually it started working again of its own accord. Phew! Having a metro from the airport to the town centre sounds like a wonderfully efficient idea on paper, but in practice the journey turned out to be a bit of a challenge. When we emerged onto the platform there was one metro train on the verge of departing, but it looked incredibly full so we decided to give it a miss and wait for the next one. We could already see the next one waiting further down the track, so I figured it must be a very frequent service. Unfortunately it isn't! The new train did pull in almost as soon as the other one had departed and we got on board. Unusually for a service designed to depart from an airport, there was nowhere at all to put baggage. This was rather problematic, as our suitcases are quite large. It soon became clear that the train was going to be too busy for us to get away with blocking seats with them, so eventually Tim managed to (just about!) push them under the seats. Effectively about three quarters of the suitcases fitted under the seats, meaning that there wasn't really anywhere left to put our feet, so we had to sit at a rather strange angle. Initially I didn't think this would be a problem, because I anticipated it would be quite a quick journey to the town. What I hadn't anticipated, was that the metro was first going to sit at the station for a full 30 minutes while person after person tried to squeeze themselves onto it. The journey itself then took around 30 minutes, so by the time we got eventually got off we could hardly walk! Luckily, things improved after that! It was a beautifully warm sunny day in Porto and we didn't have too far to walk to get to the apartment I had booked. The owners had emailed me at the point I booked it and said that although check-in wasn't until three, we could turn up early and leave our bags in their office, so we headed straight there. The route seemed deceptively easy at first, initially leading us downhill, but when we arrived at the turning for the road to the apartment, it suddenly became very steeply uphill indeed! We just about managed to drag the suitcases to the top of the hill, where we found the apartment. There was a rather unique welcome waiting for us in the hallway Luggage successfully deposited, we set off for a stroll around Porto. We soon found ourselves at a viewpoint over the River Douro. From here it was obvious quite how steep some of the streets in Porto are! We found a pleasant route down through a park, which took us almost as far down as the level of the river. As we walked along some of the little streets in the lower part of the old town, we caught sight of a beautiful church. The facade was covered in the pretty little blue tiles which seem to be on so many buildings in Porto We soon found ourselves in a large square. The grand building on the edge of the square is Palácio da Bolsa, which used to be the city's stock exchange. On the far side of the square there was another beautiful tiled church. We made our way down to the river. There are some really pretty and colourful buildings along the riverside. As we walked along by the river, we had our first view of Porto's famous Dom Luís I Bridge. The bridge has two levels, with cars travelling along the lower level and pedestrians along the top level, which is 60m above the river. We may try walking across it tomorrow, but our main aim for today was now to find somewhere to get lunch. There were lots of interesting looking cafes and restaurants along the waterfront. However, unfortunately most of them seemed to be serving fish Octopus seemed to be a particularly popular option, as were prawns. As we were also keen to avoid Porto's local meat speciality, which involves some kind of tripe, we spent quite a bit of time walking around and rejecting restaurant menus before we eventually found somewhere where I could have spaghetti bolognese The good news is that the restaurant we did find was really lovely, and both the food and the wine in Portugal seem a lot cheaper than in France, for example. We had a nice meal sitting outside, and then once it got to 3pm we began the long trek back uphill to our apartment. To our surprise, when checking in we received a small glass of complementary port and a chocolate. The port had a nice flavour, but it tasted very strong! We were then shown upstairs to our apartment, which is really lovely. The people who own the building are architects and so the room is full of clever little features. If you were wondering where the kitchen was... ... it's in here We were pretty hot and tired by this point, so turned on the air conditioning and had a nap. Tomorrow we're looking forward to exploring Porto in more detail
  12. Day 3: Varenna

    When we woke up on Monday morning and headed out into Lecco to get breakfast, the sky looked rather grey and overcast. The centre of Lecco still looked very pretty though and it was quiet on a Monday morning, so we were able to walk around and admire the flower displays on the main street. The weather forecast confirmed that it wasn't supposed to rain, so we decided to go ahead with our plan to visit Varenna. Varenna is another small town on Lake Como, on the opposite side of the lake from Bellagio, and when we visited it in 2012 we really loved it so we were keen to go back again It's only a 20 minute journey from Lecco on a regional train and the tickets are a bargain at €2.80 each! After a short journey along the side of the lake we arrived in Varenna. The railway station is a little way above the town, so we walked downhill and soon had a view of the lake. We think Bellagio is over there somewhere! Varenna is bigger than Bellagio, but it feels friendlier somehow; Bellagio is home to several very expensive hotels and feels quite upmarket. One of the biggest selling points of Varenna is that it has an amazing promenade which enables you to walk right along the edge of the lake. Once we had walked a little way along it, we were able to turn around and enjoy views back to the town... ...as well as views out across the lake, of course. In some places the promenade was covered over and there were archways where you could stop to take photos There is quite a steep hill behind the town, so a series of steep staircases lead up from the lakeside to the rest of the town. We went up one of the gentler staircases... ...and climbed up to the higher level of the town, where we found the church... ... and the main square. From here we turned along the main road, towards a place called Villa Monastero which we remembered from our 2012 visit. Specifically, we remembered that there were beautiful gardens alongside the lake, but that it was really expensive to get in and so we had walked along the road outside it, sneaking some views through the fence. We found the entrance after walking up the road for a couple of minutes... ...and established that it actually only cost €5 each to get into the gardens It definitely seemed worth paying €5 for views like this. Having bought our tickets, we set off to explore the botanical gardens. They were quite exotic gardens, with lots of palm trees.... ...and all kinds of statues and features like in a landscape garden too. And, of course, some stunning views of the lake We've got so many beautiful photos that it's hard to choose which ones to put in the blog As well as the gardens, there was also a museum that you could pay to go inside, but we decided to give that a miss. After a while the sky began to get a bit bluer in the direction of Varenna... ...though it was still quite grey in the opposite direction. Once we'd finished exploring the botanical garden, we decided to walk back into Varenna and find somewhere for lunch. On the way out of the gardens we passed an avenue of citrus trees where, in addition to the more normal orange and lemon trees, we spotted a couple of trees with absolutely huge fruit growing on them. They weren't labelled unfortunately, but we wondered whether they could be grapefruit? Back in the town, we found a lovely restaurant by the lake, where we were able to sit outside eating pizza Then we had time another hour or so before we needed to be back at the train station. We had another walk along the lakeside promenade... ...explored some more of Varenna's side streets... ..went up and down some of the steeper staircases... ...and re-took some of the photos of places we'd visited earlier in the day with the background of now very blue sky! Finally it was time to say goodbye to Varenna and begin our long journey home; firstly by regional train to Milan, then on the express train to the airport and flying back to Stansted. Luckily everything went well with the journey home and we didn't have to wait as long at passport control in Milan as we had on Saturday. By the time we had managed to get out of Stansted, retrieve the car and drive home it was 01.30 in the morning, so Monday has been quite a tiring day at work! But it was worth it for such a wonderful weekend at Lake Como
  13. When we visited this part of Italy in 2012, our holiday involved travelling from Lecco to Como. I remember that I'd originally planned for us to make the journey by bus but that when we visited the local tourist information office in Lecco, the lady there had recommended that we travel by boat instead. It sounded like a brilliant idea, but on the day we were due to travel we woke up to find that it was cold and rainy. We took a boat from Lecco to a place called Bellagio, which we knew was supposed to be beautiful. We arrived there in a torrential downpour and I remember sitting on a covered terrace and shivering, while we drank a coffee and waited for our onward boat to Como. This is what our approach to Bellagio looked like in 2012. Our plan for today was to try and have a better experience and finally see Bellagio in better weather. Things got off to a good start this morning when we woke up and found it was a beautiful sunny day There is a regular boat service between Lecco and Bellagio, but the service is quite reduced on Sundays so there was basically only one boat which we could get, at 10am. We set off for the landing stage, stopping off on the way to get breakfast with a view of the lake. Vast quantities of other people seemed to have had the same idea for a day trip, and so there was a pretty big queue for the boat. Luckily we were there early enough to get comparatively near the front of the queue and so, even with all the Italian pushing and shoving, managed to get good seats with a view The boat pulled away from Lecco promptly and we were soon out in the middle of the lake. It seems to be a popular place for watersports, and we were soon sailing past people doing some pretty extreme windsurfing. They were going incredibly fast and at times it looked like they were going to crash into the boat! Luckily no one did, and we continued to make progress towards Bellagio. Some of the scenery we passed was incredibly rocky. At one point we could make out holes in the side of the mountain; it looked like there must be a tunnel through it. We definitely hadn't seen views like this last time we came! The boat trip between Lecco and Bellagio takes an hour and a half, and the boat stopped briefly at a succession of other small villages along the lakeside. They all looked like really pretty places too Eventually we could begin to see Bellagio in the distance... ...and the approach to it was definitely a lot sunnier than last time we were here We got off the boat and began to explore the town. We soon found a lovely promenade along by the side of the lake. After we'd walked for a while we had some great views back towards the centre of Bellagio. The views in the other direction were amazing too. The town of Bellagio itself is quite small. From the lake there are some rather steep staircases which lead up to the rest of the town. Once you get to the top, there are some very pretty and colourful streets to explore. We followed the narrow main street... ..which eventually opened out into a square, which was home to the church we had seen from the boat. From there we walked back down to the level of the lake, following a road which took us to a little harbour area. The views from there were fantastic. There was also a pier you could walk out onto.... ...and the views from there were possibly even better After we'd spent a while enjoying the views, we turned around and headed back to the square with the church. We found a restaurant there where we were able to sit outside with pasta and wine We followed it up with pudding and coffee. I had tiramisu and Tim had some sort of local cake, which apparently tasted like a bakewell tart! Our boat back to Lecco didn't leave until 16.40, so even though it turned into a long lunch we still had plenty of time for another walk around the town... ... and back along the lakeside promenade. Then it was time to join the scrum for the boat back! There was a lot more pushing and shoving, but we made it on and even managed to get window seats again so we could enjoy the views on the way back. It was hard to get tired of views like these Eventually we could see the church tower of Lecco looming on the horizon; we were almost back. It's been a great day and Bellagio is a beautiful place... when it's not raining
  14. Day 1: Lecco

    We had been excited for ages about the trip we had planned for this bank holiday; a return to Lecco in Italy, which we loved when we first visited in 2012, although we didn't have perfect weather. I think we'd both always had it on our mental lists of places we'd like to go back to, and an opportunity finally presented itself this year, when we found cheap flights to Milan Malpensa for this weekend. We were flying from Stansted at 08.45 which sounded like a relatively civilised time, but I was worried about how busy the airport might be on a bank holiday and so had booked the airport parking for 6am. We left home at 4, which should have been more than enough time, but the SatNav seemed intent on taking us to the airport via a rather unusual route. We were expecting to go via the M6 and A14, but as soon as Tim drove onto the M6, the SatNav indicated that we should leave it at the next exit. We thought perhaps it knew something we didn't about traffic jams or roadworks, so followed an increasingly bizarre set of directions along small country roads in the direction of Rugby and Daventry. It was about an hour later when the SatNav was directing us across Northampton town centre that the penny dropped; as we were leaving home, Tim had checked the settings to make sure it wasn't set to avoid routes with motorways. But in doing so, he had inadvertently ticked rather than unticked the option which avoids motorways. Oh dear! Once the setting was sorted out we progressed to Stansted at a much quicker pace and still arrived with plenty of time to spare. The airport didn't seem as busy as I had feared, and the flight was a very pleasant one, with some stunning views of the Alps as we flew over Switzerland. We landed in Milan at around 11.40 and I had optimistically thought that we might be able to get a train from the airport at 12.13. I wasn't sure how big Milan's airport was, but we didn't have any baggage and getting off a Ryanair flight is normally quite quick, so I thought we stood a reasonable chance. If we missed that train, there was another one at 12.43. It turns out that Milan Malpensa is not just a big airport; it's an absolutely enormous one! There was a long bus drive from the plane to the terminal, then a long walk down various airport corridors before we finally arrived at passport control. And this was where the problems started: I don't think I've ever seen such a long queue for passport control in my life! We initially joined the "All passports" queue, mainly because it only looked half the length of the EU passport queue, but that turned out to be a poor decision as it was moving at a small fraction of the speed. After a while we abandoned that queue and joined the EU one, which did move a lot more quickly but was also a lot more chaotic, being eight people wide in some places! By the time we had finally succeeded in getting to the front of the queue and out into arrivals, not only had we missed the 12.13 train, we had also missed the 12.43 one I had bought our tickets for the Malpensa Express in advance online, getting a special price of €20 each return, which believe it or not was quite a good reduction from the standard price of €13 in each direction! I'd had to enter the time we were planning to travel on the website when buying the tickets, but luckily we were able to catch any train within a three-hour window of the time I'd stated, so the tickets were still valid for the 13.13 train. The airport is around 50km outside of Milan and the train journey takes the best part of an hour. It was a nice modern train with good air-conditioning though, which I appreciated as it had been very warm queuing for passport control! Tim had contacted the owners of the apartment we'd booked to say that we would be arriving in Lecco at 15.00. Originally my plan had been for us to get lunch somewhere close to the station in Milan before getting our next train, but the airport delay meant this wasn't going to happen. The Malpensa train arrived in Milano Centrale in 14.05 and our connection for Lecco was due to depart at 14.20. 15 minutes seemed like it ought to be plenty of time to get off one train, buy a ticket and board another train, but my second lesson of today was that Milano Centrale is an enormous train station! It took us over 5 minutes to walk from one side of it to the other in the search of a ticket machine, and then when we had managed to buy the tickets and determine that the train we needed was on platform 5, we realised that we were standing by platform 21 and had to jog all the way back across to the opposite side of the station again. We made it - just - but in future I would always allow half an hour for changing trains in Milan! This was a very old-fashioned Italian regional train, of the sort where you have a choice between having the window closed and baking or opening the window and being deafened by the sound of the train while the breeze keeps blowing the curtains over your head. But it was very good value compared to the airport train, with the tickets costing less than €5 each, and by 3pm we had arrived in Lecco The address we had been given for the apartment was only a few streets away from the train station, so it didn't take us long to locate the correct general area. I was a bit nervous about what the apartment was going to be like, because I had had some issues with the reservation on booking.com. A few days before I went to Croatia in June, I had some weird missed calls on my mobile from an overseas number which, when I googled it, turned out to be in the Netherlands. Eventually I got an email from booking.com saying that they had been trying to ring me to say that my reservation in Lecco had been cancelled, as a result of an overbooking. I wasn't very impressed by this, in particular because it had been one of those prepayment bookings where they take the money off your card straightaway. I was just in the process of trying to correspond with booking.com to get the money back when I started getting more unexpected overseas calls on my mobile, this time from Italy, which turned out to be the owner of the apartment trying to convince me to stay for slightly different dates so that he didn't get charged an overbooking penalty by booking.com. This wasn't helpful at all, because we had already booked our flights, and the dates we wanted to travel were fixed by the bank holiday anyway. I'd just resigned myself to having to try and find somewhere else to stay in Lecco - or possibly having to stay somewhere other than Lecco - when a few days later I got another email from the apartment saying that actually they'd had a cancellation and they could accommodate me in a slightly different apartment to the one I'd booked. This one was described as a "studio apartment" so I was worried it might be a bit cramped, but actually when we checked in we found it was quite spacious. There's a kitchen in a separate room from the living room/bedroom, and everything looks very new and modern. The only downside is that there's a sofa bed rather than a normal bed, but it actually feels quite comfortable as sofa beds go, and we're in a really good location right in the centre of town. We unpacked some stuff and then headed out to explore Lecco. It's a really pretty town, with mountains on one side of it... ... and Lake Como on the other. The views out across the lake are really beautiful We walked left along the edge of the lake for a while, to enjoy the views back towards the town. The day was a bit hazy, but it was still really lovely. We remembered doing the same walk in 2012 After a while we turned around and walked back towards the town. On the right hand side of the town there is a leafy promenade by the lakeside. We strolled along there for a while, enjoying views in the other direction. The path stretched on for ages.... ...but eventually we decided we'd better turn around and head back to the town. Apart from anything else, we hadn't had any lunch and we were absolutely starving!! When we got back into the centre of Lecco, our challenge was to find somewhere that was serving food this early in the evening. The apartment owner had recommended us a particular pizza place, but when we located it and looked at the opening hours, we saw it didn't open until 18.45. That was far too long for us to wait, but luckily we found another place nearby where we were able to sit outside and enjoy some much needed pizza and wine The service was excellent, as we were the only people in the entire restaurant for the duration of the meal, and the pizza was really good too. It was a great end to what has been a rather tiring day!
  15. Day 8: Chamonix

    Much as we enjoyed yesterday's walk, once we were partway through it we realised that it might have been better to do it in the opposite direction, because then we would have been walking towards the view of the snowy mountains rather than away from it. When we were discussing last night what we wanted to do today, we kept coming back to the same idea of repeating the walk again Of course, it all depended on what the weather was going to be like... There had been heavy thunderstorms throughout the previous evening, but luckily when we woke up this morning and went out onto the balcony, we could see that there was a bright blue sky again. We'd caved in and decided to eat breakfast in the hotel, so we headed to the breakfast room to see what it was possible to get for €13.00. To be honest, it looked like a fairly average breakfast buffet! There was bread and croissants, ham and cheese, some scrambled egg and a bit of fruit; pretty much what you would expect from any hotel. I made several trips to the buffet to try and get my money's worth. The coffee was good at least Once we had eaten as much as we could we set off to walk to the bottom of the Flégère cable car, which we would be using to go up the mountain today rather than down. We left our hotel and crossed the river, which was looking particularly scary this morning! As we walked we could just see up to the top of the cable car station where we were headed... ...and when we turned around, we could also just make out the one that we would be walking to. The cable car was quite busy this morning and we only just about managed to squeeze in. We were rather squashed, but at least had a better trip than one French lady in the middle of the cable car who must have been terrified of heights, and so spent the entire ride burying her head in her husband so that she couldn't see anything and swearing loudly every time the cable car swayed We were soon at the top and ready to set off on our walk. As soon as we started off down the path, we had a wonderful view down the valley towards Chamonix. We were soon to find though that some bits of the walk were easier in some directions than in others. In particular, I was worried about a steep set of steps carved into the side of the mountain, which had been difficult enough to climb up yesterday and seemed like they might be even harder to climb down. We soon arrived there and I found to my horror that the steps were even worse than I thought, because the rain overnight had made the wooden bits quite slippery. Let's just say I didn't particularly enjoy the climb down! The worst bit was near the bottom, where you had to negotiate these two strange metallic steps! Eventually I made it down in one piece and was able to enjoy the views again The respite was only short-lived though, because before too long we were approaching the rocky part of the path once again. And it really was rocky... ...very, very rocky! The rocks didn't last forever though, and the advantage of doing the walk in this direction was that we had got the most difficult bit out of the way at the start, and were able to relax for the rest of the walk. There were fewer clouds in the sky today than yesterday, so we were finally able to see the top of Mont Blanc And we had an unrestricted view of most of the other mountains as well. It was definitely worthwhile to repeat the route and always be walking with the snow ahead of us Because we'd done the walk before, we were pretty sure that we would recognise the route without any problems. There were some bits I didn't remember though, like the point at which the path went round this rather scary corner! We seemingly also didn't remember the point at which we were supposed to have turned off this wide path onto a narrower one. Somehow we missed the correct sign and ended up walking quite a long way downhill, on a path which was wide enough to be a road. By the time we realised our mistake, we were too far down for it to be worth retracing our steps. We could see that the wide path would ultimately lead back uphill towards the gondola station at Planpraz, so the best option was to stick with it. It did give us a different perspective on where we'd been... ...and actually some better views of the snow than we would have had from the original path Although in places it was quite steep, we couldn't complain when we turned corners and had views like this When we got to the gondola station, we stopped at the cafe for a drink. The views from the cafe terrace were pretty impressive too. Then it was time to go back down to Chamonix in the gondolas. We had a go at taking a selfie with the view on the way down, but I think maybe we need more practice When we reached the bottom, it was fun to look back up at where we had been. Then we set off through Chamonix in search of a place to have lunch. Tim was very impressed with his steak After lunch we explored the town a bit more. It's a really pretty little place... ...completely surrounded by the mountains. As we began walking back to our hotel along the valley, we realised that we now had a complete overview of the route we had walked. It was impressive to be able to see both the start and end points from down below. As we got nearer to the hotel, I realised that there was something unusual about this afternoon; it wasn't pouring with rain yet! After a bit of a rest in the hotel, we decided to take advantage of the unexpectedly good weather by having an evening stroll around the forests behind where we were staying. It was a nice relaxing end to what has been a brilliant holiday. Tomorrow morning we will be getting a bus from Chamonix to Annecy, and then changing in Annecy for a bus which will take us directly to Lyon airport. From Lyon we will fly back to Birmingham, via another stop in Brussels. It will be a long day of travelling to get home again, but it has definitely been worth it
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