2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal and I’m so so thankful we were able to whip up a last-minute trip to the shrine while spending a weekend in Lisbon a couple weeks ago. For those of you interested and unfamiliar with the miracles at Fatima, I encourage you to Google it. A good place to start could be EWTN’s website. There’s also a fun little Saint John Paul II twist involving the bullet that almost killed him that you can read about.
Popular pilgrimage times are on the 13th of each month, especially in apparition months (May to October). Our visit was off-peak but there was still a decent number of people visiting. The campus of the shrine is quite large and so we focused our visit on the Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Rosário where the three shepherd children are buried and the outdoor Capelinha das Apariçoes. Inside this chapel is a marble pedestal holding a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, built on the site of the old holm oak tree where Mary visited the children. The tree has long since died, or rather, was stripped away into nothingness by souvenir seeking pilgrims, so the spot was marked with a statue. I’m assuming this is the statue holding St. JPII’s bullet since it’s encased in glass.
Planning and executing a pilgrimage to Fatima could not be easier. Fly to Lisbon, rent a car at the airport (very affordable, and basically free if you can operate a manual), and drive north for one hour. The majority of the drive is on a highway with only a few roundabouts to navigate. Have some Euros ready to pay tolls and you’re set. There are multiple free car parks at the shrine, public WCs, and well-kept areas to picnic. The town is small but has plenty of hotels for tourists and little traditional restaurants. Two were recommended to us, though we chose to picnic in the sunshine: Restaurante O Truão and Restaurante Ze Grande.
Some of you are into spiritual trips like this, others are not. Though I expect most will agree that some experiences are felt so deeply that trying to describe them is like trying to share a drink with a friend by scooping up water with your hands. With that in mind, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for the formulaic trip report. If pilgrimages are your jam, this is the year to do Fatima. And if you go, try to visit the homes of Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco. We didn’t have the time.
Claire, my wonderful sister-in-law, came to visit the week after Thanksgiving and we had such a blast introducing her to England! It’s been so long since I’ve seen my siblings or siblings-in-law, and it was so nice to spend a week with Claire. We visited York, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Birmingham, and London. Continue reading “Claire Came to Visit!”→
Prior to our move abroad, I picked up Edward Rutherford’s epic novel Sarum and somehow managed to reach the end. This book provides a sweeping history of England by tracing various families from neolithic times to the 20th century. The majority of the 1,000 pages are set in present day Salisbury, Continue reading “Visiting Salisbury and Winchester”→
Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! It’s about time I finish up the Spain posts. Lotssssss of pictures from Seville so let’s dig in. Seville is much larger than Avila or Toledo and we walked a ton over our three day stay. We saw and ate quite a bit. Here are three highlights and some recommendations: Continue reading “Spain Part IV: Seville”→
I wonder if UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office needs a brand ambassador… I’m quickly becoming one of their biggest fans. If you’re traveling or planning a trip and something is listed on the world heritage register, do yourself a favor and make sure you check it out. Like Ávila, the whole city of Toledo is on the list, and this was my favorite stop on our Spanish roadtrip. Also, FYI, it is not pronounced like Toledo, Ohio. The vowels and the “d” are all very soft – good luck.
The drive from Ávila to Toledo was gorgeous. Tell me this doesn’t make you question the point of leveling the land and cramming millions of people together in relatively small spaces. I prefer the below.
Anyway, Toledo is known as the city of three cultures thanks to the history of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence (and rivalry). The churches, synagogues, and Mudejar architecture are gorgeous and the city is very well cared for. It is larger than Ávila with more to see and do, very hilly, and very walkable. The Spanish painter El Greco lived here and his pieces pepper the churches and museums. If you’re a fan of his this is a great city to visit.
We visited the 13th century cathedral, 14th century El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum, 16th century Museo-Hospital de Santa Cruz (free in the evening for the last hour or so), 14th century and Mudejar style Iglesia de Santo Tome which contains El Greco’s famous painting Burial of Count Orgaz, and wandered and wandered and wandered. If the weather is nice, losing yourself in the tiny streets is such fun.
Due to the constant need to navigate through the twisty streets, I didn’t use our camera as frequently so some of these pictures are from my phone. Sorry about the quality!!
Everything in Toledo seems so ancient. In fact, our Airbnb was one of six “modern” buildings in the city. Meaning it was built in the late 1800s! I love the grandness and detail of the doors, the cobblestone streets hardly wide enough for a Vespa, and all the efforts to preserve the past. Many shops sell traditional Toledo steel knives, swords, and collectors’ items. The steel-working trade has been a major part of life in Toledo since 500BC. You can also watch damasquinado artists at work, decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. I picked up a pair of damasquinado earrings and had to force myself not to buy more. You don’t have to own to appreciate has become one of my mini-mantras as we travel. So much pretty around every corner and as much as I want to take a piece of every place home with me, I can’t fit it all in my carry-on only life!
We bought a box of marzipan de Toledo (some sort of special recipe) and had some wonderful food and wine here. If you’re eating out often, learn how to ask if the bread is free with dinner, because it usually is not, and unless you can eat a whole bread basket, it’s a total waste.
One final observation: attending mass in Spain will not give you free access to the cathedrals. We tried in every city except Madrid where the cathedral is free. This trick works really well in Italy and in England. Attend a service or an “evensong” (St. Paul’s… Westminster Abbey…) and you’re good. In Spain, you enter a small chapel through a separate door, say your prayers, and out you go.
We spent 2 nights in Toledo and then drove south to Seville, stopping briefly in Mérida to see some Roman ruins and have lunch.
Mérida contains Spain’s largest collection of Roman ruins. Scattered throughout the town are the remains of a 6,000 seat amphitheater, the longest of all existing Roman bridges, the Forum, Temple to Diana, Trajan’s Arch, Circus Maximus, an aqueduct, and more. We only had time for the aqueduct and it was seriously impressive. The arches are sprinkled with giant storks’ nests. This was not part of our itinerary but was worth the stop. Mérida is only a couple minutes off the motorway and we had no trouble parking in the neighborhood for 30 minutes while we wandered.
One more post coming soon about Seville and then I’ll be bombarding you all with pictures of glorious England once again!
Ávila is a tiny town only an hour or so from Madrid that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Famous for its towering medieval stone walls, 12th century cathedral, and ties to St. Teresa of Ávila, this was a wonderful place to stay for a night. After massive amounts of walking and exploring in Madrid, I was immediately charmed by the size of the city and solitude of the surrounding countryside.
Even though our visit corresponded with one of the busiest times of the year, the feast day of St. Teresa, I would hardly describe the place as crowded. St. Teresa is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and she lived much of her life here. We visited her convent, church, and a mini-museum containing her diary, many original writings, the rosary and crucifix that she carried everywhere, and one of her fingers. We also saw her gigantic statue that is brought out on a “float” for processions. These are very common in Spain and they are carried through the streets during festivals and celebrations and then displayed for a few weeks before being tucked safely away. We saw them in each of the cities we visited, and I have to say they’re quite impressive and such a fun tradition. The one in Ávila was covered in flowers.
A visit to Ávila isn’t complete without touring the old city walls, or murallas. They date from the 12th century and are remarkably well preserved, standing atop old Muslim battlements. Stones dating to Roman times were also reused in the construction of the murallas, so the massive fortress is a kind of testament to the multiple civilizations that have occupied this hilltop. We climbed up and walked the perimeter of the city and I absolutely loved the views! Mountains in the far distance, little cottages and farms, and the red roofs of the town.
We spent about 24 hours in Ávila and then drove south to Toledo. Exploring smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track areas has quickly become my favorite way to travel! If you’re spending a few days in Madrid, I highly recommend adding a day to see Ávila or Toledo so you can experience Spanish life outside the capitol.
Ready for a really tardy party full of Spain pictures?! I’m sorry for my longer than usual absence. I can give you a whole list of excuses, but honestly, blogging hasn’t been flowing for me over the last couple months. My guilt caught up with me however, and here I am. Since my last post, we visited Oxford, hiked a stunning section of the Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales, spent more than a week in Spain with my parents, and I finally visited Chatsworth House with Connor’s cousin Elaine. I also hiked the Malvern Hills for a second time and found myself floating above the clouds. It was surreal. Instagram is the best place to keep up with these mini day/weekend adventures, especially Instagram Stories, so if you don’t follow me over there, hop to it!
Now for Madrid!
Connor and I spent a weekend in Madrid before my parents arrived. The city is very walkable and we had no trouble covering the central area in two days. We visited the Royal Palace on Saturday morning and absolutely loved it. The interior is stunning, but no photos are allowed beyond the entrance hall, so I have little to show for our time wandering the rooms. I tend to avoid historical interiors since they’re so often full of looping, recorded narratives and creepy manikins staged for “a day in the life.” Thankfully, this was not the situation at the Royal Palace. The rooms were beautiful and ornate, the number of chandeliers alone was incredible (maybe 100??), and now I feel the need to tour Buckingham Palace ASAP.
The Palace hosts art exhibitions from time to time and we caught the last day of a Caravaggio & Bernini exhibit. We also loved the armory (equestrian items were fabulous), room full of Stradivarius instruments, mini exhibits on Christopher Columbus/Ferdinand/Isabella.
We ate tapas, found a Spanish craft beer bar, visited a market, walked through El Retiro Park, visited the main cathedral, did a drive-by of the Prado, saw Plaza Mayor, and felt like we covered a good bit of ground. Unfortunately, because I’ve allowed this much time to pass since our trip, I don’t remember the names of the bars/restaurants/markets. Nothing was absolutely out of this world, though. Madrid was nice, but we both agree we would rather return to Barcelona and its ubiquitous olive stands. We didn’t see a single olive stand in Madrid! Only inside the markets where olives were 1 euro a piece. Crazy.
Sunday morning, my parents miraculously arrived at our Airbnb to pick us up. They rented a car, had Google Map directions printed out, and promptly got lost. After pulling up at various bus stops and trying to ask for directions (super fun when you don’t speak the language), they somehow ended up on the right street and Connor flagged them down. We spent the rest of the week in Avila, Toledo, and Seville (more on those in future posts), returning to Madrid on Saturday night so Connor could fly back to Birmingham in time for work on Monday. I stayed with my parents in Madrid until Tuesday morning and checked a few more things off the Madrid must-do list.
We visited the Prado Museum, one of the world’s largest art galleries with a great collection of European. As you would expect, they have a significant number of items by Spanish artists like Velazquez, El Greco, El Bosco, and Goya. The museum is free for the last couple hours in the evenings, so we waited in line and did a quick tour of some of the museum’s famous masterpieces. Our visit was more rushed than I would normally plan, but two hours in a museum is plenty when you’ve been walking for most of the day. Any time a museum offers free entry, I think it’s worth waiting in the line and saving the admission cost. It eliminates the pressure to stay and see every single thing to get your money’s worth. The Prado definitely has their system down because once they opened the doors for the free evening session, we were inside within 10 minutes.
We also visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum which is free on Mondays. It’s one of the largest private art collections in the world and contains items from time periods and countries not covered in the Prado. We spent half a day here perusing the Impressionists, Renaissance painters, and others, skipping some of the weird modern art rooms. Both museums were fantastic, but if you only have the time/desire/patience to visit one, definitely read about their collections and pick the one that interests you most.
A word of warning about free museum hours: tourists are not the only ones who take advantage of this. There were definitely fishy people wandering around in both museums paying more attention to visitors’ bags than the art. So keep an eye on your belongings and give the stink eye to anyone invading your personal space.
I made sure we stopped at Chocolateria San Gines for their churros con chocolate. This place has been serving only churros and chocolate for over 120 years. Sign. Me. UP. We waited in line. And then I choked and ordered 2 servings of this nonsense. For those of you who don’t know, I have a ridiculously insatiable sweet tooth and had to place myself on a cold turkey sugar fast earlier this year when I realized I was poisoning myself. Yes, poison. Puking, ruined day, skin issues… Just order one of these churro things, mmk? Share it with two other people and thank me later. I am literally still recovering from bad food decisions made on this trip.
During a break in the rainy weather we also walked through some of the gardens and parks, spotted green parrot-like birds, and I actually talked to a man for about 5 minutes in Spanish. Truthfully, he asked me all the questions I knew how to answer. I’ve been listening to the Coffee Break Spanish podcast over the last year and it was like this stranger knew the script. I highly recommend that podcast if you want to learn/brush up on your Spanish skills. Far fewer people spoke English in Madrid than Barcelona, and I was really glad I spent so much time practicing. For the record, I only have one semester of Spanish under my belt, which I took senior year of college because I was bored, so even total novices would like that podcast.
Also for the record, being a foreigner and trying so hard to learn basic words and phrases to get by in all these foreign countries makes me appreciate the people and nations that are friendly and patient with their visitors. In my experience, two nations have serious work to do. One starts with A. The other starts with F.
And on that note, excuse me while I go put a bag over my head so no one asks me about the election today.
Planning a short trip to a new and epic city is always a bit daunting. NYC, London, Rome… PARIS… I want to see as many of the iconic sites as possible, but also spend time away from tourists, mingling with the locals and experiencing their favorite corners of the busy streets. Finding this balance in a short trip is challenging, and my list of must-sees in Paris was much longer than I could tackle in 2 days. But we managed to see a lot for almost no money thanks to one simple decision. We rented bikes!!
Budget friendly, efficient, scenic… biking in Paris was so so fun!!
We used the bike sharing scheme called Vélib’ which has more than 14k bicycles available for grab and go rides. A 24-hour pass for unlimited bike rentals was about €1.70. Crazy cheap! Type in your user code at one of the machines, pick out a bike, and it’s yours for free for the next 30 minutes. Every time you check out a bike, the first 30 minutes are free, and you can do this as many times as you want. We used Vélib’ constantly and it was so simple and easy. It was also the only time we felt a breeze while in Paris. Try it and you’ll be amazed at all the ground you can cover!
We woke up very early on Saturday to see some of the big stuff before the other tourists were awake and swarming. Despite our lack of sleep, this was definitely a good choice. We biked along the Seine and stopped to return the bikes and wander whenever we saw something we wanted to check out. It was early enough that the sun hadn’t baked the city to a crisp and the only cars were delivery trucks and a few taxis. We visited Notre Dame, the Louvre & Jardin des Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées and the Petit Palais all before lunch. The city is gorgeous and packed with fabulous buildings, and I know we biked by other significant things that in my ignorance I can’t name. We had second breakfast at a cafe, grabbed lunch to go, and enjoyed a midday siesta at our Airbnb. The joke’s on all those other tourists gritting it out in the sweltering sun, dodging elbows and dudes selling tchotchkes.
After a nap, another cup of coffee, and a shower, we went to Saturday evening Mass at Notre Dame. Confession: this was one of those “pinch me” moments that was so moving and overwhelming that I’m really at a loss for words. I had some kind of a “moment” and I should probably take some time to process whatever it is that went down, because I just couldn’t keep it together once we were inside the cathedral. It’s like I stepped through the door into a cloud of emotion that was completely unexpected and overwhelming in its intensity. I was not PMSing, drunk, or tired, thankyouverymuch. I just felt this profound sense of gratitude… for my life, faith, wonderful husband, the many eye opening experiences of the past year, my sister’s recent engagement, the fact that I was basically standing in the World Headquarters of Mary, Inc., and so much more. It’s like the realization of this crazy beautiful life I’m living hit me in the face. Each time I think back on that evening I can’t help but tear up all over again.
So that happened. Then we had dinner on the Seine at a great place Connor found that was a secret little local hangout. It took forever to find, and was completely worth the trouble. We shared a table with another couple and enjoyed a mini jazz concert going on in the background. After dinner and some wandering we plunked down on the Seine like everyone else and feasted on wine, Camembert, apples and crackers.
We ended the day with a walk back to Le Marais where we were staying (fab neighborhood, Jewish Quarter, straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements) and saw the glittering Eiffel Tower from a bridge. The little dude knows how to sparkle, let me tell you.
Sunday morning we walked around Place des Vosges, a beautiful little square around the corner from our apartment, also former home of Victor Hugo and a bunch of fancy Frenchmen whose names do not ring a bell.
We biked over to Musée d’Orsay and guess what!? No line! Fun fact about me: I can’t stand lines. Or queues, as I’ve learned to call them. There are very few things that I consider worth queuing for. Museums and tourist things are generally no where close to being on that list.
I do, however, have a soft spot for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art so I’m glad my patience wasn’t tested that morning. (Before you feel sorry for Connor, he enjoys this genre, too. Also, he didn’t suggest any alternatives…) Musée d’Orsay has a really robust collection and to say we were impressed is an understatement. I’ve never seen so many Degas sculptures in one place in my life! And the Monets on display were so diverse. The more I check out the work of Impressionists in the cities we visit, the more I love them. (RE: the Louvre. I couldn’t spend half our trip in a single museum. Maybe next time.) We narrowed our museum options down to the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay. l’Orangerie is the smaller museum famous for the oval rooms designed by Monet and covered in his waterlily murals. I’d love to see that someday, too.
We visited some shops that afternoon including the legendary English bookstore Shakespeare and Co. that I think every English major has on her bucket list. The current store is a descendant of the one Sylvia Beach opened on Paris’ left bank that was a haven for writers and would-be-writers that closed during the Nazi occupation. The eccentric George Whitman opened the existing store that is now run by his daughter, Sylvia, and it continues the tradition of providing a home for Tumbleweeds in exchange for help at the store. I fully intended to purchase something here but they marked up the prices so drastically I couldn’t justify it. Instead, I bought a paintbrush from Charvin Arts. I hoped to make it to Sennelier where Picasso, Cézanne, and others shopped for supplies, but again, next time!
We mostly wandered little streets for the rest of the day, ate macaroons, relaxed in some gardens, saw the Louvre one last time, and had a delicious dinner.
Be forewarned if you visit Paris in August; you need to be flexible because August Closures are a real thing! But don’t avoid the city because of this. More than enough is open that you could stay busy for months!
Months ago, our friends Andrew and Melanie invited us to spend a day or two with them while they honeymooned on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to see them! We added a couple extra days to the trip so we could see the Cliffs of Moher and maybe a town or two, leaving our itinerary open so we could be spontaneous.
We drove from Dublin to Limerick and pulled into our Airbnb well after midnight. Our hostess’ name was Sadhbh (love it) and she could not have been more welcoming. She must have said “grand” twenty five times in the span of five minutes. We were sorry to crash and dash since she was so kind, but we wanted to make it to the Cliffs of Moher the next day before lunchtime. A failed study-abroad experience in Ireland taught me that if you look out the window and see a dry Ireland, get your butt moving because it won’t last until your next meal. I think its the only place with weather more miserable than England. Which must be why they paint all their buildings in bright, cheerful colors.
We did a drive-by of Limerick’s city center along the River Shannon, saw King James’ Castle, and grabbed coffees and a smoothie from Arabica Coffee Co. on Shannon Street. We highly recommend this place if you’re a coffee lover and find yourself in Limerick! Then we hit the cliffs.
Major travel tip: you can easily avoid the crowds and ridiculous per person “entrance” fee to the cliffs viewing area by parking somewhere other than the official Cliffs of Moher welcome center. We parked at a farm south of the official entrance for 2 euro and then had a glorious hike along the entire south arm of the cliffs. This was the best weather we had for the entire trip, and the views were stunning. If you’re traveling with children, be aware that there are no fences or guard rails. You can get as close as you dare to the edge…
On the way to Dingle that afternoon, we accidentally took the scenic route through Conor Pass, a twisty narrow road up and down a mountain, not really wide enough for two-way traffic. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see beyond the car in front of us, but the few glimpses we caught of the mountain were breathtaking. And so begins my repetitive narrative about our time in Dingle. I’m sure it was all beautiful, but we couldn’t see a thing.
We had a great dinner in town that evening with our friends and the next day the four of us drove around the peninsula to see some ancient sites and ruins. Half of these were not worth the entrance fee, but to be fair, if the weather was nicer, I’m sure each site would have provided beautiful views of the sea and countryside. If you plan to do this driving tour in bad weather, skip the hill fort and random stone piles and opt instead for the largely intact structures like the Gallarus Oratory…
Kilmalkedar Church (ruins with cemetery)…
and Fahan Beehive Huts…
Each site has a little Irish boy sitting in a booth or playing with his dog ready to collect 2-3 euro per person before sending you through to the sites.
Connor and I stayed in a perfect little flat on a sheep farm 2 miles outside of Dingle Town owned by a woman from Missouri and her Irish husband. Their Airbnb listing mentions:
We are farmers, so we are early to bed and early to rise. The apartment is directly over our bedroom, so if your lifestyle means you don’t know night from day then booking our accommodation might not be suitable… for you or for us.
Noted! Combined with the little signs of scary leprechauns sprinkled throughout the flat reminding visitors to remove shoes, turn off lights, unplug computers, etc we decided our hosts were either grumpy or funny. Later, Jan invited us to a drop in music session at a pub where she would be playing. She asked if we played instruments and said we could borrow some of hers! Naturally, I pressured Connor to seize the day. Playing in a pub in the motherland with a bunch of long lost kin!!! DO IT! Eventually he agreed. So what if it was actually bluegrass music, and the guitar was out of tune… Jan was our new favorite person.
When we left Dingle we decided to drive the Ring of Kerry before heading to our next Airbnb on another farm outside of Killarney. Once again, the fog prevented us from seeing anything. We had 1.5 moments of clarity, and here are the pictures to prove it.
I’m actually surprised how many decent photos we ended up with from this trip. It was rainy and foggy every day except the morning at the cliffs. Too wet and foggy to hike. Fishing charters were cancelled. To sum it up:
After leaving the Cotswolds, we made a quick stop in Bath to stretch our legs, have lunch, and check out the ancient city. We barely scratched the surface and I hope we make it back to Bath sometime soon. The highlight of this visit was simply enjoying the gorgeous 18th century Georgian architecture, the Bath Abbey, and the river. We had another gorgeous day so we were able to wander the little streets without needing to worry about ducking inside.
Next time, I would love to tour the old Roman bathhouse – the best preserved in the world – and have tea at the Pump Room. Also, Jane Austen lived in the city for a few years and as her biggest fan, it would be irresponsible not to visit some of her old stomping grounds and the Jane Austen Centre!
From Bath, we continued south to the county of Devon and the little town, Lynton, that would be our base for the next three nights. However, I’m skipping ahead to the 4th leg of our trip since three days in Devon warrants a separate post. After Devon, we stopped in Shakespeare’s hometown for dinner and a play before continuing on to Birmingham. Stratford-Upon-Avon is such a cute town and the Royal Shakespeare Company is absolutely phenomenal. Connor and I saw a play in Stratford last autumn, and we were anxious to see this year’s production of Hamlet that had received glowing reviews.
If you are in England and you haven’t had a chance to see this show, do yourself a favor and GO BUY TICKETS! It is such a fresh and modern take on the classic, and so much more enjoyable than you can even imagine. Graffiti, African drums, a helicopter entrance… this is FUN Shakespeare! A quick glance around the theatre proves this better than any glowing review — students pack the upper levels, all on the edge of their seats, no one is texting or goofing around. I’m jealous that these kids are growing up in an environment that makes Shakespeare so fun and accessible. The lines aren’t changed, by the way. You still need to pay attention so you don’t miss anything. Finally, I can’t say enough about Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet… he was exceptional. Energetic, charismatic, and convincing. Just fabulous. I don’t envy the next Hamlet who has to follow Essiedu’s performance.
Technically, you’re not supposed to take pictures, but here you go.
Before the play, we took a boat ride down the River Avon – a nice way to escape the crowds.
Check back tomorrow for our hiking adventures in Devon!