Weekly Blogger Round-Up: The Urinette – Railing it in Switzerland – Oldest Basketball Court in Paris


This week’s Blogger Round-Up begins with Wendy Hollands from Le Franco Phoney who has some very interesting information for the female element, as my father used to say, but you have to read to the end of post to discover what it is. Next, a blog that I haven’t featured before called Le Chic en Rose by another Rosemary, with some very useful information on travelling by train in Switzerland during the winter. To finish off, Mary Kay from Out and About in Paris, with her usual savvy, found an unusual venue during the European Heritage days in September – the world’s oldest basketball court! Enjoy!

You just don’t see this in the city

by Wendy Hollands from Le Franco Phoney, an Australian who writes about all things French in La Clusaz, Annecy and Haute Savoie as seen by an outsider

lefrancophoney_calfSome things are a bit different here in the countryside of France. For instance, how many cities offer a calf as a prize? Here in La Clusaz, it’s a regular thing. You might remember the raffle last year, and now, if you guess the right weight of this calf, she’s yours. She’s worth €200, and if more than one person guesses the weight, the winners share the prize. I’m not quite sure how you share a calf. I guess you take a share of the money instead. Or, as a French friend suggested, meat tray time!

Hang on, hang on. Don’t get too worried just yet. For a start, this is a dairy cow, so she will enjoy eating grass for many more years yet. Also, she was on offer at the Foire de la Croix in La Clusaz last weekend, which is basically a giant cow exchange. Think stock exchange, with moos and poos. Read more

Railway Adventures: Bernina Express Switzerland

by Rosemary from Le Chic en Rose, initially from Yorkshire, now living in Perth in Western Australia who writes of the many things that inspire her including travel, fashion, history, learning languages and spending time with her family

lavieenrose_switzerlandI first went to Switzerland as an 18 year old backpacker with a couple of friends when we could just about afford to get by on bread and cheese from the local Migros. It is certainly not the cheapest destination by any stretch of the imagination! If you are planning on visiting then the Swiss Pass is a must. If you get the timing right you can often get good deals at low season (such as April between the winter skiing and summer hiking seasons). The pass gives you unlimited rail (and bus) travel for 4, 8, 15, 22 days or one month, “free” travel on the boat services on the lakes and admission to 470 Swiss museums. Read more

The World’s Oldest Basketball Court is in Paris

by Mary Kay from Out and About in Paris, an American by birth, Swiss by marriage, resident of Paris with a Navigo Pass for the metro that she feels compelled to use

outandaboutinparis_basketballIf you would have asked me the whereabouts of the world’s oldest basketball court, I would have never guessed that it’s in Paris. Not only does the YMCA court on rue de Trevis hold the distinction of being the world’s oldest, it’s also where the first basketball game in Europe was played.

The court is an exact replica of the one in Springfield, Massachusetts where the game was played for the very first time. On January 20, 1892, Canadian doctor James Naismith introduced basketball, a game intended to keep the students of the International YMCA Training School active during the winter months. Read more

Posted in French customs, Paris, Switzerland | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Lisbon – an iconic tram, a hilltop castle, La Fontaine’s fables and a sublime view


It’s an intermittent fast day so we prepare a picnic to eat in nearby Estrela Gardens with their exotic trees and shrubs and 19th century bandstand, obviously a Saturday rendez-vous for the locals.

The bandstand in Estrela Gardens

The 19th century bandstand in Estrela Gardens, originally located on Avenida da Liberdade and moved here in 1936.

There’s even an outdoor cinema. What a pity it’s in Portuguese or we could come back in the evening and conjure up childhood memories of sitting under the stars on canvas seats at Magnetic Island in North Queensland, particularly with all the tropical trees around us.

Open-air cinema with the Estrela Basilica in the background

Open-air cinema with the Estrela Basilica in the background

Just opposite the park is the imposing Estrela Basilica but there is a mass inside so we don’t visit – it doesn’t look any different from most of the other churches we’ve seen in Lisbon anyway.

Basilica da Estrela built in the 1780s

Basilica da Estrela built in the 1780s, impossible to photograph without the tram lines!

Instead we take the famous n° 28 tram which is a great favourite with tourists so is usually completely full. But this is the terminus even though the tram does a loop so we manage to get a seat. If you are on the tram and want to continue you have to get out and walk to the next stop a few metres further on.

Alfama in the sun

Alfama in the sun – with lots more people!

As we’re almost at the beginning of the queue, we both get a single seat on the right. It takes us up the hill to the cathedral and through the Alfama quarter we visited in the rain but as today is fine and sunny, there are a lot more people. We decide to stay on the tram until the second terminus.

Tram 28 at the Graça terminus

Tram 28 at the Largo da Graça terminus

With a big clunk, the tram stops and the driver announces finished. Some of the people look completely bewildered because they don’t know about moving along to the next stop. Jean Michel checks the map and says we’re in Largo da Graça and we can walk to the Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, which we also visited in the rain. It, too, is full of people today.

You can see the castle on the hill on the left from the esplanade in front of

You can see the castle on the hill on the left from Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Adrensen, the esplanade in front of Graça church

However, it still offers the best view of the castle on the next hill over. Up and down we go until we reach a very decrepit area that is part of the Alfama but last time we came from the opposite direction and it didn’t look nearly as bad.

The Disoriented Pavilion

The Disoriented Pavilion by Camila Cañeque, 1984

We walk around the ramparts of the castle but they are hidden by more delapidated housing. We walk through a tiny street and come out on an a vacant alotment with masses of artificial flowers. This, we learn from the sign, is a work of art called the Disoriented Pavilion by Camila Cañeque, Spain, 1984.  Taking “disappointment as a starting point, the sign explains, her art interrogates unending paradoxes on how humans create and modify the cultural/material landscape they inhabit”. Yes, well …

Crowds in front of the entrance to the castle walls

Crowds in front of the entrance to the castle walls

The castle is surrounded by souvenir shops and cafés. There is a long queue even to visit the grounds so, instead, we decide to go to the nearby 17th century Mosteiro de São Vicente de Foro (Monastery of Saint Vincent outside the walls), renowned for its azulejos and in particular a collection illustrating La Fontaine’s fables.

Bougainvillia-coverd courtyard of Monastero

Bougainvillia-coverd courtyard of Monasteiro de São Vicente de Foro

We give the church a miss and enter the monastery via a bougainvillea-covered courtyard. Inside are two-storey cloisters with blue and white azulejos on every wall. There is virtually no one in sight.

The two-storey cloisters with their azulejos

The two-storey cloisters with their azulejos

Various rooms lead off the cloisters, including a lugubre royal pantheon of the Braganza monarchs and a marquetry marble chapel.

The mausoleum at the Monastery

The mausoleum of the Braganza monarchs in Saint Vincent’s Monastery

A staircase with azulejos on both sides leads up to the La Fontaine collection on the first floor. I don’t recognise any of the 38 fables but our guide book tells us that many of them are relatively obscure. I like the one about the astrologer who is so busy looking at the stars that he falls into a well.

The astrologer falling in the well because he's looking at the sky

The astrologer falling in the well because he’s looking at the sky

By now, my feet are aching but we remember that the lady who sold us the tickets said there was a good view from the roof terrace. Good is not the word – it is breathtaking. We can see the National Pantheon, Alfama, the Tagus River and rooftops of Lisbon spread out before us.

The view of the Tagus and rooftops of Lisbon from the Monastery

The view of the Tagus and rooftops of Lisbon from the Monastery

There are lots of columns on top of the balustrades that remind me very much of Gaudi’s chimneys, especially the ones on Guell Palace. This is not the first time that I am reminded of Gaudi in Lisbon.

The pinacles on the rooftop of the Monastery

The pinacles on the rooftop of the Monastery

We walk back to Largo da Graça to get the n° 28 tram down to our bus in the historical centre. We’ve only been in it for a few minutes before it comes to a stop. The driver climbs down to check the tyre of a big black stationwagon badly parked halfway up the pavement next to us. We can’t get past because the tyre is turned outwards.

Inside tram n° 28

Inside tram n° 28

As the passengers don’t believe we can’t get past, the driver, who seems very young, gets out with a template and shows that it’s impossible. He blows his horn very loudly for a long time but nothing happens.The next tram soon pulls up behind us so the drivers have a conflab. Our driver gets back into the tram and phones the police. There is a lot of photo-taking and questioning from the passagers, most of whom are tourists.

Too close for comfort!

Too close for comfort!

I whip out my dictionary and ask the Portuguese lady behind me if this happens frequentemente. She shakes her head. Eventually the driver tells us in English that it’s going to take an hour for the police to come and tow away the car.  People start to leave the tram including ourselves.

Not enough distance between the tram and the car tyre

Not enough distance between the tram and the car tyre

Then several men all try to lift the car out of the way. Jean Michel joins them and they manage to move it enough to let the tram go past. Everyone cheers. The driver gets back into the tram and edges his way forward. We all breathe a sigh of relief!

Posted in Architecture, Art, Flowers & gardens, Portugal, Sightseeing | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Friday’s French – taxi, fiacre, taxis de la Marne


parisian_taxiI’m very excited because yesterday, I discovered the origin of the word taxi! And it’s Parisian. Who would have imagined that?

I learnt about it while taking some Australian friends on a walking tour that included the oldest houses in Paris.

Paris has lots of street signs explaining its history and we came across one that talked about the invention of the fiacre.

In 1612, a coach company from Amiens rented a house in rue Saint Antoine in Paris, bearing an effigy of Saint Fiacre, the famous barefoot friar (carme déchaussé, if you’re interested) who predicted that Anne of Austria would have a son (one chance out of two, as my friends pointed out). He’s also the patron saint of gardens.

fiacre

 

In any event, Saint Fiacre eventually became a sort of Saint Christopher and his image was displayed on coaches all over Paris to prevent accidents. Ever since, coaches have always been called fiacres. Just before the French revolution in 1789, there were about 800 of them parked on 33 stations including more than 650 under shelters called remises.

The coach drivers had a terrible reputation and the police did everything they could to control them. Each driver had a number that cost a fortune to buy and a booklet containing their licence to park and drive the coach. After reaching their zenith at the turn of the 20th century, horse-drawn carriages declined and were replaced with the automobile.

The name of taxauto was soon adopted, followed by taxi, which is an abbreviation of taximètre and designated not the taximeter, but the vehicle containing it. The term taxi took over completely after a famous historical event in the first world war known as the “Taxis de la Marne“.

taxis_marne

On 7th September 1914, in order to reinforce the Maunoury army, General Galliéni requisitioned 700 Parisian taxis to ferry the 7th division troups from Sevran, Livry and Gagny in the east of Paris (i.e. the Marne) to Nanteuil-le-Haudouin and Plessis-Belleville in Picardy, which represented a distance of about 40 kilmeters . The meeting point was boulevard des Invalides.

During the night, with four men to a taxi, most of the division was transferred, totalling more than 5,000 combatants, a somewhat modest number compared with the Maunoury army’s total of 140,000, but the story has gone down in history. You can find more details here.

And would you believe, when I was taking my photo of a Parisian taxi, I accidentally took one of a Taxi de la Marne, even though I had never heard of it before! But since it’s a modern cab, I checked it out and learnt that during the recent centenary – 7th September 2014 – a reconstitution took place with 10 originals taxis and 120 modern ones bearing the  insignia shown on the photo as well as a number of military vehicles as you can see from the video below on the France 3 regional television website.

I wish I’d known at the time!

Posted in French language, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Weekly Blogger Round-Up: A Florentine Pig – An Australian in Paris and Provence – Snapshots of Europe


 I’m back from Lisbon (but there will still be more posts) so am resuming my weekly blogger round-up, beginning with a wonderful story about a Florentine pig from Margot from The Curious Rambler.  Next, Andrea from Rear View Mirror, is celebrating her second anniversary on the road with a wonderful photo giveaway that I’m sure you won’t want to miss. And to end up, The Good Life France tells us the story of an Australian from Queensland who finally saw her dream come true with a visit to Paris and Provence. Enjoy!

The Bronze Pig of Florence

by Margo Lestz from The Curious Rambler, who lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog

closeup-of-pigI’m back in Florence studying Italian and my courses seems to be going better this time. I’m not confusing Italian and French anymore (at least during the first week). We rented a beautiful little apartment in a 15th century palazzo which has painted ceilings, huge windows, and terracotta floors. Florence is full of these wonderful old buildings and it’s such a pleasure to stay in one of them.

While I’m in Florence, I thought I’d take a break from writing about France and write about some of the curiosities of this city. Hope you enjoy the story of the Bronze Pig. Read more

Snapshots of Europe

by Andrea from Rear View Mirror (formerly Destination Europe), a fellow Australian who, after 6 years of living in France, has given up her Paris apartment to live a nomadic life slowing travelling around Europe, experiencing each destination like a local.

budapest-parliament-1-300x200It’s coming up to the two year anniversary of me handing in the keys to my Parisian apartment and hitting the road to travel full time. Two years of living out of suitcases, countless hotels, Airbnb apartments and one barely habitable hostel.

I’ve been fortunate to visit most of Europe’s capitals, wander quaint villages, swim in turquoise waters, go zip lining in a national park and hiking through gorges. I’ve found my way to the top of mountains and dipped my toes in glacial lakes. My hard drive is at capacity with sunset photos and even the occasional sunrise. Read more

Visit to Paris and Provence

Written by The Good Life France, an independent on-line magazine about France and all things French, covering all aspects of daily life including healthcare, finance, utilities, education, property and a whole lot more.

Les-Baux-de-Provence-CC-Carolyn-AnskyMany of us dream of visiting France, especially Paris, the most visited tourist destination in the world, and Provence, high on the wish list of places to visit for so many, we talk to a lady whose dream came true…

We meet Carolyn Ansky from Queensland, Australia who says “for years I played the Marianne Faithful song ‘At the age of 37… she realised she’d never been to Paris”. I felt that at the age of 54 it was now or never for me. Read more

Posted in Art, Italy, Photography, Travelling, Weekly Blogger Round-Up | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Sintra – A Lovely Palace and a Yellow Monster


We’ve checked the weather and it looks like it isn’t going to rain. We walk down to Rossio Station to take the train to Sintra. We’re amazed to see the long queue of people, even at the ticket machines. We soon understand why – the system is quite complicated because of the Via Viagem travel card.

Rossio Station

Rossio Station with its neo-Manueline façade built in 1886 with its interesting intertwined horseshoe portals

If all these people are going to Sintra, I think, it’s going to be very busy. However, we easily get a seat, the windows are clean (unlike the train to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris!) and it is a comfortable 40 minutes to our destination. As soon as we get out of the train, it feels like we’re in a different part of the world.

Sintra Station

Sintra Station

The charm that is often lacking in Lisbon abounds in Sintra. It’s cooler and we are surrounded by what looks like a tropical forest. We stop for coffee and a cake at a little café opposite a house covered in bougainvillea. I order a cappuccino for the first and last time. Jean Michel wants a bigger cake than the pastel de nata that I choose. It turns out to contain ham …

House with bougainvillea opposite our tea shop

House with bougainvillea opposite our tea shop

To quote the Unesco World Heritage Site: “In the 19th century Sintra became the first centre of European Romantic architecture. Ferdinand II turned a ruined monastery into a castle where this new sensitivity was displayed in the use of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance elements and in the creation of a park blending local and exotic species of trees. Other fine dwellings, built along the same lines in the surrounding serra , created a unique combination of parks and gardens which influenced the development of landscape architecture throughout Europe.”

An unusual building near the train station in Sintra

A very romantic-looking building near the train station in Sintra

We start walking up the hill towards the castle. The promenade is quite delightful, with forest on both sides and modern sculptures and views of the palace and town along the way.

Our first view of the castle

Our first view of the castle

The white royal palace with its two tall chimneys looms into sight. It was probably constructed on the site of the Moorish Alcazar and its buildings result from two main periods (15th and 16th centuries). We buy a double ticket to the palace and nearby Pema Castle for 22 euro each and begin our visit.

Sintra National Palace

Sintra National Palace

The first thing I see are what look like leather Henri II chairs and a table, similar to those in Blois castle. We go from one room to the next, admiring the beautiful azulejos tiles of which there is a different set in each room, the unusual ceilings and intricately carved furniture, harmoniously blending Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance elements.

Henri II table with azulejos in the background

Henri II table and chairs with azulejos in the background

Lovely little patios lead off the main rooms and there are views in every direction.

A typical patio in the palace

A typical patio in the palace

My favourite is the breathtaking Heraldry Room, built in 1515 to 1518, with its magnificent coffered domed ceiling. It reminds me of the beautiful rococco libraries along the Danube, such as Melk and Wiblingen Abbeys, except that the scenes on the walls are blue and white tiles.

The Heraldry Room with its beautiful blue and white azulejos

The Heraldry Room with its beautiful blue and white azulejos

I also love the Galley Room whose painted ceiling depicts various sailing ships representing the great discoveries.

The ceiling of the Galley Room

The ceiling of the Galley Room

By the time we finish it’s 1.30 and time for lunch. We wander off into the very touristy old town, with its steep little streets and I eventually see a sign saying Miradouro (panorama) providing an excellent view of the palace and surrounding countryside, including the steeple in the second photo.

View from the Miradouro

View from the Miradouro da Villa restaurant

There is also a little restaurant called Miradouro da Villa that still has a free table on the minute terrace. We are soon esconced on our high stools and can watch other people coming to “ooh” and “aah” over the view and take selfies.

A little cherub on the road up to the restaurant

A little cherub on the road up to the restaurant

We order pork spare ribs, rice and salad and a ½ bottle of local red wine. There are no half-bottles left so the waiter suggests wine by the glass, although he warns us to drink it slowly so it won’t go to our head! One glass doesn’t seem to do much harm and although it has no nose it is a dark red and full bodied.

My favourite azulejos in Sintra National Palace

My favourite azulejos in Sintra National Palace

At 28.40 euros for both of us, including olives and coffee, the restaurant with its beautiful view and quiet surroundings is an excellent choice.

Now we’re ready for the next part of our visit – Pena Palace, the most visited monument in Portugal. We take a return ticket for the local hop on, hop off bus which stops at the train station and in front of the tourist office in Sintra (tickets on board) (5 euros each). For the entire 15-minute ride to the palace, up a steep winding road, it pelts with rain! Just as we reach the bus stop, the rain stops. Good timing indeed.

The forest road up to Pena Castle

The forest road up to Pena Castle

We have the choice of either walking for 15 minutes up a pleasant path to the palace or taking a 3 euro bus. We walk of course.

The path up to the castle

The path up to the castle

By now, the palace is more visible. It looks like a pink and yellow Walt Disney castle and I think it is ghastly. Built in the 19th century, it is considered to be a work of pure Romanticism, designed by the Portuguese architect Possidónio da Silva.

Mist at the top of the castle

Mist at the top of the castle

Inside, however, are the richly decorated church, two-storey cloister and refectory of the monastery built by King Manuel 1 and donated to the order of Saint Jerome following a visit by King John II in 1493, accompanied by his wife Queen Leonor, who made a pilgrimage to a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena built, it seems, after an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

The cloisters of the original monastery over which Pena castle was built

The cloisters of the original monastery over which Pena castle was built

For centuries, Pena was a small, quite place of meditation, housing a maximum of eighteen monks. I wonder what they would say if they could see the Disney castle and swarms of tourists today!

Both the monks and royal family certainly enjoyed a wonderful view

Both the monks and royal family certainly enjoyed a wonderful view

Lightning first damaged the monastery in the 18th century but the famous earthquake of 1755 reduced it to ruins. The marble and alabaster chapel, however, remained relatively unscathed.

The "family room" with its Islamic arches

The “family room” with its Islamic and Renaissance features

It was left to rack and ruin until 1838 when the young prince Ferdinand who was a bit of a nature lover acquired the old monastery and much of the surrounding land. He turned it into a palace to be used as a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The work was entrusted to a German mining engineer, Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, which is why it is reminiscent of some of the castles along the Rhine.

One of the beautiful vaulted ceilings inside the castle

One of the beautiful vaulted ceilings inside the castle

The King suggested that vaulted arches and mediaeval and Islamic elements be included and Queen Maria looked after a lot of the decoration and symbolism.

Monserrat Castle

Monserrat Castle

We decide not to visit the nearby Palace of Montserrate designed for Sir Francis Cook by the distinguished British architect, James Knowles Jr, an example of mid-19th-century eclecticism, combining neo-Gothicism with substantial elements derived from the architecture of India. Two palaces are enough in one day.

The art work inside Rossio Station

The art work inside Rossio Station

Instead, we walk down a fairly steep path to pick up the hop on hop off bus at the second last stop as we think there might be quite a few people waiting at the main entrance at this time of the day, but we needn’t have worried. There is plenty of room. We arrive at the station just as our train is about to pull out. Back at Rossio Station, we have time to enjoy the artwork on the walls.

How to Get to Sintra: Trip Advisor has excellent advice. Click here.
To use the Via Viagem card: See the metrolisboa website
Posted in Architecture, Art, Flowers & gardens, Portugal, Restaurants | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Five Unforgettable Places I Have Visited


When we discovered Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon recently, I added it to the list of places that have left an indelible mark on me because they were totally unexpected and totally overwhelming. At the same time, I was asked to participate in the Booked.net  Top Destinations to Go challenge by Anda from Travel Notes and Beyond. Choosing just five places was a hard task so Jean Michel and I pooled our favourites, which include both man-made and natural wonders.

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The interior of Gaudi’s Basilica of the Holy Family is absolutely dazzling, breathtaking, overwhelming. There are no words to describe it and no photo to do it justice. It is the most amazing well of light imaginable. The brightly coloured stained glass windows that would be gaudy anywhere else are quite superb.

sagrada_familia

Gaudi was only 31 when he began working on the cathedral in 1883. It evolved considerably during his lifetime, becoming more and more audacious. Sadly, he was run over by a tram at the age of 73 and nearly all the plans destroyed by fire during the Civil War in 1936.

The pillars, which split into two halfway up to remove the need for flying buttresses, represent trees in a forest with leaves at the top. The pillars themselves have a special spiral design with fluting that increases in number as it gets higher and take us soaring up to the highest point, 45 metres above the ground. An unforgettable moment.

Plitvice Falls in Croatia

And to think that I nearly missed Plitvice Lakes National Park as a result of eating tainted prawns in Dubrovnik!

croatia_plitvika_2

Never had I seen colours like those in the Plitvice Lakes. Each view was more marvellous than the one before!

At 10 am, before the floods of tourists arrive, the upper path is simply an hour of magic to remember forever.

Tasman National Park in Australia

Our trip to Tasmania was somewhat disappointing, due to cold rainy weather. But the sun came out at last and we set off for Port Arthur. On the way, we followed a sign saying Blow Hole, Devil’s Kitchen and Tasman Arch.

Tasman's Arch

Tasman Arch

And what we saw was mind-blowing.

These natural formations along the rugged coastline about an hour and a half south of Hobart are dramatic and grandiose, leaving a impression of immensity that you will never forget.

Rila Monastery in Bulgaria

The initial impression of Rila Monastery built halfway up a mountain and surrounded by forest is quite fabulous.

View of Rila Monastery as you walk in

View of Rila Monastery as you walk in

Founded in the 10th century by the hermit St John of Rila, it was destroyed by fire in the 19th century and rebuilt between 1834 and 1862. Although characteristic of the Bulgarian Renaissance (18th-19th centuries), which symbolises the awareness of a Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation, it is quite unique.

The monastery museum contains the most fabulous carved cross I’ve ever seen produced painstakingly by a monk called Rafail, with 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures and 12 years in the making. It was hardly surprising that Rafail lost his sight in the process. Just one more reason to remember Rila.

The S-Bend in Austria

Cycling along the Danube from its source in Donau-Eschingen to Budapest was a magical experience in itself. One areas stands out in particular, the Wachau world heritage site in Austria between Linz in Austria and Passau in Germany and the S-Bend in particular.

The S-bend in the Wachau in Austria

The S-bend in the Wachau in Austria

The single most remarkable moment of the trip was the view of the S-bend from Schlogen blick.

We had spent the day cycling along tranquil car-free paths, going back and forth across the Danube on a series of little ferries, and now we could see our day’s journey spread out in majesty before us. A truly unforgettable moment.

So tell me, if you were asked to name your five most unforgettable places, what would you choose?

And if you’re a blogger, why don’t you join the To Destinations to Go challenge (and the chance to win an iPhone 6)? Click here for more information.

Posted in Architecture, Art, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Eastern Europe, Germany, Sightseeing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A Marvellous Monastery in Belem, Lisbon


What I love most about travelling is coming across something that is totally unexpected, totally overwhelming and totally unforgettable. It can be the Rheinfalls in Germany, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Tasman’s Arch in Tasmania, the Cathedral in Reims, Plitvice lakes or the S-bend in Austria. Today, it happened in Lisbon with the Jerónimos Monastery.

First view of the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem

First view of the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem

After a good night’s sleep, we leave the apartment around 10 am, take the 758 bus to its terminus then the 714 to Belem. When we get out the bus at 11.30 am, it is pouring with rain. We put our rain jackets on, open our umbrellas and walk towards the Monastery.

Sun comes out on the Monastery

Sun comes out on the Monastery but there are crowds of people

There are so many tour groups and individual tourists under the porch leading to the church that we abandon ship and decide to go and see Belem Tower first. Maybe at 12.30 pm, all the tour groups will be gone.

Empadas

Empadas at Casa da Cha de Belem

On the way, we stop off at Casa da Cha de Belem and have two empadas, one with spinach and fresh cheese and the other with cod, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice to keep us going until a late lunch.

Belem Tower from a distance

Belem Tower from a distance

As Belem Tower comes into sight in the distance, we cross a footbridge over the tram lines and walk down to the Tagus and the Tower, one of Portugal’s greatest icons.

Belem Tower seen from one side

Belem Tower seen from one side

Built in the early 16th century, it is an excellent example of the Portuguese Manueline style, which is sumptuous late Gothic incorporating maritime elements and representations of the discoveries brought back by Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral, mainly financed by the proceeds of the lucrative spice trade with Africa and India. Surprisingly, the tower, built on a small island in the Tagus, was not destroyed by the famous earthquake of 1755.

The Monument of Discoveries

Padrão dos Descobrimentos – The Monument of Discoveries

We walk back along the shore towards another, much later construction, called the Monument of Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) built in 1960 for the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator.

An Aussie in Portugal

An Aussie in Portugal

In front is a giant marble wind rose. A world map in the centre charts Portuguese explorations showing the most important dates in the Portuguese maritime history with ships marking the locations where Portuguese explorers first set foot on land.

Panoramic view of the Jeronimos Monastery from the park opposite

Panoramic view of the Jeronimos Monastery from the park opposite

By now it’s nearly 1 pm so we’re hoping all the groups have hopped back on their buses. I take a photo of the monastery from the Praça do Imperio gardens.

The fountain in Parque

The fountain in Praça do Imperio gardens

Just as we leave, Jean Michel looks back and says, “It’s a pity you missed the fountain.” So I go back and take a second photo.

The intricate gold altar on the right as you go into the church

The intricate gold altar on the right as you go into the church

We arrive back at the entrance to the monastery and there is not even a queue! We think that due to the heavy rain this morning, the groups probably rescheduled their visits with everyone arriving at once.

The monastery was built by King Manuel I at the beginning of the 1500s on the site of a hermitage founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, where Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before leaving for India.

The columns inside the church at Jeronimos Monastery

The columns inside the church at Jeronimos Monastery

When we step in side, I am immediately reminded of the soaring columns of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. The vaulting is quite extraordinary and the octagonal pillars are covered with intricate sculptures.

Vasco da Gama's tomb

Vasco da Gama’s tomb

Vasco da Gama’s tomb is just inside the entrance, opposite that of the poet Luis de Camões, author of the epic The Lusiads recounting the exploits of Da Gama and his compatriots.

Cloisters at Jeronimos Monastery

Cloisters at Jeronimos Monastery

As we leave the church, Jean Michel says that his guide book says the cloisters of the monastery are worth visiting. We pay our 10 euros each, walk up a flight of stairs and turn to the right.

Beautiful lacework on the arcades

Beautiful lacework on the arcades

And there it is! The most magnificent cloisters I have ever seen.

Just one of the beautiful columns

Just one of the beautiful columns

First, they are two storied, which is most unusual. Second, the columns intricately sculpted, each with a different motif – coils of rope, sea monsters, coral and other birds and beasts all evocative of the great Portuguese sea discoveries.

The dome of the church seen from the cloisters

The dome of the church seen from the cloisters

The monastery was founded by the Order of Saint Jerome (Hieronymites) whose spiritual job was to give guidance to sailors and pray for the king’s soul.

We see a door on the right and walk in. It looks like a smaller church, with more vaulting and a gallery at one end.

The refectory with its blue and yellow azulejos

The refectory with its blue and yellow azulejos

On the opposite end, I come to the refectory. These monks did not dine on bread and olives, I’m sure. Around the walls are magnificent azulejos scenes.

Close-up of one of the wall scenes

Close-up of one of the wall scenes

Jean Michel remarks that the fireplace at one end would not have heated the room very much in winter! I imagine the monks with their own private braseros.

We follow a staircase up the gallery. It resembles the one we saw at Fontevraud l’Abbaye but what we find when we come out is certainly very different!

So many details!

So many details!

We wander around in amazement, looking at every arch and every pillar. The details are amazing. I can’t take enough photos but none of them do justice to the splendour before our eyes and I only have my iPhone with me. We stupidly forgot our Lumix in Blois!

The capitals, unfortunately, have become worn with time

The capitals, unfortunately, have become worn with time

I’m not surprised to learn that it is a World Heritage Sight. The magic of Jeronimos Monastery will remain with me forever.

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Lisbon in the Rain and More Great Panoramas


Late night partying in the entrance next to ours

Late night partying in the entrance next to ours

After virtually no sleep during our first night in Lisbon due to a barking dog, jets constantly flying overhead, merry makers under our window, the arrival of the rubbish truck at 1.30 pm with much clashing and clanging and shouting, leg cramps from being squashed into a plane for a couple of hours and a smaller-than-usual bed, I wake up to rain and hammering at 9 am.

It’s an intermittent fast day but there is no coffee or tea (I discover the coffee supply three days later!) and the closest café is 10 minutes in the rain. Hardly a great start to the day. Where is yesterday’s sun?

Pasteleria 1800 at Rato

Pasteleria 1800 at Rato

The rain finally relents and set off for the supermarket, stopping for coffee at Pastelaria 1800 on the way. They also sell Lisbon’s famous pastel flans that everyone tells me are a must, but that will have to wait for tomorrow.

The inside of Pasteleria 1800 founded in

The inside of Pasteleria 1800 founded in 1887

On the way, we pass several beautifully tiled entrances and many tiled façades.

There are many lovely tiled entrances in Lisbon

One of the many beautifully tiled entrances in Lisbon

When the sun finally comes through the clouds after lunch we set off immediately, taking the n° 758 bus down to the Tagus using our Zapping transport card, glad to be inside while it pelts with rain again. It all looks rather sad and dismal.

Walking along the Tagus from one bus stop to another

Walking along the Tagus from one bus stop to another in the rain

Our initial destination is the cathedral halfway up one of Lisbon’s seven hills. The most popular way of reaching it is on the N°28 tram. They are all full, with people leaning out the windows taking photos. We’ll try another day, making sure we get on at the terminus so we’ll have a seat.

The famous n° 28 tram full of people hanging out the windows

The famous n° 28 tram full of people hanging out the windows

The cathedral itself is something of a disappointment – very sombre inside and uninviting. Not nearly as rich as Sao Roque’s with its incredibly rich chapels full of gold sculptures.

The cathedral, difficult to photograph, especially with all the overhead tram lines

The cathedral, difficult to photograph, especially with all the overhead tram lines

After the cathedral we turn right and start walking up the hill to the Alfama quarter. Despite the intermittent rain, it is more attractive than anything we’ve seen so far in Lisbon and there are more stunning views.

A miradouro in Alfama

A miradouro in Alfama

A little garden covered with azulejos reminds me of the ceramics in the Cloister of Santa Clara in Naples, though on a much smaller scale. One mural depicts Paços da Ribera (Royal Ribera Palace) before the massive earthquake of 1755 that destroyed much of Lisbon’s historical buildings. It was rebuilt and remodelled shortly afterwards and is now called Praça do Comércio.

View of Saint Vincent Monastero and the Pantheon from Santa Luzia

View of Saint Vincent Monastero and the Pantheon from Santa Luzia

Shortly afterwards we come to another large square, Santa Luzia, with more amazing views of the Tagus and the rooftops of Lisbon.

The best view of the castle from the viewing area opposite Igresia Graça

The best view of the castle from the viewing area opposite Igreja Graça

In the distance we can see an enormous church so decide to continue our upward climb to Igreja Graça which offers another incredible view, probably the best to be had of the castle of Saint George that we haven’t been to yet. The inside of the 16th century church itself, refurbished many times, is nothing special.

Allotments on the way down from Igreja Graça

Allotments on the way down from Igreja Graça

The rain is falling steadily again so we decide to walk down the hill to the closest metro, Martim Moniz. On the way, we go past a series of alotments and a myriad of tiny shops, in various states of delapidation, each selling a different type of product. We reach a main street and a sign saying “shopping centre” so we follow it underground and discover a labyrinth of Chinese and Indian shops selling everything you can possibly imagine.

Inside the metro at

Inside the metro at Martim Moniz

The metro looks much the same as any other metro in the world though we’ve read that there are art displays. The trains take a long time to come and, at 4.30 pm, are not very crowded. We already have our Zapping Transport Card* which makes things easier.

Rato metro station

Rato metro station

When we emerge at Rato station, just next to Pasteleria 1800, the sun is out again – but not for long. We arrive home to a loud television above us  but the dog doesn’t start barking for another hour or so. I sleep on the sofa for a while and feel much better afterwards. I’m hoping it will rain most of the night – to drown out the other noise and leave room for the sun tomorrow!

*Zapping Transport Card: a little complicated but good explanation on http://www.metrolisboa.pt/eng/customer-info/information-on-fares/. Unless you take public transport more than 5 times a day, it’s the best solution and means you don’t have to worry about buying tickets.
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Friday’s French in Portugal


fire_signMy first contact with Portuguese was during my honours year of university in Australia when I studied and fell in love with Romance Linguistics, which is the story of how Latin turned into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. It was like a jigsaw puzzle – and I had always liked jigsaws.

I found it absolutely fascinating to learn that flos, the word for flower in Latin should have become fleur in French, fiore in Italian, flor in Spanish and Portuguese and floare in Romania. Castellum turned into château, castello, castillo, castelo and castel. Not only that, but the changes are systematic: fl in Latin nearly always gives fl in French, fi in Italian, fl in Spanish and Portuguese. And ditto for ca which remains the same in all the languages except French where it becomes ch.

I have since studied French, Italian and Spanish in greater detail and still get a kick out of the systematic changes you can see: blanc, bianco, blanco for white ; pluie, pioggia, lluvia for rain, and so on. But this is my first real contact with Portuguese.

The first thing I noticed is that the “l” has disappeared from definite articles : o, a, os, as and not il, la et les.

N often becomes m : jardim, im, bem (bien), bom.

Otherwise it often seems a mixture of Spanish and Italian when it’s written – but not when it’s spoken.

I’m kicking myself for not having at least learnt some basics with the help of my Portugueuse cleaner before I left!

I’ve now mastered obrigada (thank you) which is like saying (I’m) obliged. As a result, Jean Michel has to say obrigado.

I downloaded an app on my iPhone (not lost or stolen yet) to help with pronunciation. We weren’t sure how to say azulejos (those beautiful ceramic tiles they have everywhere). It sounds like a-zu-lie-si (with s being pronunced like the s in Asia). I can tell you, it’s going to take me a lot longer than a week to master that one!

I also learnt something very interesting about the days of the week. Unlike the other Romance languages, Portugueuse has a totally different system. Sabado (Saturday) and domingo (Sunday) correspond to most of the others but Monday to Friday are a different kettle of fish: segunda-feira, terça-feira, quarta-feira, quinta-feira and sexta-feira meaning second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth feast day.

There are a couple of explanations, one being that they were called according to the fair (feira) that used to take place on that day many moons ago. A feira is a set of tents pitched in the street where you can buy vegetables, fruits, and other foods.

Another explanation is that, because of the pagan origin of the original names of the days of the week, Martinho de Dume, a sixth-century bishop of Braga, in what is Portugal today, changed them to correspond to the full observance of an Easter week.

Domingo (Sunday) has its origin in the Latin expression for the Day of the Lord, sabado was named for the Hebrew word Shabbat while the other days come from the Latin terms for “second/third/fourth/fifth/sixth day on which one shouldn’t work” (in observance of Easter week).

Whatever the explanation it’s a bit confusing when reading a bus timetable!

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First Impressions of Lisbon


When we arrived in Lisbon at 4 pm, it was 26°C, a welcome change from Paris. We walked from our home exchange on the western tip of Barrio Alto down to the Tagus and back to get a feel of the city. Here are my first impressions. Very dilapidated. Many outdoor cafés. Some stunning views. Tiles (azulejos) everywhere. Very strong light. A steep climb back home!

I love these half shutters and tiles

I love these half shutters and tiles

One of many outdoor cafés - there were three or four in this park alone

One of many outdoor cafés – there were three or four in this park alone

I love the sudden views you come across

Fountain on the left, view of the Tagus in the background and bougainvillea on the right

The contrast between sun and shade was striking

The contrast between sun and shade is striking and the view of the city grandiose

The bougainvillea is everywhere and reminds me of North Queensland where it blooms in winter

The bougainvillea is everywhere and reminds me of North Queensland where it blooms in winter

This stunning view of the castle was just after the bougainvillea

This sweeping view of the castle was just after the bougainvillea

There are two fountains in this very large square but only one is working

There are two fountains in this very large square but only one was working when we visited

Commerce Square fronting onto the Tagus River

Commerce Square fronting onto the Tagus River

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Posted in Architecture, Portugal | Tagged | 19 Comments