Vienna – Palaces and a Pair of Pandas

 

With only two full days in Vienna, long days were in order to make the most of our limited time in this opulent city. Upon our arrival late in the evening, we headed out in search of dinner. All of us were immediately in awe over the beauty of the magnificent buildings all lit up at night.

The best thing we did to soak in the beauty of the city was to take a walk from the Äußeres Burgtor (across from the Museum of Natural History) around the Burgring (inner ring). It is absolutely amazing to see all the grand buildings lit up. (Rathaus may have become my favorite building to see at night in all of Europe – absolutely spectacular. Pictures just don’t do it justice).

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Rathaus City Hall

Sites:

While the city is FILLED with over 100 wonderful museums of every interest imaginable, there were two things that we could not miss in our trip to Vienna – The Spanish Riding School where they train the Lipizzaner Stallions and the Tiergarten Schönbrunn, aka the Vienna Zoo. (The zoo recently had rare twin panda cubs which was the HIGHLIGHT of Megan’s birthday trip and a large part in why we found ourselves on this side of the continent. Saying Megan loves pandas may be the understatement of the year!)

IMG_1658The Spanish Riding School – The Famous Lipizzaner stallions are an elite group of horses and riders that perform elevated classical dressage around the world. They train year-round within Hofburg palace in Vienna. The riding school is the oldest of its kind in the world, first named in 1572. The methods practiced were originally developed to strengthen the war horse’s body and mind and make him a supreme athlete. Today, visitors can purchase a ticket to the riding school, allowing you to watch a 2 hour “show” in which the horses and riders exercise and practice for the larger performances on the weekend. About 6 groups of 5-6 horses enter the ring for their 20-minute window. Different skills levels are on display and if you are lucky enough, some may be practicing the famous aerial tricks! (We happened to witness three horses doing these jumps, which is very rare as the skills are strenuous and practiced infrequently).

FullSizeRenderSchönbrunn Palace and Grounds – This amazing area of the city is the former imperial summer residence featuring a huge 1,441 room palace, vast gardens, monuments, and of course the zoo. A fully day can be spent wandering around and exploring these amazing grounds. We arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds at the zoo, getting an up-close view of the cute panda cubs. Spring has sprung in Vienna, as many other babies could be spotted throughout the exhibits. A quick stop for lunch just outside the gates and it was time for our Palace tour. We opted to spend the extra couple dollars on the full tour and it was well worth it! As you wander through the 40 rooms, it is amazing to see the opulence in which the powerful royals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire lived. Don’t forget the free audio guide, providing great insight to the stories within the walls.

DSC01956 (1)Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral) – Located in the heart of the tourist area, this huge church is the most important religious building in Vienna, dating back to the 12th century. While the Romanesque/Gothic architecture is impressive, the geometric titled roof (the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of the city of Vienna are also created out of tile on the roof) is by far its most spectacular feature! Entrance into the Cathedral is free, but for a couple Euros you can climb to the bell tower and visit the catacombs below.

Naschmarkt – Like every great city in Europe, Vienna has a large outdoor market full of local specialties and fresh foods. The difference we found in visiting this one is that one side features a multitude of sit down restaurants of all different cuisines. Don’t miss the freshly grilled sausages, baked goods galore, amazing meat and cheese stands, or all the wonderful spices for culinary souvenirs!

Restaurants:

Gastwirtschaft Pürstner – With its eclectic, sometimes questionable, décor on every inch of this restaurant, it’s a great choice for an honest, quintessentially Austrian meal. The pork ribs and beefsteak in pepper sauce were especially delicious. The Wiener Schnitzel and Spätzle classically perfect. All washed down with big steins of Austrian beer at incredibly reasonable prices. One of our favorite meals we had while in Eastern Europe!

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Kutschker 44 – A welcome break from the heavy traditional cuisine of Eastern Europe, this informal modern restaurant was delicious. The contemporary menu changes seasonally and is prepared at the show kitchen situated right at the bar. Visiting near Easter, highlights included braised veal with potatoes, carrots, and plums and grilled lamb with asparagus risotto.

SacherTorte at Hotel Sacher – An original since 1832, and still made with the same recipe, we could not miss an opportunity to try a famous slice. This confection is comprised of a chocolate cake, thinly coated by hand with best-quality apricot jam, and topped with a thin layer of chocolate icing. For 6E it was quite pricey and the overall consensus from the group – while it was good, it was not a favorite. We prefer our chocolate cakes a little more “rich”.

Café Restaurant Weimar – If you enjoy coffee, no trip to Vienna is complete without an authentic Viennese café experience. Vienna, Austria has elevated coffee to an art form and its consumption to a lifestyle. By purchasing a single cup of coffee in one of the city’s grand old cafes, customers can spend entire days amongst a charming ambience and variety of patrons, making the Vienna coffee house an integral part of the city’s social experience. Be prepared to sit for at least an hour, and don’t you dare rush the waiter! With so many to choose from Café Restaurant Weimar, a classic, happened to be around the corner from our apartment. While convenient, it is also home to the head honcho of the official Vienna coffeehouse ruling board.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • To avoid the crowds, stay off of the main pedestrian street of Kärntner Straße. It does not have much character and is full of overpriced souvenir shops.
  • Austrian Banks don’t charge an ATM fee and seemed to have a pretty high limit.
  • Tip if traveling by train – if you don’t have an assigned seat on your train ticket, pick a seat in which there is a blank space on the “screen” above. The term Last Minute Reservations are assigned.

 

 

Prague – Family in a Fairytale City

DSC01389About midway through our travels we were lucky enough to welcome Drew’s family to experience Eastern Europe with us and celebrate yet another birthday, Megan’s. With a completely new experience ahead of us, we arrived 2 days prior to get a feel for the Czech Republic and the city of Prague. Their arrival brought much excitement as we began a 10 day jam packed adventure, covering 3 major cities – Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. We ate a lot of sausages and sauerkraut, we drank tons of beer, and we saw beautiful architecture found nowhere else. Below are the highlights of the first leg of the Stark Euro Vacation!

 

Notable Sites:

Old Town (Staré Město pražské) – Dating back to the 9th century, the gorgeous old town features amazing examples of medieval architecture unlike anywhere else. Tall slender church spires pierce the sky while surrounded by severely pitched roofs and decorative facades. Winding through the narrow cobblestone streets reveals amazing sites at every turn. The Old Town Square is the epicenter of the action, bordered by some of the most famous Prague buildings.DSC01271

  • For only a couple of dollars, take the
    elevator (or the stairs) to the top of the Old Town Hall Tower (the one with the astronomical clock – see our tips below) for the most amazing views of the city and the famous church.

Church of Our Lady before Týn – Dating back to the 14th century, the exterior of the grand church is by far the most impressive example of Gothic architecture in the city. Visits to the interior are only open a few times during the week, however not necessary as it is quite understated.

Dům U Minuty House – 90 degrees to your left, when staring at the astrological clock, this beautiful building may be one of my favorites in the city. The impressive façade is a beautiful example of the high-Renaissance architecture, covered in ornate graffito decorations. Be sure not to miss it!

Museum of Medieval Torture – Located at the entrance to the Charles bridge (from the old town side) this three-level museum was a very unique and fascinating experience. This museum showcases the various instruments used by Europe’s powers to torment heretics, “witches,” political rebels, scapegoats, gluttons, insufficiently amusing entertainers, women who talked too much, and other assorted enemies of the state. The 60+ torture devices are accompanied by medieval-style cartoons illustrating their use, as well as detailed textual explanations of their workings.

Charles Bridge – At most times of the day, this historic bridge is a total wall of tourists, so you must go early or late to try and beat the crowds. Finished in the 15th century, this is another beautiful example of gothic architecture; the old town bridge tower is often considered to be one of the most astounding civil gothic-style buildings in the world. Added in the 1700s, the bridge is now decorated by 30 statues and statuaries. By far the most scenic way to cross the river.

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The Charles Bridge

Prague Castle – The most prominent part of the skyline when looking west across the Vltava River, the Prague Castle complex dates back to the 9th century and is the largest ancient castle in the world. Despite guards at the front entrance, you can enter the grounds without a ticket. Once inside, spend the extra money and opt for Circuit A which grants you visitation to the gorgeous St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, Golden Lane with Daliborka Tower (old prison), Powder Tower, and Rosenberg Palace. **We opted for Circuit B and missed out on Rosenburg Palace which actually houses the apartments and other furnishings that have been stripped from the Old Royal Palace. While impressive it is now just empty rooms with explanations of the importance of the space** Don’t miss the extensive Armor Exhibit in Golden Lane, or the beautiful Prague National Gallery Entrance Hall (another of my favorite buildings due to the incredible frescos on the façade) located outside the main entrance to the castle grounds.

Lennon Wall – Tucked amongst a lovely maze of streets and canals, since the 1980s the John Lennon Wall has become a special place representing love and peace, filled with John Lennon inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles songs. The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Special bonus if the amazing acoustic guitarist happens to be there singing some classic Beatles songs!

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A young boy sharing words of love at the Lennon Wall

Restaurants:

Naše Maso – By far one of the most delicious meals of our trip. At this tiny little butcher shop, you walk up to the raw meat counter and order from a limited menu of house specialties. They then cook up the high-quality product in the back while you make your way to one of the 6 little butch block tables. Don’t miss the meatloaf – Perfectly seasoned mixture of meats with large “croutons” baked in. Not sweet like your grandmother’s brown sugar ketchup glazed version we all grew up with. The steak tartare is excellent. Don’t forget to order a cup of beer with your meal and refill it at the tap in the corner. An absolute cannot miss in Prague. But come early as there will likely be a line out the door and couples eyeing up your table at each bite.

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The incredible meatloaf at Nase Maso

Lokál – The go to place for well-priced large local beer and that German beer hall feel. There are multiple locations throughout the city, but the best one is Lokál Dlouhááá where hundreds of people gather until late at night downing liters and liters of Prague’s favorite drink. In our 5 days, we visited at least 4 times! (They also offer local food specialties, more options available during the day)

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Breakfast of dumpling, bacon, and sauerkraut

Naplavka Farmers’ Market – A fun and interesting experience, especially given the complete lack of knowledge of the Czech language. A very popular spot for locals on their Saturday mornings. Food stalls line the water’s edge with everything from beer (which they are drinking by 10am), coffee (the longest lines), all kinds of food, household goods, and local prepared dishes. Great unknown baked treats and a traditional breakfast of potato dumplings, bacon, and sauerkraut (scooped from HUGE pans with a shovel) where among our favorites we tried.

Ferdinanda – Our first taste of Czech food after a long afternoon of traveling. This local restaurant is outside of the hustle of old town but worth the trip if you are in the area. HUGE $1 Czech Beer, house made pickled sausage, headcheese, and goulash. All very tasty and incredibly well priced.

U Maltézských rytířů – An old knight’s tavern on the castle side of the Charles Bridge. Make sure to eat downstairs to get the full feeling of this historical building. Traditional Czech cuisine (like Pork knee and goulash), reasonably priced. One of Drew’s mom’s favorite places we ate in Prague.

In waiting for the family to arrive and to keep all the “must see” areas for when we were all together, a trip to the Karlin district lead us to two amazing restaurants, only frequented by locals. Karlin is a popular business district so Saturdays and Sundays are VERY quiet, and many of the shops closed. If you have an extra day and what to get away from touristy old town for a fantastic meal, Karlin is easily accessible via the Metro.

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Amazing Fruit Dumplings

Krystal Bistro (in the Karlin district) – The sole purpose for our trip to Krystal Bistro was to try the traditional fruit dumplings (Svestkove Knedliky), found all over Prague, but here they were exceptional! A warm steamed dough filled with whole plums atop plum sauce. They are then covered with a mixture of ground poppy seeds and sugar and finally topped with crème fraiche to help cut the sweetness. Orders come in 1 or 3 pieces. So good you’ll be wanting to lick the plate. Be sure to save plenty of room!

Eska (in the Karlin district) – A sous chef from a local Michelin Star restaurant left to open this “Modern Casual Czech” spot in commercial Karlin district. An open concept kitchen with communal table downstairs, and an industrial upper floor with bar and pastry prep area. Even on a Saturday afternoon, reservations are necessary and there is a reason why. This restaurant pushed the envelope on class Czech cuisine. Gourmet coffee and tea with excellent preparations utilizing a wood fire oven. The chef went for something more obscure than my grilled endive and vegetable salad with mustard vinaigrette, ordering the smoked whole pork tongue paired with chickpeas, carrots and parsnips. We left entirely too full as everything was EXCELLENT. Highly recommended, especially for a break from that traditional Czech food.

Day trip to Český Krumlov

We chose to drive to Vienna, not only to see the countryside but to stop at Český Krumlov, a small city in the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic. This little town is one of the most Picturesque in all of Europe, and the most perfect place to break

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The Bohemian Feast

up the 5 hour drive. The stunning castle sites high above the Vltava River overlooking the quaint old town below. The buildings that comprise the town look untouched since the 1400s, giving the feeling that you have stepped back in time
and are wandering through a storybook. We settled in for lunch at Krčma U dwau Maryí, one of the many riverside restaurants with the most amazing view of the castle from the outside terrace. We ordered the typical bohemian feast of chicken, ham, dumplings, potatoes and salad – tasting and a fun way to share the local specialty.

No trip to Český Krumlov would be complete without a trip to the Castle and it’s amazing grounds. Unfortunately for us, the interior didn’t open until April 1st, however the museum and tower were still enjoyable and offered the most amazing views of the town below. If you happen to be lucky enough, the entrance of the castle is “guarded” by at least one bear, who I imagine spends much of his days sleeping. A great stop over and one of the highlights of the trip for the entire family!

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The view of Cesky Krumlov from the top of the Castle Tower

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • Despite being in the EU, the Czech Republic has their own currency – the Czech Koruna.
    • There are still quite a few places that do not accept credit card, so be sure to have either Euros or Koruna on you, just in case.
    • When paying in Euros, you will often receive change in Czech Koruna. The downfall of this is you will likely get a terrible conversion rate.
  • Czech Banks do not charge an ATM fee, but make sure you withdraw money out of ATMS physically located at a bank.
    • Do not opt for the conversion to be done by the ATM. Just withdraw the Koruna amount requested.
  • In the spring, the evenings get very cold. Be sure to dress in layers.
  • Don’t go out of your way to be at the astrological clock on the hour. You will be amongst a ton of people and the “show” is not that impressive. Go on the off times when you can get close to the clock and admire the intricacy.
  • Spend the extra couple dollars for the whole tour of the Prague Castle. The basic four-part tour offers a very limited showing of the buildings.

Helpful Resources:

Lisbon – Millions of Stairs, Dozens of Views, and a Birthday!

 

I take it back Lyon…. Lisbon is the city of stairs! Upon arriving via high speed train from Algarve, it was time to make our way to our apartment in the oldest part of town – Alfama. While I knew about the infamous trollies (one ran outside our front door), touting tourists up the “hill” of Lisbon, I did not realize just how extreme that hill was. About half way up our immensely steep route we were regretting our decision to walk, but at that point we had come this far so there was no option but to continue on. Welcome to LISBON!

The city has a very unique history. It was originally settled by the Romans in 205 B.C. making it the second oldest city (outside of Rome) in all of Europe. Centuries of battles later, Christians recaptured the city from the Moors and by the 15th century it became the point of departure for all of the Portuguese Explorations. Due to this Lisbon became the world’s most prosperous trading center until an earthquake in 1755 destroyed nearly the entire city (except for Alfama where all the “riff raff” happen to live), killing thousands of its residents. The city was then rebuilt on top of the rubble forming the Baixa neighborhood, which still remains today as the main commercial center of town.

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Discoveries Monument

After a free walking tour the first day, we spent the next five wandering around the city, celebrating a birthday, and eating at some very typical Portuguese restaurants which have been around for ages. Below are some of our favorite highlights during our time in this Portuguese Capital.

 

Interesting Discoveries

Belem –  The area of the city which lies 5km to the west, where all of the voyages of discovery originated. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, this area is full of grassy parks, museums, and plenty of monuments dedicated to the famous explorers. Despite the long line, a visit to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is worth it. This extravagant monastery was funded by the wealth and trade that flowed from the Portugal’s colonies during the 16th century. It is one of the most decorative churches of Portugal and simply breathtaking. Continuing along the water’s edge you cannot miss the Padrão aos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument), an imposing concrete monument celebrating Portugal’s explorers and the era of discovery, before reaching the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower) or old guard tower. On the way back towards the tram stop you will pass the Pastéis de Belem, with its line of tourists out the door waiting to try the famous Pastel de Nata. This bakery is the traditional home of the delicious Portuguese cake, and no trip to Belem is complete without trying one (however we preferred the ones from Café Versailles).

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Jeronimos Monestary

Nucleo Arqueologico da Rua dos Correeiros– This free tour of the Roman Ruins situated underneath a modern bank building in the Baixa neighborhood was very interesting. Originally discoveredDSC00962 (1) when the bank wanted to build an underground parking lot, these ruins show examples of life (including a fish processing factory) spanning multiple time periods in Lisbon before the earthquake destroyed everything. You can only see the ruins during a small guided tour, which lasts about 45 minutes. Add your name to the list next door ahead of time and enjoy this unique piece of history!

FadoEverywhere you go in Lisbon (especially Alfama) guys standing outside restaurants will trying to lure you into their place for Fado, the traditional music from this region. This “folk” music includes instruments like guitars and mandolins with one Fadista singing poetic lyrics related to darker elements of love, death and sadness – traditionally sung about their loved ones going away during on voyages during the time of exploration. Best to enjoy during dinner, all service and chatter will stop while the woman pours her heart out through song. A very interesting and unique experience. Popular spots for a good performance include – Clube do Fado, The Fado Museum, and Sr. Fado de Alfama.

 

Viewpoints

Because of the hills which flank the city on either side, there are some absolutely amazing viewpoints which must not be missed. Each one was very different both from the views as well as the people enjoying it.

At the top of Alfama lies Miradouro da Graca. The Igreja e Convento da Graca with its terrace, overlooks the Castelo de São Jorge, the water, and city below. A wonderful spot to grab a glass of wine from the small bar (or better – bring your own) and soak in the view. It’s especially beautiful in the evening.

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Miradouro de Graca

One evening as we were making our way from Barrio Alto back to Alfama, we stumbled upon Miradouro de Santa Catarina, a small hill behind Museu da Famacia where over a hundred locals were gathered with their liters of beer or bottles of wine, just waiting for the sunset. Despite the clear day prohibiting a spectacular sunset, this spot had a perfect view of the bridge and river below. (Tip– Avoid the high prices of the hill kiosk and walk down R. Mal. Saldanha to #19, a small market on the left with a sign reading “Produtos Nacionais e Brasileire”. There you can buy a liter of local beer for 1.85€, among other options. They’ll even give you plastic cups for sharing!)

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The hill at Miradouro de Santa Catarina

Likely the most visited viewpoint in all of Lisbon, the upper platform of the Elevador de Santa Justa high above Barrio Alto gives visitors a view of Alfama and the Castelo de São Jorge. (Tip – Save money and avoid the charge for the elevator from Baixa. A little way up the hill to the back, near Convento do Carmo, you can walk right on the platform. There is an extra 1.50€ charge to go a little higher, however the view is practically the same)

To the north of the city lies probably the second most visited viewpoint, Miradouro do Parque Eduardo VII. Due to its location, the famous Lisbon hills frame the city perfectly with the river in the distance. The long park below is also a great place to relax on a beautiful day.

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Parque Eduardo VII behind us

Another lookout point in Alfama and popular with the Tuk Tuk tours, the Portas Do Sol overlooks the river to the west. Some local restaurants surround the square offering a place to eat while enjoying the views.

 

Restaurants

Portugal is famous for their sardines, which can found in every tourist shop or represented on virtually all souvenirs. Unfortunately, our visit did not coincide with the season so we were unable to indulge in that local specialty. In search for other authentic dishes we did come across a couple of other great options.

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Tasca Bela – This small and cozy place in the heart of Alfama was by far the best food we ate our entire time in Portugal. Even though 90% of the food was prepared cold “salads”, each plate was so flavorful they did not make you miss a warm dish. The mixed salad plate is certainly the way to go (along with a bottle of house wine) to ensure that you get a taste of everything.

 

 

 

Restaurante Zapata – A bit outside of the main town, this local restaurant was authentic as they come. With the specials written on a table cover and taped to the wall (a tell tail sign it’s the type of place you want to be at) we opted for a “stew” with pasta and Bacala (salted cod that has been rehydrated – another very important ingredient in Portuguese cuisine) and the suckling pig. We had herd rave reviews about the octopus, but since it was late afternoon they had already run out. Each dish was incredibly flavorful, the beers huge and extremely well priced. If we were staying on that side of town, I am sure we would have been back a second time.

Pastelaria Marques Pombal – In the north part of town on Av. da Liberdade, this local lunch spot was bustling with business people from all of the nearby offices. We opted for the daily special, a duck rice, and a traditional Portuguese sausage which seemed almost like it was made of scrapple. Surprising but absolutely delicious.

IMG_1392Ze da Mourirara – Now with 2 locations, one closing up in the late afternoon, this traditional eatery was a recommendation from the owner at Bela. HUGE portions (for 2) of all the dishes you would imagine at a huge Portuguese family gathering. We agreed to give Bacala one last try (we had now had it so much over the pat 2 months) accompanied by all the sides – greens, chickpeas, and potatoes. It was incredibly tasty, just as we imagined it should be. Reservations are recommended or get there early! And be sure to come with an empty stomach.

Restaurante Tolan – Our last meal in Alfama before we left, this tiny little eatery is exactly what you would imagine when the matriarch of the family decides to open up a restaurant. With only her son to help, this duo produced a solid meal of seafood stew and mussels.

Café Versailles – An upscale café with a couple locations taking pride in the “art of coffee”. HUGE display cases of pasties and sweet line the wall. It was here where we had our favorite Pasties de Nata of the trip (Despite Belem’s being served warm – the flavor at Versailles was far superior).

Cais do VInho Wine Bar – This great little wine bar on the main street just outside Barrio Alto specializes in Portuguese wines. We had an amazing time tasting both reds and whites from around the region. Initially we thought the price of 20E for four tastings was a little high (it was my birthday after all) but our 8 hand selected tastes quickly turned into 16, as our “guide” poured more and more based on our preferences. If you’re interested in sampling the wines from around the country, this place is a must stop! Ask for Luciana (They also do port and madeira tastings for something a little more unique to Portugal)

**We stumbled across the new Time Out Market Lisboa on our way back from Belem. While we did not get a chance to eat anything at one of the many food vendors inside, it looks like a great concept similar to the tapas markets we experienced in Spain!**

 

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • Bring Cash – many of the small local places do not take credit cards
    • Portuguese Banks do not charge ATM fee; however they may have a limit on withdrawals.
  • Unlike every other major city- each person must have their own public transit card. We found this out the hard way on the way to the airport.
  • Surprisingly there are no real supermarkets in town but only expensive neighborhood mini marts
  • Going out to eat is relatively inexpensive and Lisbon locals do it often!
  • The most authentic restaurants will have the daily dishes written on a paper table cover taped to the wall.
  • Bring sturdy walking shoes (and prepare for sore legs!). The ground is extremely uneven and the hills very steep.

Link to all the great viewpoints – http://www.golisbon.com/sight-seeing/viewpoints.html

 

Algarve, Portugal – Never Ending Natural Beauty

The Algarve region of Portugal is a wonderful area along the southern coast of Portugal, dotted with several pretty towns, large beaches and incredible rock cliffs that plunge deep into the sea below. Coming from Seville, the only way to get to Portugal (other than a quick flight) is to take an inexpensive bus ride, transferring in the commercial town of Faro. As with a couple other stops along our trip, if we are going to be there to transfer, why not stay a couple nights? And that is just what we did.

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View from the bell tower of Se Cathedral, Faro

Faro is the regional capital of the area and rich with cultural history. The walled quaint old town sits above the harbor, the medieval Se Cathedral at its center. A tour of the cathedral is well worth the price, as you also gain access to the bell tower. The old stairs up to the tower, especially if they are slightly wet, can be quite treacherous but here one can find the best views of the harbor and traditional pyramid roofs of the city buildings below. Also within the walls of the old town (and for a very reasonable 2€ entrance fee) was the Museu Municipal. This museum is situated in a gorgeous old convent and features artifacts dating back to the 3rd century, all found within the Faro city limits. Another unique and very interesting site that must not be missed was the Capela de Ossos or Bone Chapel to the back of the Igreja do Carmo, in the north east part of town. This chapel was constructed in 1719 using the remains of 1,245 monks whose bones were displaced when the ossuary was built.

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The Courtyard of Museu Municipal

While the city of Faro is situated along water, it is Ria Formosa – the marshlands and lagoons where local fisherman anchor their boats, heading out at high tide early in the morning. To get to the beaches of Faro which form the outer edge and are technically their own island, you must either take a boat ride through the preserve (spotting wildlife along the way) or by city bus No 14 or 16 to Praia de Faro – the only one reached by a roadway connection. Not exactly ideal for the 300 days of sunshine a year that grace the Algarve region, however their somewhat remote location offers flat long stretches of golden sand.

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Capela de Ossos – The Bone Chapel 

The center city of Faro lacks a bit of character, as commercial shopping streets dotted with restaurants were just waiting for the tourists to arrive. It didn’t matter what time of the day we wandered by, it was all the same scene. Menus at the restaurants were displayed in 6 languages and what we had of the food was just so so. A little outside of the main center, near the train station, we discovered Adega Nova. Other than our new friends Lizzie and Lenny, we were the only ones speaking English in the place! Proof we were in a local spot. As thunder and rain swept across the town, we helped ourselves to traditional fish stew with rice and whole fried little Mackerel (stomach and all still intact!). Four 9€ bottles of wine between us two couples later, we wandered down the street to Innocent, continuing our new-found friendship over the acoustic music of one incredibly talented gentleman named Denzel.

A day trip to Lagos (via the extremely slow local train) brought us to the picture-perfect cliffs and beaches that Algarve is known for. Upon our immediate arrival, we were greeted with lively people and that relaxed beach town feel. While the city has been slightly commercialized (and a lively late night party destination for abroad students on holiday) there are many pockets to be discovered, still holding on to the traditions of the region. Try Cataplana de Marisco, the fish stew made in a copper “clam shell” pot, listed on practically every menu.

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Hiking along the cliffs

Due to the weather overnight, the seas were so rough we were unable to take the guided boat tour through the famous grottos, cliffs, and caves. Since this was one of our must do activities while in the area, we were determined to find another way. Just outside the city walls to the southeast of the city, Praia do Pinhao lies – the first of a long line of beaches carved out of the beautiful multicolored cliffs. From here a network of small hiking paths lead us for over an hour across the stunning shore line, all the way to Ponta da Piedade. This southernmost tip of Lagos has the most amazing views in the Algarve which span over the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Lagos, the hills of Monchique in the background, and other coastal towns to the west and east. A walk down the long stairs offers an up-close view of some of the most famous points visited on the boat tours. While we chose to take the “long way” enjoying the gorgeous day, this spot can also be reached via car/taxi, boat, or direct walking route from town. Despite another long two-hour train ride back to Faro, this day trip was one to not be missed!

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Rough seas at Ponta da Piedade

While the town of Faro was fine for the couple days that we were there (not to mention extremely convenient from our travels between Seville and Lisbon) to us, it lacked the authentic character we were hoping for. Yes, the old town was quaint but it was very small and sleepy. The main shopping streets were so commercial with their empty international storefronts. And the beach, being a journey just to get there, did not allow for that relaxing Algarve beach atmosphere one travels to experience. We are certain we will be back to the region, but will choose to stay in one of the small towns between Faro and Lagos, relaxing on the beach and exploring more of the area.

Our Stark Persepctive (Tips)

  • The train along the Algarve coast starts in Faro and ends in Lagos. The total distance takes about 2 hours and is quite expensive for a round trip (15€ per person).
    • If you plan on visiting more than one city along the coast, opt for the Tourist pass which will allows unlimited rides on the local train over a period of time.
  • If you want to see the caves without traveling all the way to Lagos, Seafaris tour company departs from Vilamoura (within close proximity to Faro).
    • Alternatively – the Bengail Cave can be reached by car from the town of Portimão.
  • Missed Restaurant Recommendations
    • Restaurante Republica Gourmet, Faro
    • Cashina de Pescito, Lagos

 

 

Seville – Sunny and Seventy

The feeling of Seville is unlike any other city we have visited yet. Bright colored or tiled buildings full of character, warm weather (do not even contemplate about visiting in July or August), and friendly people. Other than the fact that we drove into the nightmare of narrow roads on a busy Friday night, we had a warm welcome to the city and instantly had an affinity for it.

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Much to our surprise, the food was a complete contrast to this lovely Southern Spanish town. We thought we were heading into fresh seafood, wonderful produce, tastes of the Mediterranean, but we were so wrong! It seemed as though everything was fried and vegetables were few and far between (Even speaking to a bartender who had moved from Prague over a year ago – she too had the same surprised encounter with the local cuisine).

With almost five days in the city, and a local connection through a friend, we were able to cover a lot of ground. Below are our highlights of our time in Seville.

Restaurants –

Eloy Patio – Like everywhere in Seville, ceramic tiles are the décor of choice and this restaurant is no different. Cheap, easy, and quick this tiled stadium seating only spot serves about 25 large montaditios (sandwiches) for about $2.50 each. Overflowing with people at all hours of the day, it is the perfect gathering spot for cheap beers and pretty good bites.

Dos de Mayo – A small bar/restaurant that has been around for years and a local favorite.  The fried little flounders were a wonderful substitute for the boquerones we had now been eating for over a month. Pretty good local dishes and a good value as each item can be ordered as either a tapa(small) or a portion(large).

IMG_1196Pepe Hillo – If you find yourself around the bull ring at lunch, wander down the back street to Pepe Hillo. Bull heads from the local fights over the years are mounted on the restaurant walls. Food was quite good, produce fresh, and relatively inexpensive. We thoroughly enjoyed the roasted peppers with shrimp and stuffed avocado.

Mercado Lonja Del Barranco – New to Seville (and rumored to have been designed by the same architect as the Eiffel tower) this tapas market was very similar to San Miguel Market in Madrid. Filled with jamon bars, oysters, all kinds of paella, wine, beer and every other type of Spanish specialties. A beautiful place to sit near the river and enjoy the perfect Seville weather.

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Alhambra – One of the best meals we had in Seville and in a lovely location. From the Chef’s Perspective “We started with Salmorejo, a type of gazbacho, served with a cooked quail egg, jamon, and cherry tomato halves. It was absolutely delicious. I’m very partial to my gazpacho recipe that I got when working at Oceana in NYC, but this was almost as good. The next course was an olive oil cured Manchego cheese with gooseberries, walnuts and candied spaghetti squash. Once again, an amazing combination of flavors – so simple yet so good. For a main course dish, we ordered with a duck lasagna (we found it very interesting on the menu, so we had to try it). Made with lasagna noodles, layered with duck pate and duck prosciutto it was a very imaginative dish. Overall the restaurant was an amazing little find in the heart of a very touristy area”.

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Mechela Restaurante – In talking with a French national, now Seville local, at a bar one night (until 2AM!) he recommended this local place, hidden in a back street near the Museo de Bellas Artes. This ended up being another amazing meal while in Seville and the perfect end to our stay. A great wine list complemented the tasty crispy prawn with cashew ajo blanco, razor clams al la plancha, sweet potato gnocchi with smoked sardines and broccoli pesto, and oxtail tajine with couscous and chickpeas.

 

 

Sites –

Plaza Espana – Absolutely beautiful and quite possibly one of our favorite spots in Seville. Built in 1928 to showcase Spain’s industry and technology exhibits during the Ibero-American Exposition. This gorgeous complex is a huge half-circle with buildings continually running around the edge, accessible over the moat by numerous bridges representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. By the walls of the Plaza are many tiled alcoves, each representing a different province of Spain. Such a unique space filled with meaning and maybe even a flamenco performance or two!

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Reales Alcázares de Sevilla – One of the must-see tourist locations within Seville. This beautiful royal palace was originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings as early as the 1st century and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of mudéjar architecture found on the Iberian Peninsula. The entire palace is covered in bright ornate ceramic tiles and the grounds, huge lush gardens. The private bath, nearly hidden through a small entrance in the gardens, was absolutely breathtaking. The upper levels of the Alcázar are still used by the royal family making it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. Our only critique – the tour of the lower floors is exempt from showing how the royals actually occupied the space. Rather you wander through beautiful empty rooms and must imagine what the furnishings would have looked like.

Triana – A lovely neighborhood with its own identity on the western bank of the river. Locals and tourists alike gather on pedestrian streets filled with shops and restaurants. Wandering away from the main street takes you back in time to an area hardly touched by tourism. The best place to buy ceramics and something this area takes very seriously!

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Iglesia del Salvador – Absolutely incredible with the most ornate alters and chapels we have seen. The Spaniards take such pride in the incredible decoration, all gilded in gold. Inside are a total of 14 altarpieces, all unbelievably stunning. Get the free audio guide (although mine was set up wrong and the numbers are a little confusing) for a detailed description of what you are looking at.

 

 

 

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Palacio de las Dueñas – A little off the beaten path of the high tourist area, this lovely palace was a great place to duck out of the rainy weather. It was built in the late 15th century in the Renaissance style with Gothic and Moorish influences. In the spring and summer the façade is blanketed in purple bougainvillea and absolutely stunning. The museum features a large decorative arts collection and furnishing of the past couple centuries. The gardens are filled with orange streets and the sweet smell of citrus. A wonderful treat in the northern part of town.

 

Other Notable Experiences –

Flamenco Show at La Carboneria – After weaving all the way across town, we arrived to a dark alley where La Carboneria awaited and their free Flamenco show (as long as you buy a drink at the bar). Shuffling to our seats at long communal tables, we splurged on the 10E bottle of red wine and sat back to enjoy the show. About every half hour an incredible set of traditional Spanish song and dance is performed. In the beginning the host, a 70 something year old man, pulls at your heartstrings as he bellows the emotional songs of flamenco accompanied by a solo guitar. A couple songs in, the beautiful dancer in her long flowing dress stands up on the wooden platform and begins to stomp and move along with the sounds of the guitar and singer. If you’re lucky, an 80 something year old man will accompany her for a song. Such an emotionally fueled experience in a rustic and memorable location.

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She never stopped moving so it was near impossible to get a good photo! 

 

Practicing for Semana Santa – We visited Seville about a month before Semana Santa or holy week. Seville is known worldwide for their celebrations, in which enormous platforms or pasos dripping in silver or gold depicting religious scenes are walked by brotherhoods (there are nearly 70!) from their home church to the Cathedral of Seville and back. Some of the routes for the suburban barrios could take up to 14 hours to return!

As we were heading back to our apartment on our first evening in town, we noticed gatherings of people in little alleys all over the place, enjoying drinks and one another’s company. At the alley nearest our apartment, we finally realized what was going on as one of the local brotherhoods were practicing their march with an empty platform. Up to 30 men had to be in complete unison as they slowly stepped up the streets navigating around corners and uneven roadways. We even bumped into another brotherhood later in our stay, as they all stopped by Dos de Mayo for a drink after rehearsal, still wearing the custom padded “hats” needed to support the immense weight of the platform.

Our Stark Perspective (Tips) –

  • Siestas are big in Seville (due to the heat in the summer months) so practically all stores and restaurants close between 2-5pm.
  • Entrance to Real Alcazar and the Plaza de toros (bull ring) are both free on Monday afternoon. It is impossible to do both, as you need to wait in line for Alcazar starting around 2:15pm and the bull ring only allows a certain number of people, which will have entered by the time you walk over there.
  • If you can avoid it – Don’t drive! In the old city (like all of Europe) the streets are especially tight with hardly enough room for even small cars. Traffic is also particularly busy, making it very frustrating and near impossible to get around.
  • Public transportation is pretty non-existent, but we felt the city was extremely walkable.