Beautiful Sintra and the Park and Palace of Monserrate- Sintra, Portugal

The day started early as my body had yet to regulate itself to it’s new Portuguese time zone and I was up at the painfully early hour of 530am. The sun hadn’t even risen yet and to be honest I laid in bed for another good hour just being lazy and reading through texts my bf (who was still back home in Texas) had sent me the night before and browsing tumblr. Finally though, I got up and started to get ready for the day which I knew would be lengthy as I had booked a tour through WithLocals for a full day of sightseeing in and around Sintra with a lovely lady named Silvia.

She would be picking me up at 830 in her van and then it would just be me and her for 8 hours, the agenda being very loosely situated around exploring the town of Sintra, checking out one of the castles or palaces there, driving out to Cabo de Roca and then ending the day at the fisherman village of Cascais. Or at least, that was the plan but of course, you know with me things rarely ever go to plan (but I will say even before I start, this was one of the most amazing and fun experiences I’ve had and except for one unfortunate turn of event on my part, there’s nothing I would go back and change).

After stuffing myself full of the delicious breakfast that was brought to the room (cheese, ham, pastries and strong coffee), I was just wiping the crumbs off my shirt when there was knocking on my door and I was informed Silvia had arrived- she was lingering behind the housekeeper, a friendly smile on her face that turned down for a sec when she spotted my bare arms.

“Ooh make sure you grab a jacket or sweater, it can get a little cold!”

Grabbing my jacket and bidding a goodbye to the housekeeper I rushed out, ready to start the day with Silvia. She introduced herself and her white van and seemed to have enough enthusiasm to power 10 pep rallies. Basically, she was lovely and any indecision I have about spending the whole day with her was erased by the time we were heading up the mountain road to find a good parking spot from where to explore the twisty streets of Sintra.

We grabbed coffee and pastries at a local cafe while she got to know me a little better and gathered our plans for the day- she was of course delightfully puzzled as to why I was traveling by myself but didn’t press me with questions and instead asked what palace or castle I had chosen for us to visit that day. I had picked the Monserrate Palace to leave for last, both because it seemed like the one with the least amount of walking required (maybe it’s silly but I didn’t want to embarrass the hell out of myself huffing and puffing to a seasoned veteran of the area while clambering around the Moors castle or making our way up the steep climb to Pena Palace) and because it was the one I was least interested in- that way if my guide had turned out to be a dud, it wouldn’t ruin the trip for me. Silvia was more than happy for us to make our way to Monserrate after touring Sintra, though she advised she didn’t know too much of it’s history as overwhelmingly people usually asked her to take them to Pena Palace. As she said, “It will be a fun change from the usual!” 

After finishing up our coffee and pastries we set out to walk around the quiet streets of Sintra, the town still just barely waking up and making it the perfect setting for us to take a leisurely stroll while I snapped photos here and there as Silvia told me some of the towns history. We walked to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra which would end up being one of the major sites I didn’t make time to visit (something to do next time I visit) and from there walked around the central square of São Martinho in the historic centre.

I wish I could recount every detail Silvia told me regarding Sintras history, as it’s truly fascinating and contains so much intrigue, speculation and drama that I could easily see it spawning an HBO series but, my brain is only so useful and when presented with the choice of memorizing historical details or taking in one of the most enchanting towns i’ve ever visited, the choice was clear. What I do remember is Silvia telling me how Sintra’s popularity has waxed and waned through out it’s existence but it’s never completely disappeared, it’s particular appeal to the rich as a retreat allowing it to endure even after the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Personally, if I had the means, I know I wouldn’t hesitate to at least vacation here every chance I got, never-mind constructing yet another grand estate to the join the overflowing bounty of already existing ones.

After spending about an hour and 1/2 in Sintra we made our way to Monserrate, the palatial villa with gorgeous landscaped gardens that was constructed to it’s current design in 1863. It’s a bit of a walk from the entrance down to the palace itself but the day was lovely and the gardens are beautiful, an interesting mix of rigid landscaped areas with more wild spots interspersed here and there. Once you catch a glimpse of the palace though, there’s nothing else that will grab your attention- though all of Sintra seems to be influenced by Romanticism and Moorish Revival architecture, even after having seen the rest, I was moved to silence by the gorgeous mixture of the two here.

Though the palace is empty of furniture and collections, there’s more than enough to take in. From the ornate ceilings, carved columns and the abundance of interactive information available about it’s history, I’d say there’s enough to see within the palace to justify a visit. When I visited with Silvia there were about maybe 3 other groups of people and we had plenty of time to just marvel at the details in the architecture and read the infographics regarding Francis Cook, the English merchant who owned the property and engineered it’s construction. Eventually though, we were ready to head out and Silvia guided me to the gardens to make our way back to her van, our many other planned stops for the day clamoring for attention.

We stumbled upon the ruins of an old chapel on our winding way out, and of course I had to wander inside and take a look, Silvia taking a seat on a log outside to catch her breath a little. She was amused by my enthusiasm for ruins of any kind, especially with how I had enjoyed the ornate opulence of the interior we had just left and then gamely thanked me for giving her a good idea of something to potentially show other visitors one day. We left, a little sweaty from the walking but laughing and energized for our next destination.

~m

The Bridge of Sighs and a Beautiful Goodbye – Venice, Italy

I feel like I write the phrase “it was like something out of a dream” so often on this blog that people must think i’m always half awake when I travel, but the truth is that though I would consider myself a writer of at least some skill- there’s always places that I visit that truly do leave me without the necessary adjectives to describe them in any way that does them justice.

We woke up early that last day to wander our way down the quiet and still sleeping streets to make it to Piazza San Marco and get a chance to see it one more time before we left. Not only did we get spared from the constant drizzle of the days before, but there were absolutely no crowds yet and apart from a couple of other dedicated photographers walking around trying to get their best shots, the area was fairly deserted compared to the last time we had been there.

(credit to the bf for taking the photo of me standing in front of Basilica San Marco, I would almost say he’s looking to challenge me for title of head photographer on our trips  )

The previous two days that we’d made our way to see the Bridge of Sighs, it’d been fairly impossible to try and get a good shot because of the crowds but that morning, we had the bridge that overlooks the canal it’s suspended over all to ourselves. After I had finished looking at the beautiful coastline and the islands on the other side (and wishing we had maybe a little bit more time to make it over to explore them), we walked up to the bridge and there was just one guy there, trying to take a good selfie of himself in front of it. He saw us and asked very nicely if we would take a photo of him and I enthusiastically obliged and snapped two photos from him, after which he thanked us with a big smile and walked off to admire the canal coastline himself and suddenly we had the view of the Bridge of Sighs all to ourselves.

A really rather popular tourist attraction in Venice, the Bridge of Sighs is a beautiful enclosed arch bridge built in the 17th century as a way to connect the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doges Palace. The general consensus seems to be the name of the bridge comes from the idea that convicts crossing the bridge to the prisons would get one last glimpse of the lagoon through the covered windows and heave a despairing sigh but…. historically there doesn’t seem to be much credence to this. Personally I can attest that the view is limited from inside the bridge as the glass panels are very cloudy and also crossed with steel bars on the inside, but I can also say that if I was crossing any bridge as a prisoner, I would probably let out a good number of sighs no matter what.

The walk back to our hotel was unhurried as we had already packed up the night before and had our transportation to the Venezia Santa Lucia train station arranged by the staff, so we had plenty of time to marvel at all the unique and beautifully colored buildings that surrounded us.

Once back at the hotel we tucked into breakfast and then time seemed to rush on by until suddenly our water taxi was there and it was time to check out and begin the journey to Rome.

A thrilling and beautiful ride on a lovely water taxi, bright morning light streaming in through the windows as the city rushed by us made a pretty perfect way to say goodbye to Venice.

~m

The Doges Palace and the Rialto Bridge- Venice, Italy

Having already purchased tickets that granted entrance to the Doges Palace at the Correr Musuem, we were able to get in past the long line that snaked around the building, saving us a whole world of wasted time and enabling us to get more out of our last full day in Venice.

The Doges Palace is a must-see if you’re visiting Venice, so I could easily understand the long lines outside and also justify the way the interior was more than a bit packed in. And what, exactly, is the Doges Palace? This is the question the bf had when we first made plans to visit, and I couldn’t easily provide an answer since I hadn’t really researched it much up to this point (for shame right?). Basically, the Doges Palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice who was the chief magistrate and head authority of the Most Serene Republic of Venice from the years of 697–1797. They were elected for life and served as the civil and military leader and as such, their surroundings reflect this.

Taken from the visitor website to the Palazzo Ducale, this helps give an idea of what the general tour of the Palace will consist of : “the Museo dell’Opera are located at the ground floor; what used to be the palace’s kitchens are now partly occupied also by a space for temporary exhibitions. The visit to the upper floors starts in the extraordinary courtyard, from where you pass up to the Loggia on the first floor (where the Doge’s Apartments are located) and then to the Institutional Chambers, throughout the first and second floors. The visit finishes with the Armoury and Prisons.”

The change of scenery from the Armoury over to the Prisons is an almost jarring one, and one that begins by crossing through the famous Bridge of Sighs.

I do have to admit though, as weird as it probably sounds, our favorite part of the visit was to the prisons rather than through all the grand opulence of the palace. For me it was the great contrast between the two that made it all the more interesting and especially seeing the cells and even some of the artwork the prisoners had made. We spent the longest time here, lingering in the narrow corridors until eventually we made our way back to the Palace over the Bridge of Sighs once more and exited out to head towards the Rialto Bridge, the oldest of 4 bridges spanning the Grand Canal and a top recommended sight to us.

We walked our way through some more winding streets, making idle plans for the rest of the day-pizza and some gelato perhaps? All morning there had been a somewhat steady sprinkling, but for just a few minutes as we looked over the bridge to the Grand Canal, the rain let up enough for us to enjoy the view.

Satisfied with having successfully seen everything we had planned to that day, we headed back into the maze of streets to find a good souvenir shop I could buy some postcards for friends at and then afterwards hopefully procure some tasty gelato to cap our last full day in Venice. The next morning we would wake up at sunrise to take in some of the early morning light and give our farewell to this first stop of our trip, and head on to Rome.

~m

Giant Calzones and a Rainy Piazza San Marco – Venice, Italy

Arriving in Venice via Paris( and the long layover from there is its own story to tell that involves being ferried out onto a snowflake dusted runway by a very rickety bus jam packed with pissed of Italians) we were greeted at the airport by a private driver that would be taking us to a waiting water taxi- transportation arranged ahead of time by the hotel we would be staying at,the Ruzzini Palace hotel. Having never taken a water taxi before, I can say it was one of the coolest experiences, not least of all because I was pretty out of it from having been traveling for the past 24 hours and watching the city open up in front of us, the twinkling lights from open windows reflected on the waters of the canals was a beautiful introduction to the enchanting city of Venice.

We didn’t do much that first night apart from get settled in, marvel at the beyond gorgeous room we had been given and order breakfast in for the next morning. I poked my head out the room windows for a while, just trying to really believe I was actually there, because it all still felt like something out of a (slightly sleep deprived) dream.

The next morning we woke up somewhat bright and early, tucked into a super delicious breakfast and then got ready to go out and explore the city. There was a light drizzle coming down and we were still pretty bone tired from the traveling and time zone juggling of the day before but, we were ready for this new adventure.

We headed towards Piazza San Marco, a supposed easy 7 minute walk from where we were staying. I say supposed because if you’ve never been to Venice, let me paint you a picture : imagine a maze with very narrow pathways that still managed to be beautiful and is also full to bursting with interesting little shops everywhere you look. We got turned around a good couple of times but eventually we made it to the square and by the time we got there I was already holding a couple of souvenir items I’d bought for friends.

The square and the immediate surrounding area holds some of the top attractions in Venice so we expected it to be fairly crowded but we were pleasantly surprised to see it wasn’t too bad- perhaps the rain was a blessing in disguise? Either way, we didn’t want to do any real in-depth sightseeing that day so we just walked around a bit, did a quick currency exchange (that I recommend against doing btw, unless your bank fee’s are insane just take money out of an ATM, much cheaper) and then headed off back into the maze of pretty and winding streets to seek out some more interesting shops and eventually, lunch.

We stopped by a restaurant called Tratorria Casanova, mainly because the menus were displayed outside and I saw that one of them one clearly marked in English. I pointed this out to the boyfriend in a lightly teasing way, “look, they have it in English for you“, and one of the waiters who was outside came over to us and asked me, curious and giving us a easygoing charming smile, “Ah and for you? Italian?”

My Italian was at that time, according to my efforts with Duolingo, at about 50% so I just laughed along and said I could understand it but I was better with Spanish and English. This btw, was something that would happen a lot in Italy over the course of the next week, people assuming I could speak Italian and then being a bit disappointed in my less then adequate attempts- my goal is that the next time I visit, my Italian will be much more up to par. For this visit though, the basics were good enough and with a menu in English, definitely a good choice for us!

The food was amazing and I got to experience the great joy of eating a rather enormous pepperoni and mushroom calzone that cause a number of covetous looks when it was brought out- both because of its size and delicious smell. We ate, got desert and coffee and then we received complimentary savory sorbets that ended up being even more yummy than the desserts we had just finished. Stuffed to the gills, we eventually got on our way and headed back to our hotel to drop off our bags before heading back out foro one last quick exploration (and to find a local grocery store to buy some bottles of water).

Bottles of water procured and a couple of other treats in the bags as well, we walked back to our hotel, rain still drizzling and making the cobblestone streets fairly glisten and sparkle. I had wished, earlier in the day, for a bit more sunshine, but at the moment I took this photo above, standing on a small footbridge over one of the canals and looking towards our waiting hotel, I was content to have a little bit of rain.

~ m

An Enchanting Bavarian Town and Some Schneeballen- Füssen, Germany

Have you ever been inside a fairytale? Walked the streets of a town or city that you felt would fit so neatly right into the stories spun by Disney or Miyazaki? Füssen was this for me and the word enchanting wouldn’t even begin to describe it.

Located just north of the Austria border and just a short distance away from not one, not two but three castles( Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau and even Linderhof are easily accessible from here), a beautiful picturesque lake (Alpsee) and many (many) historic sites, museums and churches to be seen, Füssen certainly deserves more than the few hours Julia and I spent there that afternoon we visited.

After leaving the madhouse that was the Neuschwanstein Castle we headed back here to tuck in somewhere for lunch and then make our way to Linderhof Palace. We found easy parking just off the city center and then picked a direction to start walking towards in the hopes it would lead us to good food.

We got a bit sidetracked of course because I was like a wide eyed child as soon as we had emerged into the town itself- the beautiful bright colors of the buildings, all the interesting small shops tucked in neatly next to each other, even the people walking around added to the magical touch of it all.

Italian food made by Germans- a novelty I hadn’t expected to encounter. After wandering around for a bit we spotted a place with plenty of happy customers eating outside and figured hey, Italian sounds nice. If you’re curious if I ever actually tried traditional Bavarian cuisine on this trip btw, let me go ahead and sate that curiosity by saying I definitely didn’t- but in my defense my own native German friend wasn’t too keen on it either so we decided to save that experience for the next trip.

The food we DID have here was actually pretty good and we finished up our meal happily stuffed and ready to make our way back to the car and head off to Linderhof. But then we got sidetracked- this time by Julia! She had remembered a place from a previous visit that sold a special type of pastry and was determined we should find it so I could sample the goods there. I was more than happy to go on this adventure that might possible end with me eating something delicious.

The shop was found and the restraint exercised because as much as I wanted to buy one schneeballen of each flavor (and they had so many tempting flavors) I still had a week left on my trip and unless I wanted to lug around a suitcase full of these, only buying a few was the best plan. And what are schneeballen? In English you would call them snowballs, they’re made from short crust pastry and then rolled over toppings like caramel or chocolate and they taste heavenly. Also, they keep for a rather long time as I found out when I experimented with bringing some home with me. I brought 3 home for the bf and they tasted almost as good as the day I bought them.

All in all Füssen was a lovely town to have been able to stop in and i’m so beyond happy and greatful that Julia and I missed our turn while navigating to Neuschwanstien and I really hope I can come back one day for a longer stay.

~m