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Sintra, Portugal, June 2017

Last month we returned to Portugal, one of our favourite countries. The people are so nice, the cost of living is low, and the Portuguese really care about their environment, with almost 100% of their energy needs coming from renewables (as we learnt last year on a wonderful cruise on the Douro river).

Our visit last year included a too-short day trip to Sintra, so we returned this year to see it properly, staying in a wonderful Airbnb property (see below) very close to its centre.

Sintra (map link) is a 40-minute commuter train ride from Lisbon (costing less than 3€), a UNESCO World Heritage site with an interesting history, and has been among other things a place for aristocracy and royalty to escape to in hot weather.


I took this picture of Sintra's centre on a walk down from the Castle of the Moors - see later.
The building with the conical white roofs is the National Palace of Sintra, which we greatly enjoyed visiting last year.
Our Airbnb place (see next photos) is just outside the left edge of the shot.


The terrace of our Airbnb place (click the picture if you want to see the property details)



A great view from the terrace


and beautiful gardens (from which we were supplied with juicing oranges and PYO salad vegetables)...


containing a great warm swimming pool...


and many other nice features!
This was one of the best self-catering places we have ever stayed in, with mega-helpful owners.


On our day trip to Sintra last year, we saw the Castle of the Moors perched high above the town, although we didn't have time to visit then. We assumed that it was the highest site of interest in Sintra, but (as we were shortly to find out) that wasn't the case!


Even if you get the bus up to the castle (recommended!), there is still something of a climb before you reach the real entrance


Inside, the castle is not the bleak rocky expanse we had been expecting, but now a very pleasant park enclosed by ramparts





...and from here we could see the palace in the vast Quinta da Regaleira (see later), which looks down on the Castle of the Moors


Although the 5.5€ bus ticket for the Castle of the Moors (and the Quinta da Regaleira) is a round trip, we decided to take the 40-minute walk back down to Sintra...


...on a path which descends steeply, in the upper stages crossing to and fro across a ravine...



...passing other properties which are sometimes open to the public

A couple of days later we took the bus again up to the Quinta da Regaleira, heading for the roof the the (local) world


The Quinta is a vast hilly estate where you can spend a whole day walking, containing many architectural features
Only a tiny part of the estate features in these photos - we will have to return one day!




The Iniciatic (Masonic Initiation) Well is not a well but one of two “inverted towers”, this one 27m deep. A network of tunnels and grottos leads from the bottoms of the wells to each other and to outlets lower down in the estate - see here
(not my photo, click the image for its source)


We climbed higher, heading for the very top... this section was a very atmospheric forest with several rocky outcrops


Still climbing, looking down on the Palace (which we didn't have time to visit, except for the restaurant which we declined to eat in, not being up to normal Portugal standards)

As on many days, sea mist was capping the hills with clouds...


.. and when we finally reached the Cruz Alta (High Cross), the highest point above Sintra, the hidden horizon made it look as if the ships in the distance were floating in the sky!


This photo of the Cruz Alta on a sunny day was taken by National Geographic photographer Ricardo M L Alves da Silva who lives in nearby Carcavelos, and whose other work is well worth exploring

[Portugal visit continues in Part 2]

Lisbon, Portugal, June 2017

[Portugal visit continued from Part 1]

[...and from our previous visit to Lisbon in 2015, which included the Lisbon Oceanarium]

On this visit we discovered a hidden treasure, the inadequately-named “Lisbon Greenhouse”, actually a series of vast botanical enclosures built within an abandoned basalt quarry, and subsequently extended. The first enclosure (and the entrance to the others) is the Estufa Fria, or “Cold Greenhouse”.

You reach this place (map link) by walking uphill for 10 minutes from the top of the Avenida da Liberdade (Lisbon's equivalent of the Champs Elysée in Paris) through the Eduardo VII Park, keeping to your left.



The Estufa Fria is much larger than appears here. Its roof consists of wooden slats separated by air gaps, which keeps the enclosure cool in summer and warm in winter.


You can walk around the enclosure on paths cut into the hillside at different levels, including one just beneath the roof.
In this picture you can see some of the other enclosures beyond.


This origami sculpture in the lake is one of several by Marco Zecchinato...


...more of which were on display in an exhibition room near the outside lake...



...which seemed to be attracting another visitor, peering in through the window!


This part of the outside lake is only accessible via the exhibit area...


...and features, among other things, terrapins and large fish...


The Portuguese use water features everywhere - this one in the bar terrace of our hotel, a nice place to sit out on a warm evening...


...and this is one only recently installed in the Avenida da Liberdade


We learnt a lot about Lisbon's fascinating history in the Lisboa Story Centre, a cultural museum well worth visiting. It includes a very realistic recreation on film of the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.


Afterwards we took a 90-minute cruise on the huge Tagus river (map link), with which so much of Lisbon's history is connected


Passing the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square), the setting-out point for explorations and commerce that affected so much of the world that we know today.

(This is where the Lisboa Story Centre is very appropriately located.)



The huge monument of Cristo Rei (Christ the King), inispired by the famous statue in Rio de Janeiro, erected to express gratitude that the Portuguese were spared the effects of WWII

(Extreme digital zoom on a compact camera, taken by my spouse from a moving boat at very long distance!)


The 25 de Abril (25th April) Bridge, often compared to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, named to celebrate the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974 that freed the country of dictatorship with almost no shots fired



Approaching the mouth of the Tagus, very much a working river, where the boat turned around


Sailboats passing the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, said to be the world's most advanced centre for research into cancer, brain damage and blindness, both medically and from an architectural point of view. From the river it looks a little like a cruise ship, but it is designed to look quite different from almost any angle in which it is approached.


Through the huge oval-shaped window on the left you can see a forested area within the building (with its own water features) that is used as part of the healing regime - go here and here if you would like to see more of the Centre






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Douro River Cruise - Return Journey to Porto

[Portugal/Spain visit continued from Part 1]


Leaving Barca D'Alva for the return journey




One of many pigeon houses (or dovecotes) that are a common sight in the vineyards. They were originally used to achieve several things at once: to raise pigeons for food, to produce a ready source of manure, and to attract raptors who (if I understood the guide correctly) scare off other wildlife that feeds on the grapes.

There is a programme in Portugal to restore these to active use - I can't find a good description of the programme, but you may find this post on the use of dovecotes as wild nutrient collectors interesting.




The "Quinta" of a famous name in Port wine


Back at the low railway bridge (only 7m clearance from water level) - everyone keeping low



... and a train crossed just after we went under


The captain's large wheelhouse (if that's the right term) collapses around him during these transits, leaving him standing at the controls. And yes, not wasting any space that can house solar panels.


About to descend the Valeira Dam lock, which has a single lift nearly as high as the Carrapatelo's




House Martin nests - I think


The guillotine gate being lifted up



Going down... 109 feet


(BTW: If you are interested in awesome locks, check out the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift in Scotland, the only one of its kind in the world)


Night at Pinhão (map link)




Back in Porto - another famous name in Port wine (their web site is here, a link that I highly recommend you to follow if you're interested in the history and production of Port wine!)


The huge barrels at the end are for long aging of Tawny port, the small barrels are for the younger Ruby (if I have got it right)


From right to left: the "cheap and cheerful" Ruby (only relatively cheap!), a 10-year-old Tawny and a 20-year-old Tawny (far from cheap). I actually preferred the middle one, my spouse preferred the really expensive one on the left.


And some of the vintage wines which mature on sediment in the bottle, and can be kept almost forever if stored in this position. Seriously expensive!

[Portugal/Spain visit continues in Part 3]

Asian Arts Museum and Phoenix Park - Nice, Côte d'Azur, France, November 2015

[Continued from our visit in Feb/March 2015]

This was our second trip to Nice this year (our first trip in Feb/March can be found here if you are interested). We revisited many of our favourite places, so this time I am mainly showing our visit to the Asian Art Museum and Phoenix Park, both in l'Arenas district, a nicely redeveloped area near the airport, on the western side of Nice.

This area houses many modern business buildings, an excellent restaurant (Le First), the free Asian Arts Museum, and Phoenix Park (admission €3, free for children). It reminds me of some redeveloped areas in London, but with a distinctly French (and sunny) flavour. It is easily reached from many parts of central Nice by a #9 or #10 bus.


The Asian Art Museum, seen from the bridge linking two of its sections


The quiet refreshments room has a unique atmosphere. While you can get coffee from a Nespresso machine, it would be a shame not to ask for Jasmine tea, which will be made and served for you in a very uncoffee-shop way. It also displays some nice things, like this.


Stairs leading to the upstairs art gallery...


...currently showing a series of very nice abstract paintings by this Chinese painter, who lives and works in France (click my photo of the poster above for information about him)


My photos of three of the very large paintings hanging in the gallery, which I particularly liked




“Cosmic Tree”, “Tree of Immortality”, also “Money Tree” - click the label for some quite interesting information!


Close-up...



Click the label if you would like to know more...


This had an abstract appeal, so I tried a monochrome image...


“Scholar's Rock” in Ying limestone on a wooden pedestal - click the label for some quite interesting information!


Close-up...


Phoenix Park, just across the water from the Asian Arts Museum. The enormous greenhouse can be seen in the distance.


A pleasant walk around the lake...


...brings you to the Phoenix Park Greenhouse, one of the largest in Europe. It is much larger than it looks here.





A small aquarium has recently been added, currently at an early stage of construction - it has no ambitions to compete with the awesome Lisbon Oceanarium that we visited earlier this year


Outside the greenhouse you come to a great play area for children - one of several in Nice. This is probably much busier in summer, but this kind of off-season weather is one reason why we like Nice so much.


There are also safe mazy trails around this area where kids can explore safely



The rest of our visit (in brief)...

We actually spent two weeks here, the first at the end of October when we had our daughter and grandchild with us. I have spared you many family mugshots as well as pictures of places seen on our previous visit in Feb/March 2015.


As apparently is typical of the off-season months, in any 2-week period you can expect 2 or 3 days of cloud and rain, which duly arrived. Rain here, however, is not the same as rain in England! This is taken outside the National Theatre.


Most of the time the weather was like this (taken in the sheltered bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer, a 3-minute train ride from Nice, mostly through a tunnel), where there is a good beach of fine grit and higher-than-normal prices!


One of several lookout points at the top of the Colline du Château, on the eastern side of Nice...


...from which there is a great view of the Port. Descending on foot from here to the inner part of the Port takes longer than usual at the moment, because the construction of a new section of tramway to the Port (and a new promenade) has cut off the shortest route.

Nice, I have to say, has one of the best and cheapest public transport systems that we have found anywhere. Bus tickets cost €1.50 on the bus, but only €1 if bought in packs of 10 at the tram stops (coins or card only), or in the Lignes d’Azur boutiques across from the main train station, or on Blvd Jean Jaures on the edge of the Old Town (thanks to Best of Nice Blog for the info). You can change buses on the same ticket, providing you revalidate the ticket on each bus and the whole journey is within 74 minutes, as it was for all journeys we took. The same tickets can be used on the superb modern trams.

Children under 4 years go free, and two children under 10 can travel on the same single ticket.


Farewell to Nice, at least for this year... taken outside Les Jardin du Capitole, a great (and inexpensive) place to have a last meal before catching the #98 express bus, right outside, for a short ride to the airport (the buses for Phoenix Park also stop here).


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Visit to Nice, Côte d'Azur, France, February 28th to March 15th, 2015

We spent two very pleasant weeks in Nice this year, escaping the British winter, staying in a small self-catering apartment just behind the Promenade des Anglais. The air was cool (high 50's) but we had blue skies and hot sun most days.

We loved Nice, which we learnt is the 6th largest city in France, after Toulouse. Even at this time of year there is much to be enjoyed, almost all of it on foot, and although it is beautifully located on the aptly-named Côte d'Azur, it doesn't feel like a seaside resort.

Nice day in the Promenade du Paillon, a park which runs at an angle from the sea front, starting at the Promenade des Anglais, with the Old Town to its right



It was lucky that we decided to go up on the wheel now (6 Euros), as it wasn't there next week!


The wheel, and these great bouncy things, were probably put here for the Nice Carnival that runs through the second half of February, and later in our stay they were being removed. We missed the Carnival on this visit, except the final firework display.


Going up on the wheel... The curved sculpture in the park is a 115 degree arc, the same as the arc of the Baie des Anges, the beautiful bay around which Nice is set.


Looking down on the Old Town, and the modern and excellent tramway


The hill in the distance is the Colline du Château - on the other side of the hill is the Commercial Port (see later)


A rubber-wheeled Tourist Train (8 Euros) starts on the Promenade, goes through the Old Town and takes you up the hill, at the top of which there is a recreation park and great views all around (see later), stopping there for 10 minutes before returning to the Promenade


Down from the wheel, enjoying walking through more of the Promenade du Paillon


We know a small person who would like playing here...


...and here...


...and here!


A day trip to Cannes... and the only picture I thought it worth taking there. Cannes, unlike Nice, seemed to us a horrible mix of pretension and seaside holiday resort tat. The bus to Cannes takes 1½ hours but only costs 1.5 Euros... we took the train back, happening to catch a TGV (½ hour, 7 Euros).


The self-catering apartment where we stayed was on the front ground floor of 1, Gloria Mansions - B1 in the photo. Originally very grandly situated with a carriageway leading up to it, the developers have added B2 in front of it, and another even grander B3 behind B1 (not visible here). At this time of year the balcony of our apartment got only 2 hours of sunshine after lunch, the rest of the time the sun being blocked by B2. Our apartment still had much to recommend it. B2 shields B1 from the noise of the road, and it is excellently situated for shops and walks, and...


...it only takes 2 minutes to carry the apartment's deckchairs onto the beach!


We loved the evening light


Monument set into the side of the Colline du Château, near the Commercial Port




We loved the decorative walls on the parths leading up the Colline (we took the Tourist Train up, and walked down)


Interesting things to see up there...



The Commercial Port, seen from the recreation park on top of the Colline


A neat parking job


Ships (not this one) leave from here for Corsica, one of our favourite places (click the link to see why)


The top of the recreation park, from which there are excellent views all around


Disney Theme Park employees should look away when passing this!


More views from the Park


Part of the Baie des Anges, and a good view of the Promenade des Anglais (built by a grandson of Queen Victoria). Note the jetty fragment in the water (see later). The Flower Market is below on the right.


Walking down, heading for the Flower Market...


...which can be seen on the left, with the dome of the Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate to the right






Nice place for afternoon treat sitting outside, not so good for lunch




Can't capture the fragrance from these shops, unfortunately (although we took some home)





Very nice family restaurant next to the Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate


Back on the Promenade du Paillon



In this chain of Boulangeries / Patisseries, the people serving you don't handle money any more. You can put bills or coins in the slots (even a 50 Euro note!) and it gives change. Works great.


Inside the wonderful Chagall museum, which we walked up to on one of the supposedly bad-weather days (we still had sun for a snack lunch outside in the café).


Bad weather day at the Massena Museum (history of Nice), 2 minutes walk from our apartment. I loved the dining room. This was the hangout of royalty and similar at the time of the Belle Époque.



Photo of Nice taken about 1865


Before the "modern" promenade was built (by one of Queen Victoria's grandsons). The jetty and the Casino are no longer there (see below).


Photo of Nice taken about 1865


A papier-mâché model of the old jetty and Casino, made by students at a local college. Found this info about it: "In 1891 the construction of the Casino de la Jetée-Promenade began... it remained until the end of WWII when the Germans began to dismantle the structure stripping it of its valuable metals."


A glass fish in our local restaurant (Les Jardins du Capitole), taken on our last of several visits... it seemed to have attitude! We liked this place, and eventually acquired regular-visitor status (e.g. free Limoncello at end of meal). Very friendly service, good food, well patronised by the locals.

Our other favourite local restaurant was Italian, the excellent Restaurant Davisto - everything authentic and freshly made, and their “Spaghetti alle Vongole” was absolutely the best that I have ever had.

[Photoblog continues in Part 2, a day trip to Saint Paul de Vence]

Day trip to Saint Paul de Vence, Medieval Walled Commune in the Alpes-Maritimes, March 2015
[Photoblog continued from Part 1]


Vence (not visible here) is located in the foothills of the Alpes Maritime (which still had snow), about an hour's bus ride from Nice. Saint Paul de Vence is the medieval walled commune located on a hill top just below Vence itself.


Elecric cars are as available as rented bikes! Vence itself is not that interesting, although due to bad timing we didn't see the Matisse Chapel...


... so we descended a short distance to Saint Paul. Loved this milestone: "You are there."


We started out around the battlement walls, very scenic





Interesting shop windows in the middle of the town - it took me a moment to notice the cat!



The locals playing Pétanque... one of the old guys was practising earlier, he laid a boule against the base of the low wall, backed off at least 20 paces, and could hit it smack on (not bouncing first) with another boule about 9 times out of 10. I was seriously impressed!


This was supposed to be one of our few bad-weather days, but it only got a bit ominous-looking towards the afternoon (and then didn't do much). The locals in Nice told us that we had been unlucky with the early March weather on our trip - but for us, this “unlucky weather” felt almost like summer.

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[My "Places To Enjoy Life" page]