Nowadays, more than ever, we find ourselves on a permanent quest to avoid crowds whilst we scour endless websites of far-flung places that promise to restore body and spirit.
However, in addition to the beaches and mountains of Asturias, Cantabria or Granada we can essentially disappear into an abyss of anonymity only 4 hours away from Madrid if we cross over in Portugal.
Just 2 hours west of Salamanca lies Portugal´s largest national park in the craggy mountains and glacial valleys of the Serra da Estrela (Star Mountain Range). Stellar by name and galactic by nature as some of the precipitous peaks poke through the clouds at the country’s highest point at 2000 m, thus providing respite from the summer heat as well as Portugal´s premier ski resort in winter.
How did I end up there? Simple, having been an ardent traveller my whole adult life I rather favour physical maps from which to plan itineraries. So, whilst everyone else was heading for deepest Denia or extreme solitude in Extremadura I unfurled my old country map of Portugal and saw an enormous uncluttered area of mountains intermeshed with spidery tributaries miles away from the popular haunts of Coimbra, Lisbon and Oporto within shouting distance of the Spanish border.
This has proven to be a most reliable way to travel in the past and I´m fortunate to have a battered suitcase full of maps of anywhere from Bhutan to Rumania. The internet then becomes a suitable tool with which to check there aren´t any remote military training grounds in the vicinity and that quality variety of food or wine is readily obtainable. Although I must say, I did have to rather stretch that final criteria to the limit on my trip to Romania. Fortunately a sheep´s bladder full of fresh cheese in the boot of our car managed to keep us going for 2 weeks and the awe-inspiring sights more than compensated for any gastronomic shortcomings.
In my enthusiasm to escape Senhor Covid ravaging through the suburbs of Lisbon, I forgot to take into account that holidaying in remote mountainous terrain might be somewhat of a challenge for someone who had only just relinquished her wheelchair following a fractured hip. However, undeterred, westwards we drove, wending our way through picturesque villages, vine-clad hills, scattered with endless herds of sheep and goats until we arrived at a boutique farm at Casas do Toural in Gouveia.
A perfect location for the circumstances as each guest had its own bijou self-catering house complete with its own private terraced garden brimming with flowers and allocated walkway to the communal pool, all within walking distance of the local shops and restaurants. The owner, Maria José Osório is a keen gardener and her coral pink manorial house is framed by a rainbow of horticultural gems. There are also a few sheep and plenty of entertainment by way of a tennis court, billiards room and even a painting studio on site. Gouveia, is an attractive gateway from which to explore the more remote outposts of the Serra da Estrela National Park which I will mention in Part II. Find out next week more about Jewish synagogues, the wool trade and celestial cheese as I explore deeper in the Serra da Estrela.
Having spent a wonderful 10 days in India previously, INC members, Denise Kildare, Callie Stewart and Nilima Parker decided to travel together again with friends and family to visit Mareni Pilcher in Vienna.
Soon we found ourselves walking through streets of Wien, it felt a bit like walking into the pages of a fairy tale, as a horse and carriage trots past one ornate palace after another.
“December in Vienna” conjures up Christmas markets. There are more than a dozen in Vienna and we made it our mission to visit as many as we could! The best-known Christmas market is on Rathausplatz, a winter wonderland complete with a giant illuminated Christmas tree, mulled wine, traditional food and arts and crafts stalls. The open air Naschmarkt on the banks of the river Wein is about a mile long, where vendors sell fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, pickles, olives, cheese and bread from around the world. Tastings are essential!
Perhaps our most memorable market visit was to the Weihnachtsmarkt, which extends out in front of the majestic Schönbrunn Palace, a former imperial summer residence. We spent a happy afternoon with a mug of steaming hot, spiced wine in hand, wandering through the stalls in freezing temperatures, buying traditional handicrafts and hand-made Christmas decorations to take home.
Trying to stay warm as we toured and explored the city gave us the perfect excuse to sample Viennese local cuisine and coffee house culture. Our morning treat, as soon as we started to get a little chilly on our walking tours, was to head to one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses – Cafe Sperl for classic apfelstrudel, Cafe Central for topfenstrudel (sweet quark cheese wrapped in strudel pastry) and to Cafe Sacher for their secret recipe, chocolate laden sachertorte.
Our culinary exploration of Viennese cuisine continued in the evenings with some of Vienna’s famous local dishes: Wiener schnitzel (veal coated in breadcrumbs and fried), Tafelspitz (boiled beef with vegetables and spices in broth) and rich and hearty beef goulash with dumplings. Yes, we did eat a lot but our activities and the temperatures demanded it!
We also explored some museums on our own. One was the museum of Sisi, Elizabeth Empress of Austria, married to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. She was famous for her figure and beauty and her extraordinary hair that is said to have weighed 6 kilos! Having been brought up in the relaxed Bavarian court, Elizabeth found the strict protocol of the Austrian court very restricting and she became quite unhappy. She escaped by travelling extensively and learning many foreign languages. You could say she was the first true European Citizen, deeply interested in different peoples and cultures. She loved the Hungarian people and was instrumental in the founding of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Born in 1837 she was assassinated in Italy by an Italian anarchist in 1898.
The Austrian capital is bursting with Imperial history and Baroque architecture, with a musical accompaniment by Mozart and Strauss. We heartily recommend the coffee-house culture and laidback vibe to warm the souls of anyone wishing to enjoy the adventure of Wien at Christmas.
Recently we took an extra long weekend to visit Edinburgh. This is a truly beautiful city with loads of fabulous architecture, history, gardens and interesting sites.
The ‘hop on hop off’ bus gives a great perspective of the city whilst offering a convenient way to get around and visit the sites. There are also a number of other different tour options available or you can combine all of them into one to give you the full on Edinburgh experience.
Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s Seat, Royal Botanic Gardens and St Giles’ Cathedral are just a few of the magnificent tour experiences that Edinburgh has to offer.
I’m a self-confessed lover of all things morbidly curious so we had to visit the Edinburgh Dungeon and I LOVED this tour! This isn’t just a basic tour of a torture chamber but a full on dungeon experience complete with audience participation. As often seems to happen with me, I got called out of the crowd. I was tried as a witch in the local courthouse, taken to the next chamber where I was then marked as a witch, jeered at by the crowd and locked in a cage – hilarious! We got a complete story (acted out) of various morbid local legends as we wandered the dark and mysterious passageways of the dungeon. Be prepared, as there a number of heart stoppers on this tour. There are also a few interesting surprises which I won’t mention here so as not to ruin the experience. A definite must do if you’re into the less pleasant side of medieval life!
We also did a Ghost Tour. There are many different forms of these tours on offer and we opted for a walking tour. Again, I really enjoyed it. The guide was lively and informative. The tour took us down some of the most famous streets of Edinburgh, the local graveyard and finished in the underground tunnels found below the city streets.
I, of course, have to mention the food!! We found a local cafe where we ordered bacon and egg rolls each morning and by the way we carried on, one would have thought we were in a five-star restaurant – there’s just nothing like the simple things in life. We also enjoyed pies, fish and chips, scotch eggs, soup and we even tried haggis. The local pubs and restaurants offer a delicious selection of traditional food to be enjoyed in a lively and authentic environment.
An amazing city with an abundance of beauty, history and fabulous things to do and see!!
If you haven’t yet made a trip to see the Northern Lights — I highly recommend that you put it at top of your bucket list!
We made the trip to Lapland recently and absolutely loved it. It was also a great time of the year to visit — not too cold and we were lucky with lots of sunshine.
We stayed at the Kakslauttanen Artic Resort, which was fabulous and offers a range of different accommodation option such as cabins with personal saunas and glass-topped igloos. We even awake in the morning to s reindeer sleeping right outside our front door!
You can book a number of snow-based activities. We did a four-hour husky sledding safari, a two-hour hunting the northern lights tour with reindeer and a fabulous snow mobile safari. We LOVED the activities — who couldn’t enjoy a day with the huskies, followed by zipping across the planes of snow on the back of a snow mobile? It was fabulous fun and definitely something for the whole family to enjoy.
Special clothes are provided for the safaris and tours to keep you warm and snug and the longer tours include a lunch hot soup and warm berry juice!
We were lucky enough to get a few glimpses of the northern lights but the conditions do have to be just so and we, of course, forgot our good camera. IPhone cameras just don’t pick up the colors properly.
This particular resort included breakfast and an evening meal, however the free meal was one selection only so we often found ourselves choosing from the restaurant menu.
Having done Andora and Baquera Beret skiing last year, this year we decided to try Austria. We chose Lech-Zurs ski resort, in the Arlberg region of Austria. It’s famous for its skiing – backcountry and off-piste and its Olympic champions. The easiest way we found to get to Arlberg from Madrid was to fly into Zurich, then take the train to Langen am Arlberg station (roughly 3-4 hours).
We stayed in Zurs at a great little Airbnb apartment located in a hotel. We had the use of the hotel bar and restaurant, ski facilities such as the drying room and storage and the spa. Also, it was nice having a kitchen and our own space – I highly recommend it. You can ski from Zurs to Lech and take in quite a few little villages around and in between. There is also a courtesy bus that runs between the main ski resorts. There is no supermarket in Zurs (just a small convenience store). The main shops are located in Lech which you can drive to or jump on the courtesy bus.
The facilities on the mountains are excellent and there are a great number of restaurants to choose from, both on top and at the base of the various resorts. We were lucky in that it snowed heavily for three days just as we arrived, giving us a good base. The runs are quite steep and the difficulty levels can be high on some runs, also there didn’t appear to be many beginners slopes. Perhaps there are more green areas than we noticed, but if you have beginners I would recommend checking this aspect.
Lift passes are reasonably priced and like anywhere, better value to buy a few days worth rather than day by day and a note here, half-day passes really aren’t any cheaper – better to go a full day. The chair lifts are numerous as are the gondolas. I can’t recall seeing any T-bars (perhaps one…?) but there were a few pommels dotted about. Also, there seemed to be a lot of flat bits where we had to “skate” with our skis, particularly between lifts and on some particular runs. Off piste is popular here and we did a bit of that, although, I have to admit, now I seem to prefer the groomed runs. We hired a guide for a day which was fabulous! Whilst he worked us hard, it was a great way to learn the resorts and the different slopes, giving us a good appreciation of the mountain. We went for six and half hours with two fifteen minutes breaks – so not for the faint hearted!
All in all, we enjoyed our stay. Apart from my twisted knee on the final day, we had a great week of skiing – another recommendation.
After our stay in Évora, we drove to Tavira. Tavira is a lovely city situated in the east of the Algarve on the south coast of Portugal. The Gilão River meets the Atlantic Ocean in Tavira and the river runs through the city
There is a fabulous medieval bridge that crosses the river and connects the two parts of the city.
Tavira is charming and picturesque and when we were there, the weather was mild and the sun was shining – a fabulous change from the chill of Madrid.
There are some fabulous restaurants along the riverfront where you can sit, sipping a glass of wine in the sun while trying some delicious Portuguese food.
Tavira has a long history starting from the Bronze Age, through the Roman Empire and into the Moorish conquests.
We stayed at the Pousada Convento Tavira. This is a magnificent building, which has been converted from a convent. The rooms are comfortable and stylish and the hotel has a fabulous history. The main strip, restaurants and shops are all within walking distance. Breakfast at this hotel was delicious and I highly recommend a stay here.
We only spent one night in Tavira, which perhaps wasn’t enough. This little city is well worth a visit, even if you’re traveling through. It’s a charming place to stop and unwind.
On our recent road trip around Spain and Portugal, we started with a visit to Merida, which I posted about last week. After this, we drove to Évora in Portugal.
Évora is the capital of the Alentejo region in Portugal. Known for its Roman and Moorish history. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.
The old part of town is fabulously untouched and, like many European towns, very authentic with its narrow cobblestoned streets, cathedrals, squares and traditional little shops. It was lovely just to wander the laneways, drink coffee in the main plaza and gaze at the ancient architecture.
We stayed at the ‘M’AR De AR Aqueduto’, which was just inside the old town. A fabulous hotel built around a restored monastery. There are some interesting historical characteristics to be seen through appropriately placed pieces of glass. Also, the Roman Aqueduct runs through the hotel, which is an interesting feature. We enjoyed this hotel. It’s new and modern decor is comfortable and sophisticated. We also loved the coffee and tea making facilities!! As Australians, we’re used to such luxuries in our hotel rooms so it makes a big difference to me when I can make a cup of tea or coffee – at my leisure!
At the risk of sounding like a food critic, I have to mention our foodie experiences! We ate lunch in a wonderfully traditional restaurant recommended by the hotel – Restaurante Fialho. This restaurant offers an extensive menu of local and traditional cuisine. The food was delicious and different. I had the Porco À Alentejana (Portuguese braised pork and clams). This dish was delightful and a combination that I hadn’t tried before. The atmosphere and décor at Fialho’s is unbeatable, as is the friendliness and attentiveness of the staff. This is a popular restaurant so I recommend making a booking.
Other Portuguese dishes you must try are the Pastel de Nata (Portuguese custard tarts), Empanadas (I loved the chicken versions of these) and Piri Piri — anything! Of course, there are many more traditional Portuguese dishes and treats, these are just some of my favorites.
Évora also has some amazing ancient and historical sites. Most notably the Roman Temple (also referred to as the Templo de Diana, like many similar temples in Spain and Portugal!). This temple sits atop the main hill in the old town center and looks fabulous lit up in the evening. The old town is still partially enclosed by a medieval wall and there are numerous monuments dating from various historical periods.
Évora is a charming and pretty city that is well worth a visit.
When we finished our cruise, we disembarked in Rome and flew from there to Malta for a few days. We’d always wanted to visit Malta and let me say that this beautiful island did not disappoint!
We stayed at the Hilton, which was a little out of the Valletta old town but located at the Portomaso Marina. This is a lovely spot with great restaurants overlooking the luxury yachts and boats and an easy walk into some local shops and other restaurants.
Our plan to book outside of school holidays didn’t factor in the number of retirees that obviously had the same idea! We had hoped that Malta towards the end of September would have been a quieter period but it was BUSY! So busy in fact that the Hilton (which is huge) was totally booked out. This wasn’t a problem as the resort had the space to accommodate a crowd but it made some of the other activities a little tricky.
We spent a couple of days lazing by one of the Hilton’s five pools! Then decided that we really needed to check the island out.
One of the first things we did was book a Hop on Hop Off bus. They had a deal that included a boat ride around Malta harbour for a couple of hours so we chose that one. The boat ride was interesting with some great commentary and luckily we managed to get on one that wasn’t too busy. The boat that left before ours was literally jam packed — perhaps with people from a tour bus, so we were lucky to have missed that one.
We were told by friends who live in Malta that we must see “The Malta Experience” which is an audio- visual show that outlines Malta’s 7,000 years of history! This was great advice and really gives a good perspective on the island’s interesting and extensive history. The ticket includes a tour of the La Sacra Infermeria which is a must see.
The Hop on Hop Off bus did stop at the Hilton, which was handy, but it was over an hour late and took us over an hour to get into the old town, which is generally a 15-20 minute car trip. Most of this time we spent standing in the aisle after having vacated our seats for elderly and less mobile passengers. By the time we reached the old town we hadn’t managed to listen to any commentary or see anything of interest. We ended up ditching the bus idea and negotiating an hourly rate with a local taxi to drive us to the places which we were interested in. This worked out really well and whilst more expensive, it was faster, more comfortable and we toured to our own schedule.
We visited a local artisan town where you can view a demonstration of glass blowing and purchase some Malta craft. Rabat and Mdina were next on our tour which are, definitely must see towns. Mdina used to be Malta’s capital and is a fortified ancient town that is fabulous to wander around.
From there we travelled up through the mountains and stopped at a cliff with fantastic views and a lovely little church perched at the top. We tried cactus fruit here from a roadside stall. The fruit was surprisingly delicious and sweet and makes me wonder why we’ve tried so hard to eradicate “prickly pear” in Australia! The Blue Grotto was our next stop, made up of a number of sea caverns on Malta’s south coast. You can take a boat trip into the grotto but time prevented us from doing this and we settled for viewing it from the cliffs above. It was a great day, all up about 4.5 hours and we definitely felt that we got our money’s worth.
The people, scenery and history of Malta definitely make for a fantastic and interesting visit. I highly recommend it!!!
From Dubrovnik we sailed to Kotor, Montenegro. This city was picture perfect, like something out of a fairy tale! The town is perched on the waterfront and surrounded by the dramatic Balkan Mountains. Wander around the medieval town and visit some of its many churches and cathedrals and stop and have lunch in one of the pretty squares. We loved this city and intend to return.
Our next stop was Corfu in Greece. Like many of our other ports of call, we only had the day so we decided to hire a taxi and asked him to take us to a beach. He didn’t disappoint and we spent the day at a beautiful beach with crystal clear water and soft white sand. The temperature of the water was perfect and we spent a couple of hours swimming and laying in the sun — bliss! Later we lunched at a lovely restaurant at the marina on local seafood and a crisp Greek salad. Again, I wish we’d had more time but this is another place we plan to return to.
Our final stop before we disembarked in Rome was Sorrento. Sorrento is a lovely coastal town in southwestern Italy, facing the Bay of Naples on the Sorrentine Peninsula. The historic centre is a warren of narrow alleys that includes the Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th century church with a tranquil cloister. Sorrento also boasts some fabulous local artwork and artists and was a joy to wander around. Another beautiful town!!
This brings me to the end of my cruise blog posts. I hope I’ve given you inspiration for more travel of your own and perhaps including some of these fabulous places on your next vacation.
From beautiful Santorini we sailed to Katakolon, also in Greece. Katakolon is home to Ancient Olympia. This is a magnificent ancient ruin dating back almost 3,000 years and home of the original Olympic games. The marble starting blocks are still visible where 20,000 spectators once stood to watch the Olympians. Every four years the Olympic torch is lit in front of the ruins of the Temple of Hera and starts its journey from this awesome ancient and historical site.
From Katakolon we sailed to Saranda, Albania. Situated in a lovely horseshoe bay between the mountains and the Ionian Sea. We wandered along the waterfront of this pretty town and relaxed on the beach. The beach has big sand (large pebbles — not the soft, white kind!) so reef shoes or similar are handy here. You can however rent a sun bed and umbrella from some locals. The water was very pleasant in temperature and the Albanian people were extremely friendly. Also food and drink etc. is quite cheap so Saranda would make for an interesting and reasonably priced family beach holiday.
Venice, Italy was our next port of call. We have been here numerous times (in fact my husband and I were engaged in Venice) and this stop had us staying one night and two days. Unfortunately it wasn’t my favourite port on this voyage and we spent only half a day in the city, preferring the tranquillity and swimming pools on the ship. Venice was hot and humid and SWARMING with people. There were six cruise ships alongside to add to the tourist numbers and general cacophony! The narrow alleys and laneways were at times impassable due to the sheer number of people and the canals were clogged with boats, ferries and gondolas. It was hot and muggy and crowded and after a couple of hours we called it quits and headed back to the relative serenity of the ship. I much prefer Venice in the cooler months. It’s more comfortable and there are far less tourists and one can see Venice, as it is — a truly beautiful and romantic city. You can wander along its cobblestoned streets in comparative peace and the see the sites without risking an elbow to the ribs or to the nose! I do recommend visiting this city in the cooler seasons, but that of course is my opinion.
Our next stop was Dubrovnik, Croatia, also known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic”. Its history is rich and intriguing and it provided a fantastic first sight as we sailed into its harbour. We loved wandering around the historical Old Town, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ensure that you go up to the cable car lookout to really appreciate this city from a bird’s eye view. Dubrovnik offers some fabulous exploring and walking tours and is definitely a must see!
Pop in next week when I finish my account of our two-week cruise in Part Three.