Portugal is such a lovely country – beautiful towns, friendly people, officially the best wine, and very convenient. From renting a car and driving to Fatima, using Lisbon’s metro system from the airport, and finding public WCs… everything was smooth sailing. (Never underestimate the importance of public toilets!!!) We found a great Airbnb in the Alfama neighborhood which is the oldest district and consistently listed as one of the top areas to explore in Lisbon. If you don’t mind lugging your suitcase up and down the cobblestone maze-like streets, we highly recommend this neighborhood as home base! Thanks, as always, to my wonderful husband for being Minister of Suitcase Schlepping.
This trip we focused on exploring outside, taking advantage of the sunshine, trying local flavors, and relaxing by the river front. Lisbon also has museums and a highly rated botanical garden for chillier or rainier visits. Continue reading “A Long Weekend Lisbon”→
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.
The day after Christmas, Connor and I loaded up a rental car and took off for the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. After a full day driving, we arrived near Lochgoilhead and settled into one of the best Airbnbs of the last couple years. Our hosts converted an old stable into a gorgeous eco tiny home (she is an architect) and it’s now a Grade II listed building. Fresh baked sourdough, a fire in the stove, piles of wool blankets, and a puppy named Pixie greeted us. We immediately regretted not booking the place for more than two nights. Continue reading “Scottish Highlands”→
Happy Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy MLK Day, and #allthethings I’ve missed since Thanksgiving!! I spoke with my Mom yesterday and she reminded me that I hadn’t posted in a while, so here I am with a quick rundown of updates. My Dear Mother also mentioned that I was funnier at the beginning of this whole writing adventure. I quite agree, so first on the list of updates: Continue reading “England Updates, Yo”→
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!”→
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.
After a hectic summer, I started to feel like I needed a vacation from myself. Have you ever experienced that? Like you need to get away from your habits and unconscious thought processes, turn your phone off, empty your brain, and just exist. My head is so filled with random travel information and my neurons haven’t figured out a proper way to file everything. Junk is just floating around up there. I needed to get away from technology and the (self-imposed) pressure to fully take advantage of our time abroad, and just go bliss out in the sun with a good book (not a guidebook). And so, with Hemingway and Amor Towles in my reading queue, Connor and I flew to Portugal to celebrate our 4th anniversary.
The Algarve is a popular destination for the sun-starved English, and we’d heard of the parties and clubbing and restaurants that specifically cater to British tourists. But where there is a sea, there is usually fishing, and somewhere there had to be a quiet fishing village full of locals, peace, and quiet. Normally, the west end of the Algarve would have been our obvious choice – rocky, rough, good hiking, surfing. But, we didn’t want to rent a car and the bus routes were unclear online. So we stayed in lovely Quarteira, just west of Faro, easily reachable by taxi from the airport. We swam in the ocean everyday, huddled under a sun umbrella with our books, ate breakfast on our balcony looking out at the water, and enjoyed amazing seafood. The town was super walkable, it was sunny everyday, and extremely hot. Also, Vinho Verde. Slightly sparkling, crisp and acidic, I’ve found my new favorite summer wine.
PS – the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are my go-to sources for quick lessons on the wines of Europe. It’s detailed enough to satisfy my OCD need for all the information but not so detailed that I’m overwhelmed. If you’re horrified to learn this and want to point me toward a more oenophilic publication, be my guest.
One afternoon we wandered to the neighboring village and hopped on a sailboat that took us past Albufeira (party central, if you’re interested), aiming for the the hidden beaches and neon turquoise coves carved into the rocky cliffs. Talk about beautiful… the crew helped us into a little dingy and we zoomed in and out of caves, ducking our heads to avoid the low rocks and marveling at the colors. This was definitely a highlight of the trip and I was tempted to ask Connor if he wanted to do it again the next day. For only 18€ we had 3+ hours on a catamaran, fabulous views of the coast from the water, and little tours of sea caves. Kind of felt like stealing. It also felt like something that would be a lawsuit in the States – getting people in and out of those dingys and making sure no one was decapitated in the caves…
Yes, I bought myself a new hat in honor of our anniversary. That ratty old Marquette hat that I’ve been wearing everywhere is like a scarlet letter for American College Student. Connor’s anniversary gift was a bathing suit (“swimming costume” in England) since he apparently decided he wouldn’t be needing one in Europe and therefore didn’t pack one. Fun times looking for men’s bathing suits on Amazon UK. Brace yourself. Actually, don’t even go there. #scarredforlife
Overall, everything in Quarteira was very affordable. For under 50€, we had a feast of sardines, sea bass, acorn-fed pork from the Alentejo, an excellent bottle of wine, and bread. Sardines are popular in the area, and we’d see locals carrying big bags out of the fish market every morning, so naturally I had to try them. They were fantastic!
We spent a night in Faro before heading home and the city surprisingly empty. Almost everything was closed, including the Chapel of Bones church I wanted to see. It was Sunday so I’m not sure why this was the case. Perhaps it had something to do with the intense heat. Empty streets make for efficient wandering, so we saw quite a bit and then chatted with a nice man who owned a Portuguese craft beer shop. He introduced us to a few of his faves and that was that! It was the perfect unplugged getaway, especially since sightseeing material is sparse.
The Portuguese were some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and they made us feel so welcome. Hope to make it to Lisbon and Fatima someday!
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!
We spent less than 36 hours in Amsterdam and that was all it took for me to fall in love. Such an underrated city!! We didn’t visit the Red Light District nor did we smoke any weed, so let’s just get that out of the way. But while we’re on the topic, why do we only talk about Amsterdam’s Red Light District? That’s like ignoring the Rocky Mountains and judging the merits of Colorado solely on it’s marijuana laws. Crazy.
There is so much more to Amsterdam! I left feeling like I had found my peeps and that I would love to live there. Maybe my subconscious was picking up faint similarities between locals in Amsterdam and the Dutch back home in West Michigan. Entirely possible. I have no idea. Everyone was very friendly, English was widely spoken (without an ounce of resentment), and we never really found ourselves in a crowd of tourists. It felt very residential and neighborhoody, very relaxed. There is a casual atmosphere, but you also pick up on an entrepreneurial vibe. Streets are full of quirky independent shops, and the owners/makers staffing the store are the farthest thing from haughty. The women were stylish yet undoubtedly comfortable, and I envied them as I silently cursed my skinny jeans. Another bonus: with so many canals and houseboats, it seems like the majority of residents have waterfront property.
Connor and I spent a great afternoon wandering the old Jordaan neighborhood, popping in and out of little shops, visiting the cheese museum, and eating far too many delicious samples (truffle cheese omg). We sat outside on a canal patio at ‘t Smalle Café and later visited Café Gollum, two small places that we loved and wholeheartedly recommend. These “bruin cafés” or “brown cafés” are old, traditional, Dutch pubs named for the cozy wooden interiors. They’re the best places to go if you’re looking for a local crowd rather than other tourists. We walked by the beautiful Rijksmuseum, saw the IAmsterdam letters, and ordered a delicious takeout pizza before calling it a night.
The next day Connor had to work so I spent the morning visiting Rembrandt’s former home and studio, now the Rembrandthuis Museum. Seriously cool. Rembrandt lived and worked in this building from 1639-1656 and you can tour all the rooms, including his multiple studios. I knew very little about the famous painter, and had no idea he was known during his lifetime for his etchings rather than his paintings. Today it’s the opposite, and this museum has the largest collection of his etchings in the world. I watched a few demonstrations and learned about etching, which was used as a kind of print making process in the 17th century. They also had a really cool demonstration on pigments and the process of making oil paint during Rembrandt’s time. The museum has a sizable room devoted to Rembrandt’s collection: skulls, Greek and Roman busts, turtle shells, seashells, bones, feathers, coins, pottery, giant books, statues, weapons. Super cool. However, if you want to see more of his paintings you’re better off visiting the Rijksmuseum.
That afternoon I wandered around the city checking out more shops and enjoying the canals before heading to the airport around dinner time.
Not too shabby for only a day and a half! Things we pointedly skipped that we didn’t regret: big museums, canal cruise (since we did that in Bruges), walking tour (we didn’t want to go to the Red Light District), Dutch food (not that different from Belgium). If we had more time we would have rented bikes and seen more of the neighborhoods outside the central canal ring. Go to Amsterdam! Great place to spend a weekend!