Normally we bring in Christmas every year dining with very close friends and have a really great time. This time however, we decided to try something different.
The Honey Bee and I both love the spirit of Christmas, along with everything that goes with it (lights, trees, etc.). We even set up a small tree at home with lights, ornaments, artificial snow…the whole 9 yards.
Since neither of us have ever experienced a White Christmas (snow during Christmas), we decided it was about time. We booked an overnight trip to Andorra, a small mountainous country located between France and Spain with a population of under 80,000. Apart from being famous for its many ski-resorts, it is also a well-known tax-haven and it is also not uncommon for people to go shopping there since taxes are lower and goods can be purchased at a substantial discount.
At the time of making the booking, we double-checked the weather forecast to ensure that we get snow during our visit. We visited the capital city, Andorra la Vella, which is ensconsed in a valley and through which flows a constant stream of snow-melt from the snow-capped mountains around it.
Unfortunately, during the 2 days we were there, we just missed the snow. We saw the remnants of some unmelted snow on the drive there, and we were told snow was expected the day after we left. Snow or not, we decided to make the most of our visit there.
The drive there was beautiful. We drove on empty highways (since it was Christmas eve) through foggy mountains, and got some breathtaking views. We learned that the Andorrans take Christmas very very seriously. The entire city center is decked out in beautiful lights and Christmas themed events. There are movie themed winter activities, a Christmas parade, a Christmas market where the locals sell food and handicrafts, a kiosk to meet Santa, and even what I believe was a reindeer petting station.
We really enjoyed walking the streets and taking in the wonderful ambiance. Come dinner time, however, we ran into some trouble. We realized that 95% of the restaurants were closed on Christmas eve. Of the 5% that were open, 4.99% were fully booked. That basically left us with one restaurant/bar to eat at- and what a restaurant it was. The entire place was built like a wooden cabin, and made it feel like you were in a hut in Siberia, with hunting and fishing gear adorning the walls, along with animal heads. After a 30 minute wait, we forced our way in and took a seat at the bar. After another 15 minute wait, we finally placed our drinks order. Another 20 minutes later, we were finally assigned a table to sit at.
Since it was Christmas time, they had a “special” menu- a list of 10 overpriced dishes. Just to give you an idea of how overpriced it was, a plate of cheese and bread was € 9.50. When asked about one of these 10 dishes, the waiter didn’t even know what it contained. Our food order (2 dishes) came in parts over the course of an hour. Unexpectedly, the cheese came first and after constant pestering, we finally got the bread 30 minutes later. When we ordered the check, we had been overcharged on EVERYTHING. Fortunately, they were nice enough to refund the difference with grumpy faces when I pointed this out.
All in all, it certainly wasn’t the Christmas we were expecting, but rest assured it was a memorable one that we won’t soon forget. 😛
A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the Honey Bee’s birthday. It was challenging to reach the high bar I had set for myself with last year’s surprise, but I tried nonetheless.
Keeping in mind how much she enjoyed last year’s surprise, I found a similar getaway –Sallés Hotel Mas Tapiolas. Built in a sort of old farmhouse, this hotel has a rustic old-school charm to it. It is set literally in the middle of nowhere, and this allowed for some spectacular views of the night sky and an unfamiliar sense of peace and quiet. Not surprising, given that we drove around 10 minutes off the highway, on a narrow unlit road through thick tree cover to get there. It would have scared the bejesus out of us if our car had broken down there in the dark of the night.
Hungry upon arrival, we grabbed lunch in the outdoor garden seating restaurant with spectacular views of the swimming pool and the rolling hills and valleys behind it. After a delicious lunch that was accompanied by a wide variety of complimentary deserts and drinks, we spent some time walking around and exploring the property. Spread across a number of acres, it is full of well-manicured lawns that are decorated with little cabanas where couples can enjoy drinks or take in the views, with a modicum of privacy. We found they had a golf course, a pitch and putt, as well as a driving range that overlooked a shallow valley. We also found they had a spa, and since it was raining, we skipped golf and decided to hit up the spa.
The spa was fully equipped with the standard heated pool, jacuzzis and hydrotherapy massages. It also had a number of cabins that I was eager to try. We obviously did the steam and sauna, but we also tried the hot salt cabin, where not only are the walls made of heated blocks of Himalayan salt, but you are also sprayed with a salt residue. Apparently, it has various health benefits including for the respiratory system and for other health problems. We also tried the cold ice room, which is entirely lined with thick ice and is supposed to beneficial like cryotherapy. We wrapped it up with by walking the foot reflexology path and trying the 3 different varieties of shower massages.
Exhausted after the spa, we headed back to the room to recharge. The rooms, which almost make you feel like royalty, are decorated with rustic and classy wooden furniture and fully equipped with modern appliances. The bed lives up to and even surpasses everything you would expect from such a place, and to push it over the top, they even offered a pillow menu. We spent time on our balcony and wrapped up the night with mojitos at the hotel bar, watching the beautiful sunset while it rained outside.
The next day, after a thoroughly restful sleep and a fully loaded breakfast, followed by the cutting of the birthday cake, we decided to take advantage of the good weather and play some golf. We skipped the golf course, since we didn’t have a handicap, and went straight to the driving range. We spent a good hour, working on our form and competing to see who could higher and further into the shallow valley below.
And just like that, our 24 hours came to an end. After check out, we didn’t feel like leaving yet, so we spent some time out in the garden taking in the views with snacks and drinks, accompanied by some intermittent napping.
Overall, we had an excellent stay. This hotel is not a 5 star, but it might as well be. Every single aspect of the stay was incredible, from the food and the facilities to the hospitality and cleanliness. If you happen to be in the area, we recommend you spend at least a night there.
From the moment we reached Madrid, we spent quite a few hours shopping. This was because the Honey Bee and I were unsure about what to wear, especially given that this was going to be our first Spanish wedding. After chatting with friends, I had pretty much narrowed down what I would wear- basically a nice suit and a tie. However, for women it is a little more complicated. And because of this, I learned a lot about women’s clothing on this trip.
The Honey Bee spoke to her friends and figured out she’d need to wear a nice dress, with matching shoes (heels for the ceremony, flats for the dancing), a number of accessories, and lots of make-up. Apparently, women go all out at Spanish weddings, spending hours on their hair and make-up, often hiring someone to do it for them. Also, women can’t wear white because to do so would overshadow the bride. Another issue is the length of the dress- long vs. short. Apparently the protocol is long dresses for day weddings and short for evening weddings. However, from what I’ve read it depends heavily on each bride and also the part of the country.
So we spent over 4 hours shopping for a wedding dress and shoes. We tried every store we had heard of, and then some that we hadn’t. These included Primark, H&M, Zara, pretty much all the standard stores. We had a number of false positives- my term for when she thought she found a dress she liked, but then didn’t. After hours and hours of queuing up outside trial rooms we found something that might work.
So, the evening of the wedding, we headed all dressed up to the church. A beautiful edifice with stained glass windows and high arched ceilings. After everyone was done with introductions and chit-chatting and had taken a seat, the music started and the bride entered. She was dressed in a gorgeous long white dress. What followed were a number of beautiful short speeches and prayers by members of the family and the priest. Since it was really hot (around 38º Celsius) everyone was trying to cool themselves with hand fans, which was actually a really pretty sight. You don’t often get to see so many well-dressed people using old-school hand fans.
After the couple said their vows, they exchanged rings. I was surprised to see that there was no “you may now kiss the bride” nor any applause after the rings were exchanged. I later found out that was more the case with American weddings, which tend to be a little less formal.
After the ceremony, we all waited for the bride and groom to come down the stairs outside the church. As they did, we showered them with flower petals and cheered. After some small talk, we headed into air-conditioned buses (a welcome respite from the heat) that consequently made their way to the dinner location. It was a beautiful rustic farmhouse with domed brick ceilings and a quaint garden. We hung out in the garden drinking wines, champagnes, ciders, etc. and munching on finger food while the bride and groom mingled with their guests. The wedding also gave me a great opportunity to catch up with some old friends from school and introduce them to the Honey Bee.
Later, we headed in for dinner. The dining room was large and filled with close to 20 circular tables. The bride and groom pre-decide the seating arrangement for all the guests to try and ensure everyone is with their respective group and no one feels left out. We looked up our table number, and took a seat at our table. The bride and groom entered almost dancing to music and took their seats with their families at the presidential table at the head of the room.
What followed was a wonderfully orchestrated symphony of waiters. 20 waiters, all dressed identically, paraded into the room and took a spot behind each table. Then, they all waited until the waiter serving the presidential table signaled and then proceeded to begin serving their respective tables. The women at each table were served first, then the men. Everything was rehearsed and well-coordinated. The same routine was repeated for every course of the meal.
After a wonderful 3 course dinner and lots of drinks the couple went around the room doing a little dance with the bouquet. As most of us know, as per American tradition the bride throws the bouquet into the air to see who catches it. It is believed that the one who catches it will be the next to get married. In Spain, the bride delivers the bouquet, but does so in a roundabout fashion dancing and moving from table to table to keep everyone guessing. Finally, over the next few minutes the couple visited each table to talk and have pictures taken with their guests.
At the end of it, we all filed into a smaller room where an open bar prepared everyone to hit the dance floor to the latest Spanish and English hits. Some couples danced fancy, while others like us simply did the best they could and had a great time. At around 2 am, we were all tired and headed back out into the garden. The weather was considerably cooler so it was nice being outdoors.
At 2 am, the first bus arrived to take us back into the city. The second was scheduled for 5 am. Since we were all very tired, it was critical to ensure we were on that first bus or else we might have to spend the rest of the night there. A short sprint later, we and the rest of our group were snuggly in our seats. I, for one, could barely keep my eyes open and feel asleep no sooner than the bus started. Others talked about the evening. 45 minutes later we bid adieu to our friends as we disembarked and headed to our hotel for a good night’s shuteye.
The next day we would head back home and said good-bye to this marvelous city. Thank you Madrid for such a great time, and Congratulations to our dear friend!
We recently spent a couple of days in Madrid. Although it turned into a mini-vacation, the real objective of the trip was to attend our first Spanish wedding. We got there a couple of days early to enjoy the city, and then wrapped the trip up with the wonderful wedding. We also took the opportunity to catch up with some good friends over some great food.
For the sake of keeping things organized, I will focus on the sightseeing portion of the trip in this post, and talk about the wedding in the next.
First let’s look at some quick facts: The capital of Spain, the city of Madrid has a population of 3.2 million and the metropolitan area of 6.5 million. It surprised me to find out that it is Europe’s 3rd largest city after London and Berlin.
I should mention here that the city has a lot more to do and see, including a number of world-famous museums. However, because of the brevity of our trip, we had to leave those out. Like always, let’s now jump into the city’s top sights, ordered by our favorites:
Gran Via: This is probably the most central and active street in Madrid. It is lined with a number of notable and architecturally impressive buildings housing corporate headquarters, up-scale shopping stores, restaurants, theaters and lots more. This street is a must visit for the shopping during the daytime and for the nightlife in the evening, when it is all lit up. Looking at it, you can’t help but be reminded of Broadway or Times Square, except a much cleaner version.
As a special mention, I must recommend visiting Primark’s relatively new 130,000 square feet iconic store here. It takes up almost an entire city block and features 5 stories filled with clothing and accessories- a paradise for the female shopper. We spent a good few solid hours here, and the Honey Bee just couldn’t get enough.
The building houses 11 massive screens and a restored octagonal atrium that allows plenty of much appreciated natural daylight into the store. Primark has done a great job of transforming a historic departmental store building and merging it with modern architecture.
Templo de Debod: This temple was gifted to Spain by Egypt and is one of the very few original Egyptian structures that can be found outside of the country, and in fact it is the only one that can be found in Spain.
In 1960, due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the consequent threat posed by its reservoir to numerous monuments and archeological sites, UNESCO made an international call to save this rich historical legacy, which Spain answered. As a sign of gratitude for the help provided, the Egyptian state donated the temple of Debod to Spain in 1968. It was in fact dismantled and moved piece by piece to be re-assembled in Madrid.
We visited the temple at night and were really taken aback by its beauty. It was gorgeously lit up and reflected brilliantly in the pond on which it is built.
Puerta del Sol: Translated as Gate of the Sun, this is among the most centric and busiest squares of Madrid. It houses the famous bell tower whose chimes bring in the new year. As per tradition, people also eat one grape with every chime. You will also find in this square a plaque marking the center (km 0) of the Spain’s radial network of highways.
Among the statues you will find at the Puerta del Sol, noteworthy is that of the symbol of Madrid: the bear and the strawberry tree (el Oso y el Madroño). The story goes that at a time when the Earth was suffering from a great drought, the bear fell to Earth from the Ursa Major constellation. He tried and tried to climb back to the sky, but could not reach. In despair, he started to cry. His tears full upon a strawberry plant growing in the area. It should be noted that these plants are almost perennial and can endure plenty of drought and heat. The plant told the bear to keep crying and used the water from its tears to grow. Once the tree was all grown, the bear was able to climb it and return to his place in the stars. You will find this symbol plastered all over the city, from its flag and its trash cans to its streetlights and manhole covers.
Parque de Buen Retiro: Formerly a park meant only for the monarchy, it is now open to the public. The closest comparables that come to mind are New York’s Central Park & London’s Hyde Park. Located at the very edge of the city center, it is an oasis of life and activity. A wide open and well maintained green space with beautifully manicured gardens, this park is truly a retreat from the hustle & bustle of everyday life. It has a number of water bodies stocked with fish and turtles, a large lake where you can rent boats, dedicated areas for scheduled cultural and art related performances and a handful of kiosks and restaurants. And that’s not all-as you stroll around you will come across a number of other historical attractions.
I would recommend visiting the park in the evening, when it is a bit cooler. We made the mistake of visiting it in the middle of the afternoon, and while pleasant in the shaded areas the scorching heat really got to us.
Mercado de San Miguel: This semi open-air market was originally built in 1916. However, it was rejuvenated in 2003 when it was purchased and renovated by private investors. It re-opened in 2009 and has been popular ever since as a place to hang out and sample a wide variety of beers, wines, champagnes, tapas, etc.
Plaza Mayor: This is another massive square (it’s actually rectangular) flanked by 3 floor residential buildings on all sides, and whose 237 balconies all face inwards. A very short walk from the Puerta Del Sol, this is a major tourist attraction and lined with overpriced restaurants and bars.
I would recommend this square to grab a beer and people watch, but definitely not for an authentic meal.
Palacio Real de Madrid: Apart from being the seat of the federal government, the city is also the seat of the Monarchy. We took the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace. It costs c. € 11 for a normal entry ticket, but it is worth the money. While the Royal Palace of Madrid is the official residence of the royal family, they choose to live at the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. The Royal Palace is now only used for state ceremonies.
It’s close to 1.5 million square feet house 3,418 rooms and lots of history, including troves of paintings, statues and other valuables. The palace also has a huge gated courtyard, and it was in this courtyard that the royal wedding took place in 2004.
While the insides were as grand as can be expected and we enjoyed the tour, I have to confess that boredom got the best of us after a while. Nonetheless, I would still recommend taking a look inside.
Overall, we really enjoyed our trip to Madrid and I’d recommend it to just about anyone without reservations. Except for the blistering afternoon heat, we really have no other complaints. Combined with the Spanish wedding, the trip really made for a truly memorable experience.
After a great stay in Budapest, we spent a day each moving through Bratislava and Vienna. We originally had a 10 am flight scheduled to fly from Vienna to Faro Airport, Portugal. However, that flight was canceled and we were put on a 4 am flight. That’s right- 4 a-m!
So, after literally 1 hour of sleep in Vienna, we headed to the airport and checked-in for our flight. We pretty much slept right through our approximately 4 hour flight and reached Faro airport relatively refreshed. What followed was another 1 hour car ride to our hotel in the town of Lagos (in the southern Algarve region of Portugal). No sooner had we arrived than we went off sight-seeing. We walked around the hotel on foot and visited a couple of beautiful sight-seeing points and beaches including Ponta Da Piedade. Here’s the first view we got:
Over the next couple of days, we took a number of boat rides. You see, the area is famous for sea grottos-limestone caves that are formed naturally along the sea front by wind and water erosion. The most famous one is the Benagil Sea Cave. I’m confident you’ve seen some of these caves before-either in the movies, or on your computer’s screensaver. The boats take you to visit these grottos that litter the entire coastline. Tide and weather permitting, sometimes they are even able to enter the caves and give you an inside glimpse into the awesome power and sheer beauty of the works of Mother Nature.
Apart from the grottos, we spent some time walking around the quaint streets of this small town and enjoying the many waterfront restaurants & bars.
We had originally planned on visiting the gorgeous beaches here, but the relatively windy conditions didn’t allow it. So, instead we visited ZooMarine- an aquatic theme park. The park has several attractions including bird, seal, sea-lion and dolphin shows. It also has bird sanctuaries (think Jurassic Park) wherein you enter a giant domed area and walk around amidst the birds in their “natural” environment. If you dare, you can even feed the birds out of your very hand. The park also has a bunch of other entertainment activities like aquariums, acrobatic performances, theme park based rides, water activities, etc.
Before we knew it our 3 days here were up. We packed up and headed off for the final leg of our trip, which concluded in Seville, Spain. As tight as the schedule was, we really had a great time. And as is the case with all good things, this too came to an end. With that, we had our final family dinner of the vacation, relaxing by the pool in the garden of our hotel, rehashing our whirlwind of a trip and already making plans for the next one.
We just returned from our annual family vacation, and boy did we have a good time. We went all over the place, starting off with a couple of days in Budapest (Hungary), with quick stopovers in Bratislava (Slovakia) and Vienna (Austria). Then we hopped across the continent to visit the southern Algarve region of Portugal, followed by a car ride to Seville (Spain).
Like always, to keep this post as clean and crisp as possible, I will focus on the places we spent the most time in: Budapest & Algarve.
Today’s post is dedicated entirely to Budapest, and next week I’ll cover Algarve.
Let’s jump right in. After reuniting with the family at the Budapest airport, we spent more than 30 minutes in line waiting to catch a cab. Our hotel was conveniently located right in the center of the city. Over the next few days, we thanked our lucky stars because being centrally located allowed us to do and see sooo much more. The name of the street we stayed on was Váci Utca and I’d strongly recommend finding a hotel on or around it.
Large parts of the center are pedestrian only, and hence make for a great place to spend time. Apart from the frequent tour providers trying to get you to sign up for their tours and forcing you to “try” their Segway, we really enjoyed Budapest. Most of the pedestrian areas are lined with all kinds of shops (brands, chains, souvenirs, local trade, etc.).
There is certainly no shortage of restaurants either. Since this is a heavily tourist area, beware of restaurants that get away with serving horrible food and charging high prices. I’d recommend you look them up on TripAdvisor before entering. I must admit that the city center seemed to be overrun with tourists, and has perhaps lost some of its charm. However, given that travel and tourism contributes over 11% to the country’s GDP and is expected to rise, it doesn’t surprise me.
The Budapest that we know it today was originally composed of 2 cities-Buda & Pest that were combined into a single city in 1873. We mostly walked everywhere, but I’d also recommend using public transportation which includes a very good network of buses, trams and a very comfortable underground metro.
Here are some sight-seeing & activity recommendations, ordered by my personal favorites:
Gellért Baths: Originally built between 1912-1918, the complex was damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt. The complex contains a number of pools, saunas, and wellness related services. The entire facility, although old, is built-in an art-nouveau style. I’m certain I can’t do justice when describing the splendor of this place, but I’m going to try. From the moment you enter, the grandeur hits you straight in the face. The imposing high ceilings, the beautiful fountains, the mosaic tiles on the walls and the floors, the statues, the colors, every single thing here astounds with its majesty and magnificence. The closest comparison I can think of is bathing in a cathedral.
The thermal waters contain calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, alkalis, chloride, sulfate and fluoride. The properties of the water are said to help with various conditions like joint illnesses & inflammation, spine problems, vertebral disk problems, etc. The temperature of the water is between 35 °C and 40 °C. In fact, references to the healing properties of the mineral hot springs at this location can be found dating back to the 13th century. If you visit Budapest, this place is a must visit and should be at the very top of your list.
The Liberty Statue: Built in 1947 at the top of Gellért hill, it commemorates those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.
The Gellért Monument: Built in 1904 in honor of the 11th century bishop St. Gellért who converted the Magyars to Christianity. Below the memorial is a man-made waterfall. Legend has it that Gellért was put to death by pagans at this spot by putting him in a barrel and rolling it down the steep Gellért Hill and eventually into the Danube River.
Cave Church: Part of a network of caves within the hills, it is often referred to as St. Ivan’s cave. St. Ivan was a hermit that who lived there and is believed to have used the natural thermal water from a muddy lake next to the cave to heal the sick. It is likely that this same water fed the pools of the old Sáros fürdő (“Muddy Baths”), now called Gellért Baths.
The church has an interesting history and was sealed with a thick concrete wall by the Soviet Red Army in 1951. It wasn’t until the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1989 that the wall was brought down and the church restored.
Hungarian Parliament: Completed in 1904, it is the largest building in Hungary, and the tallest in Budapest. About 100,000 people were involved in its construction, during which 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold were used. Interestingly the architect went blind before it was completed, never being able to see his completed work.
Heroes’ Square: Completed in 1900, this it is one of the major squares of Budapest and includes a number of grand statues of past leaders, and among other things the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Although the square itself is very large and magnificent, it didn´t quite live up to my expectations. As a European square, I was expecting it to be filled with life, lots of people and cafes. However, all we found there were parked buses, empty beer cans, and rowdy tourists. Although I wouldn’t recommend penciling in spending too much time there, I would recommend paying it a visit.
All in all, we spent a wonderful 3.5 days in Budapest, but I’d recommend going with 4-5 days in hand to really get to know the city and try everything it has to offer. Food, accommodation, transport and shopping are relatively cheap compared to Western Europe, which is a good thing ‘coz your money goes further.
Upon our recent visit to Bologna, we had an interesting airline experience that I’d like to share here. In addition to being an interesting read, it might help you learn a thing or two about your rights in relation to airlines.
This might also be a good time to shamelessly promote my post about Saving on Air Travel. I highly recommend it if you love to travel and save money (who doesn’t?).
On with the story…
To catch our return flight home from Bologna, we showed up at the airport more than 3 hours in advance. At the airport, we were notified that our flight had been canceled for “technical reasons”. Furthermore, we discovered that there were no other return flights from Bologna that day. Fortunately, our airline (Vueling) stepped up and organized alternative transportation. After a long wait, they put us on very comfortable buses to Venice, from where we were put on an alternate flight to our final destination. All said and done, we reached home 6+ hours later that we should have, and much much more tired.
From the point we were informed about the cancellation till we got home, we kept all our receipts, hanging on to the slight hope that we might be compensated. Having heard all kinds of horror stories about how hard it is to get any compensation from airlines, we almost didn’t try.
A quick call to Vueling, and surprisingly the matter was taken care of (Shock & disbelief!!). There was no argument, no demand for a physical boarding pass, no demand for receipts, no nothing. They simply confirmed the compensation we were legally entitled to and paid it out.
Here, I have to commend Vueling. For whatever “technical reason” they cancelled our flight. That sucked, but shit happens. However, instead of leaving passengers hanging and in confusion, they took responsibility for their mistake and fixed it by organizing and paying for a viable alternative for their passengers. They even went the extra mile by ensuring that passengers got the compensation they were legally entitled to, without making it unnecessarily difficult. Kudos Vueling! The others should learn from you.
After a long hiatus, we finally resumed our travels. To celebrate our wedding anniversary, we took a long weekend trip to Bologna, Italy. It is the 7th most populous city in Italy with a population of just over a million. Apart from the extraordinarily large number of tourists and foreign students, the city is also home to a lot of cultural history and boasts numerous historical landmarks, in addition to the world’s oldest university.
Following my guide to saving on air travel, we scored a really good deal on flights to and from Bologna. Upon arriving early in the morning, we got lucky and managed to get checked-in early at the hotel. We grabbed a Cornetti (croissant filled with different types of creams, etc.) and hit the city’s center for some sight-seeing. We spent a lot of time eating and drinking (and you should too). Nonetheless, we did try to get in a fair amount of sight-seeing. As always, to avoid a meandering post, I’ll focus on our top 5 highlights.
1. Piazza Maggiore, with the San Petronio Basilica and the City Hall: The city’s definitive center, this massive plaza is flanked by the incomplete but beautiful San Petronio Basilica, the city’s town hall and beautiful heritage buildings with cafés and restaurants.
The Basilica is the 10th largest church in the world and dominates the plaza. During the hot summer days, we joined other tourists and took respite from the sun sitting on the stairs under the massive shadow of the basilica. In the evenings, its a good place to sit and people watch and enjoy the activities going on the in the Piazza Maggiore.
We also spent a lot of time sitting in the various cafés under the porticos of the many heritage buildings enjoying a cold beer or a refreshing lemon Schweppes. I should point out here that most cafés will overcharge you for drinks (c. € 4), but this includes some complimentary snacks. So, don’t make the mistake of ordering drinks and snacks, ‘coz they won’t tell you in advance.
2. Neptune Fountain (Fontana di Nettuno): This imposing bronze structure stands just a few meters away from the Piazza Maggiore. Since the fountain was undergoing major restoration, it was completely covered by scaffolding. However, we managed to get on a tour that took us inside the scaffolding and allowed us to view the statue up close.
As our guide explained, in one hand Neptune holds the trident calming the waters, and with his other hand, he is gesturing to calm the wind. I always wondered about the difference between Poseidon and Neptune. Upon investigating, I found that “Neptune is the ancient Roman god of the sea, and Poseidon is the Greek God of the sea. They look similar in depictions, and some consider them to be the same God with two different names. Many people believe the Romans adopted the Greek God Poseidon and changed his name to Neptune.”
3. The 2 Towers (Due Torri): These two tall stone towers are amongst the few remaining and without a doubt the most prominent of all the towers that once dotted the city’s landscape. Built by wealthy families during the 12th century to keep a watchful eye over and defend their property, they eventually became symbols of a family’s status within the society, and families would compete to build the higher tower.
These 2 towers are named after the families that supposedly built them-Asinelli and Garisenda. Believe it or not, these towers have developed a considerable tilt, making them very comparable to the world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Once again, we were unfortunately not allowed to climb these towers as they were closed for restoration.
4. Archiginnasio of Bologna: As impressive as the building is, what is even more breathtaking is what it houses. Built during the 16th century, it was once the seat of the world’s oldest university- the University of Bologna. This building now houses the Anatomical Theater and a beautiful grand library, among other things.
The Anatomical Theater was used for anatomy lectures. It is made entirely of wood and is shaped like an amphitheater, lined with statues of famous doctors and anatomists. The ceiling is also wooden and has a statue of Apollo, the God of medicine, in the center which is surrounded by various constellations. At one end, the room is overlooked by an ornate seat for the professor topped by two naked and skinless men knows as “gli spellati” (the skinned ones). In the center of the room stands a marble table, used for the dissection of humans and animals. This structure was almost completely destroyed in an air raid during the Second World War. It was then rebuilt meticulously using all of the original pieces recovered from the building.
As tourists, we were denied access to the library. However, we were able to pay for a tour of the rest of the building, and get a glimpse of the library from one of the side doors. The library is a grand old room, decorated with paintings, coats of arms and statues. It is impossible to do justice to the beauty of the library, so let me just paraphrase the way a friend described it to me: “When you see the library, you will want to study there.”
5. The Middle Market (Mercato di Mezzo): A three floor market, here you can get a sampling of traditional Bolognese food. There are a number of kiosks that offer a variety of meats, fish, cheeses, fruits, breads, wines, beers, etc. There are also a couple of restaurants with limited seating. After a number of years of being abandoned, the market was finally brought back to life after a major renovation in 2014.
Others: Without going into detail, I’d also recommend visiting the University, the Santa Maria Basilica, the San Pietro Cathedral (and above all its bell tower where you can learn about how the bells are rung, how dangerous it is and how it makes the tower sway), the Pescherie Vecchie, the tons of local restaurants for fresh pasta, and so much more!
Overall, I’d say Bologna is a great city to visit during a long weekend and would recommend it. It has a rich cultural and gastronomical history. If you’re a history buff, I’d recommend a few more days. There is more than enough to do, see, eat and drink. Notwithstanding, we probably won’t return for a second visit- not because there is anything wrong with the city- but because we enjoyed our previous trip to Florence much more and would rather revisit there.
With spring right around the corner, it made a preview appearance last weekend-a welcome change after months of cold weather. Not wanting to waste such a beautiful day, we decided to make a day trip out of it.
We visited the nearby town of Vilanova i la Geltrú. About an hour and a half from Barcelona city, this small town of around 70,000 people has a rustic small town charm that draws you in. Located close to the beautiful beach town of Sitges, this town is also located on the waterfront. However, we chose to skip the beach entirely and spent most of our time walking the town’s small tile paved pedestrian only streets, lined with 1 story buildings with houses and shops. There was also a local festival in progress, in celebration of which the streets were decorated with creatively recycled and colored objects like plates, water bottles and water barrels.
We also walked along the main rambla, a much wider and airier pedestrian only avenue, which was filled with families enjoying an afternoon walk and children playing. This avenue was also lined with numerous stores, but unlike in the smaller streets these were branded chain stores.
After lots of walking, we wrapped up the evening enjoying a sunset at the main square (Placa de la Vila). This main square houses a number of beautiful and iconic public buildings. It is interesting to note that this square has a bronze statue of a former prominent resident, Josep Tomàs Ventosa Soler, a textile magnate that made his fortune in Cuba. 2 identical statues were forged in Cuba, of which one was brought to Spain, while the other still stands in Cuba.
Since it was a weekend, there was a lively outdoor market staged at the main square. The square was bustling with activity. Some people strolled around casually looking at the merchandise on sale, while others sat in one of the many cafes lining the square, sipping on their cold beers or hot coffees. We were in the latter group, enjoying chocolate croissants, olives and drinks.
All in all, it was a day well spent. We’re hoping for more beautiful weather over the coming weeks so we can leave the city and make more day trips. I’d definitely recommend visiting this town if you happen to be in the Barcelona area.
After a long time, we had a long weekend off from work. Since we haven’t really “traveled” anywhere in a few months, we decided to take advantage of it and flew to Portugal to the beautiful riverside city of Porto (or Oporto).
As I have blogged in the past, we flew there really cheap, courtesy of RyanAir. It is interesting to note that Portugal is in a different time zone from Spain. If you look at a map, you will notice Spain is in line with Britain, Portugal and Morocco and should be on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In fact, it was. However during the 1940s, to show his loyalty to Germany during the Second World War, Spain’s dictator changed the time zone to align with Germany’s.
After we landed, we set our clocks back an hour and set off to our city center apartment. I must mention here that the Honey Bee and I have traditionally been highly skeptical of Airbnb. However, after months of pondering, we decided to try it. We booked a beautiful apartment, right in the middle of the historic district, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The entire building is owned and run by a mother-son duo and features comfortable modern apartments. They even bring a variety of warm fresh-baked breads to your door every morning. For those thinking about visiting, I’d strongly recommend you consider it (Mouzinho 134).
At check-in, we were welcomed with a delicious cup of sweet local Porto wine and given a detailed introduction to the city and its sights. Something I learned that surprised me was that up until 10 years ago, the historic district was in shambles and was overrun by drug traders and gangs. However, the advent of low cost airlines opened up new routes to Porto that brought in hordes of tourists, injecting new life into this part of the city, and rejuvenating the local economy.
During our 2.5 days there we saw, did, and ate & drank a whole lot. However, to simplify things we’ll focus on what we consider musts for visitors. So here’s our list of the Top 5 things to do in Porto:
1) Capela das Almas & Rue Santa Caterina: An unlikely location, the church is located on the bustling and central Santa Caterina Street that is lined with shops and restaurants. The street itself is a great place to hang out, grab a drink in the evening or simply window shop.
When you come upon the church, it is almost by accident since you expect to see another shop or mall or restaurant where it is. Located right in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, it is like a little sanctuary in the midst of all the chaos. The entire outside of the church is beautifully adorned with blue tiles typical of Porto (azulejos) depicting the lives of various saints. From the inside the church was the simplest and most basic we visited, but it is also where I felt the most at peace.
2) Igreja do Carmo & Igreja dos Carmelitas: These churches are built alongside each other. They are two distinct churches, but form one unique structure. It is interesting to note that the 2 are separated by a very very narrow house, put there to prevent any mixing between the monks and the nuns. The latter was built in the 17th century and the former in the 18th. As can be expected, both churches are grand and ornate from the inside and dwarf visitors. The exterior walls of the Carmo church are also adorned with blue and white azulejos depicting scenes of religious historical importance.
3)Porto Bridge Climb: Started close to 6 months ago for those of a slightly daring disposition, you climb the arch of the Arrábida Bridge. This bridge was built in 1963 over the Duoro River and connects Porto to the neighboring town of Gaia. It rises to a height of 52 meters and offers a clearance of 70 meters above the river. When completed, its main span of 270 meters was the largest of any concrete-arch bridge in the world.
Our guide Pedro, one of the nicest people you will ever meet, gave us an introduction to the bridge, briefed us on the safety instructions, harnessed us to the safety line and accompanied us up to the top of the bridge. The view from the pinnacle takes your breath away. You see the city on one side, and the estuary where the Duoro River feeds into the Atlantic Ocean on the other. You see the river flowing some 70 meters below you, and airplanes flying overhead. You even see birds flying in formation, swooping underneath the bridge. I would strongly recommend you reserve an evening visit so as to enjoy the sunset from this vantage point.
4) Dom Luís I Bridge & Cais da Ribeira: Another one of the 6 bridges in Porto, this is a double-decked metal arch bridge over the Douro River that also connects Porto and Gaia. At the time of construction in 1886, its span of 172 m was the longest of its type in the world. While amazing to look at any time of the day, a night time view transports you to another world. At night, the bridge and its surrounding banks come alive with beautiful multicolored lights and lasers.
A walk along the Cais de Ribeira, which literally means the neighborhood on the waterfront, goes hand-in-hand with the river and the bridge. A night time stroll after dinner and drinks at one of the restaurants mentioned below is an absolute must, not just for romantics, but for anyone who comes to Porto.
5) Livraria Lello: Although the bookstore has existed in various forms in different locations across Porto, this bookstore was built in 1906. It is one of the oldest book stores in Portugal (and probably the world) and is consistently rated among the top bookstores in the world.
You wouldn’t be wrong in wondering why tourists would choose to visit a bookstore? Well, apart from the carved wooden ceiling, the beautiful stained glass roof, and a grand staircase straight out a fairy tale, it just so happens that JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter Series, visited this bookstore often. Turns out she taught English in Porto and this store is reported to be an inspiration for her writing.
Porto is a beautiful place with lots to see. So while not all the places worth visiting made it onto this list, heres some more to-dos that you might want to consider if you have the time: Praça da Liberdade (Porto sign), Clérgios Church & Tower, Palácio da Bolsa, Porto Cathedral & São Bento Station.
Restaurants: You will undoubtedly find a lot of great restaurants & bars on TripAdvisor like we did. So instead of an exhaustive list, let me just mention our 2 favorite spots:
Wine Quay Bar: A rustic little bar by the riverside with great wines, appetizers, views and ambiance.
Mengos: Very local-don’t expect anything fantasy here. Heaven for desserts, local food and other baked delights.
Porto was a fun and memorable trip, and without a doubt we plan on returning there in the near future. If you haven’t visited already, what are you waiting for?