I am about to embark on a 15 days Okinawa + Taiwan trip, and i have yet to blog about the Europe trip which happened almost a year ago! I thought i should do one blog entry before i go, and Montenegro is probably the most memorable among the places i have visited. The other-worldly feature photo you see above is that of Lake Skadar. Yes, absolutely breathtaking. Continue reading Travel bucket list – Montenegro
Yakushima ranks among the highest rated attractions in all of Japan. It is a small island south of Kyushu with UNESCO World Heritage status, no less. Having seen the photos and generally raving reviews, I needed little convincing to decide to come here as part of my whirlwind tour of Kyushu. Continue reading Travel bucket list: Yakushima
In 2010 when i visited my sister who lives in Manchester, UK, she asked what i would like to see while in the UK. I thought for a moment, and the idea that came up was, gardens. That’s what they’re famous for right? Well, they’re also famous for a few things: Soccer, Theatre and Musicals, Fish and Chips, afternoon tea etc., but i thought seeing an English garden would be the perfect sightseeing thing to do while in the UK. My sister brought me to see Fountains Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a fabulous way to spend an afternoon.
To be honest, I don’t know much about gardening, but anyone would be able to appreciate the carefully put together elements of plants, water, sculpture. The Bodnant Garden was one of the best.
There are literally thousands of gardens in the UK, a testament to the Englishman’s love of gardening. The Leven’s Hall and Gardens is also nice one to visit enroute to the Lake District.
Ok, you must be wondering what Spanish food has to do with a travel bucket list. Spain does have many places worthy of being added to your bucket list, such as the Alhambra, but over and above, I love Spanish food.
A satisfying breakfast with Churros, toast with cheese and ham and scrambled eggs (don’t the eggs look lovely?)
Spanish food appeals to me much for a few reasons: it is tasty, varied, and it can be so darn cheap. I’ll explain the cheap part in a moment. Spain is one of the countries with the most Michelin starred restaurants, so, without a doubt, you know Spaniards have good taste. The variety of Spanish food is best exemplified by their Tapas. The number of different Tapas I have seen in a typical restaurant menu, or ready-made and put on display, are no less than 20. Tapas are like the Spanish equivalent of dim sum: small portioned, creative and refined.
Tapas are relatively cheap – it allows you to sample many different dishes without breaking the bank. I was quite surprised, while in a Tapas bar – El Majuelo in Salamanca, to see locals having just one Tapas dish and a drink for a meal. The Tapas were generally 3 to 5 Euros. That was perhaps the cheapest meal I have seen happening in Western Europe, and one of the best meals i’ve had.
Cheese with mushroom. It tasted like foie gras
Rice with black pudding. I’m no fan of pig’s blood but this tasted so good, a bit like sweet glutinous rice dessert
While in Spain, i took the opportunity to try a 3 Michelin star restaurant as well – Arzak. The amuse bouche were very interesting indeed. The mains, other than being a little too small in terms of portion, can’t be faulted. The service was perfect. The price? well, naturally there’s no small price to pay to get 3 star treatment. Ultimately, I think I probably won’t go to another 3 star restaurant. I like my meals to be a repeatable experience – things you can eat everyday, like fried bee hoon or curry chicken.
Amuse bouche served on a soda can
I don’t know what was in this small bottle but it was GOOD
Beef served on top of an iPad (really)
Paella is the dish that is most identified as being Spanish. The eye-opener Paella I had was at A Curtidoria, Santiago de Compostela. It took a while to prepare, which was a good sign. The taste and texture floored us. To Asians, the price will undoubtedly feel steep (over 30 Euros) for what is essentially cooked rice sprinkled with seafood, but it was so good it was every bit worth it (sorry, no photo to show on this one). Forget about those paella prepared in a huge pan (which, by the way, i don’t recall seeing in Spain), those are mostly a gimmick (how can rice that is left cooking on the stove for so long taste good). Forget also about Paella sold at restaurants targeted at tourists near tourist attractions, these are likely to be factory-produced frozen meals. Go for the real thing.
While we’re on the topic of Paella, which is mostly based on seafood, Spaniards know more than a thing or two about seafood. Botafumeiro in Barcelona is a seafood restaurant patronized by such luminaries as former US president Bill Clinton. Be prepared to shell out quite a bit for the meal, but it doesn’t disappoint.
Seafood platter at Botafumeiro
Anyway, remember i said Spanish food can be very cheap? Here are some examples:
A four course meal including a drink (beer) was 11 euros (about S$17.50), at Cal Tronc, Besalu. I kid you not – their website still advertises this price.
Snacks – 2 pastry items, a coffee and a beer (with free potato chips) came up to 6.8 Euros (about S$11).
Probably the first thing that comes to mind for anyone who knows something about Romanian Castles is Dracula, the novel by Bram Stoker about the vampire Count Dracula who lives in a castle somewhere in Romania. Due to the commercial interest that an association with the fictional vampire attracts, many a castles have laid claim to being the original inspiration of the vampire castle, the most successful of which is Bran Castle (probably still the only one that cashes in on this exploit).
Bran Castle is a beautiful castle with a distinctive flat-facade observation tower which i think sets it apart from any other castle. Whether or not it was the Dracula Castle (which nobody really knows) is beside the point, this Castle should be in your bucket list. Few castles blend together its building blocks as coherently and aesthetically well as this one, both inside and out. It is actually smaller than it looks, and despite being mostly empty inside, it is still a delightful walk through Bran Castle.
Bran Castle courtyard
There are so many castles in Western Europe that i suspect few people will think of Romania if they wanted to see an impressive castle. Think again. Peles Castle makes even Versailles pale in comparison. As we toured the castle, we were told that it was built by Romania’s German rulers, who were invited to rule over them (quite interesting right?). They certainly had good taste. The castle is spectacular, and you will regret it if you didn’t purchase the permit for photo taking inside (sold separately from the admission ticket). I really love the vegetation around here – it is as close to fairy tale depiction as i have ever seen.
Look at all that wood carving!
Peles Castle Garden – such natural beauty
The beautiful stream flowing down one side of the road leading to Peles Garden
I found out about Barsana Monastery through Google Images. My wife absolutely loved this place. This is a beautiful complex with a very well tended garden ground. While we were there, we saw a nun working in the garden, the sight of which conveyed a tremendous sense of calm and tranquillity. My underexposed photo doesn’t do justice to this place and i suggest you see more of this beautiful place from a search engine.
Barsana is located in the Maramures county, one of the most beautiful region i have seen in Europe. The cover photo you see on the top (someone commented that it looks like a scene from The Hobbit) was taken in Maramures. I had the pleasure of staying in a Romanian home while in Maramures, at Sapanta (famous for the Merry Cemetery). If you can, hurry to this place while it is still relatively unspoilt.
One of the tombs with a very graphic drawing in the Merry Cemetery
Old ladies chatting (gossiping?) outside a souvenir shop
The room with decoration done since more than a hundred years ago for hosting special occassions in a Romanian home
Think Provence, think Lavender. Well, Provence is much more than that, but Provence is probably the place most associated with Lavender. The chief aim of my trip there June last year was to catch a glimpse of the fabled Lavender fields.
The Lavenders only start to bloom from late June, which made me rather anxious, since I may have been there too early. True enough, it was rather difficult to find blooming lavender fields. We were overjoyed when we finally found one near Saignon, one of the popular Provencal villages, which provided a nice backdrop to the lavender field.
Lavender field at Saignon
Finding the Lavender depends on trip research (Saignon being mentioned in various references), and, unfortunately, it is even more dependent on chance. No one can tell you for sure where you can find a blooming Lavender field, since they seem to be grown in batches and each batch blooms at a different time. I imagine this is so that there can be a continuous supply of Lavender. If you’re there during the peak season, some time between early to the middle of July, it is probably easier to find blooming Lavender fields. Otherwise, be prepared to have to drive around a bit to find one.
Since the Lavender fields are privately owned, you’re not actually supposed to just walk into it without permission. Well, I did so because there was no sign stating it (at least not one in a language i could understand), and, the temptation to walk into the field to snap photos was simply irresistible. After a while, someone across the road waved at us and we quickly got off the field. I must say they were very polite.
There are endless possibilities when it comes to organising an itinerary for Provence. Mine is tailored to meet two main goals – to see the Lavender fields and to experience the market. Most people concur that the Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is one of the best. I think it was excellent. The location of the market, being on an island surrounded by the Sorgue river, made it very atmospheric. As the market only operates within a short span of 3 hours, from 9am to noon, you really need to get there early. I bought fruit confit from here and i must say, the French does it best.
Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
The Sorgue river
Besides L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, i also chose to visit St Remy de Provence (well known as the place where Picasso lived for some time, though i was not there for Picasso), Les Baux de Provence (unique town with nice castle ruin), Saignon (nice for strolling, and Lavender fields can be found here), Roussillon (famous for Ochre), Gordes (picturesque, though i only just drove past) and Abbaye de Senanque (famous for the view with Lavender fields surrounding it). I did visit a few other villages as well, but the above mentioned are places where i would recommend visiting. I also went to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to grab some wine, and i visited Avignon on a previous trip.
Picturesque corner in Saignon
The Abbaye de Senanque looks nice even without blooming Lavenders
Les Baux de Provence
Ochres of Roussillon
I suspect the majority of people don’t know this, that most of what Provence is famous for is in the region called the Luberon. This is where the lavender fields and villages perched on hill tops are located. Due to the popularity and limited availability, staying in the Luberon is very costly, especially when most of the accommodation available are the boutique bed and breakfast type. Yes, it’s great to stay in one of these to get a feel of what it is like to live in a Provencal house. But, if you’re on a tight budget, you can stay just outside the Luberon, since all of the Luberon are accessible within reasonably short driving distance.
Typical Provencal estate in the Luberon
What i did was, i stayed at Avignon (city just outside the Luberon) the first night, then a B&B near Les Baux de Provence the second night (one of the cheaper ones), and another B&B at Apt (one of the largest towns in the Luberon) the third night. You will usually find cheaper accommodation in the city and larger towns than in the touristy villages. Some people may place higher priority on location over cost though, so it really depends on personal preference. In any case, don’t expect cheap accommodation in summer in this extremely popular holiday region.
Village on a hill (can’t remember which one)
Well, French cuisine in Provence can’t really be bad. Still, it pays to do prior research to get an idea of what kind of food you can try, and how much you might expect to pay. As with the jostling with other tourists you will expect to encounter during sightseeing, you will have the same competition for food, so it is wise to do advance booking if you want to eat at popular restaurants.
Pena National Palace
This is going to be the start of a series of travel articles written in retrospect. I wanted to start with this piece on Sintra, since it is a place well worth travelling to and it was one place where i felt I wasn’t able to extract sufficient information from the internet when I did my research, so I thought I really should help fellow travelers.
Sintra has enough attractions to fill about 2 days. I spent only one day there, focusing on the 3 attractions that no one should miss – the Moorish Castle, Pena National Palace and Quinta da Regaleira. The main obstacle one encounters when visiting Sintra is the slopes. While driving up to the Pena National Palace, I saw people making their way up the same road on foot. Don’t do that! You waste much precious time, while also sapping the energy that should be spent on the real sightseeing. You could at least take a bus. Another pitfall to avoid is visiting on a weekend or public holiday. I took that advice and went on a Monday, so I can’t tell you how congested it can be on a weekend or public holiday when local visitors are likely to be present also, but I suggest you don’t try to find out either.
Here’s the suggested one day itinerary (assuming you visit Sintra by car and you’re physically fit enough to jog 5km or 3 miles): start with the Moorish Castle, proceed to Pena National Palace, go for lunch, then finish off with Quinta da Regaleira.
The Moorish Castle
The Moorish Castle and Pena National Palace are located along the same road (Estrada da Pena). There are limited parking spaces for either one of them. You can see the location of the parking lots using Google Street View. Many cars are parked along the road side and not in officially marked lots (which are very few in numbers). That was probably a busy day captured on Street View. If you traverse up that road in Street View, you’ll notice that the road becomes narrow once you get past the entrance to the Moorish Castle, and since this is a one way road, if you miss the last available parking lot, you will have to do a big loop to get back, so do go slow once you start seeing cars parked on the side. It probably means you should take the next available space. For the Pena National Palace, there is a parking area on the right hand side before reaching the entrance of the palace and another one on the left after the sharp bend near the entrance. The parking situation for Sintra town itself and Quinta da Regaleira are similarly difficult (so by all means, avoid weekends and public holidays). Be prepared to be a little creative in finding your parking lot!
The best bet for finding food is in Sintra town itself. As usual, i did prior research and decided on Restaurante Regional de Sintra, which was excellent. The meal hours in Portugal and Spain work very well for travellers – lunch hours are until 4pm. That was how i was able to cram two attractions in the first half of the day, with allowance for the usual disorientation when going about in unfamiliar places.
The Waterfall Lake at Quinta da Regaleira
Strategy for covering the attractions
Buy a combo ticket at the ticket booth at the Moorish Castle (as recommended by other travelers). The combo ticket will save you some money and possibly some time at the Pena National Palace where there may be a queue for tickets since it is the most popular attraction in Sintra. It is also possible to buy the tickets online and save even more, if you’re certain of your date of visit.
Visiting the Moorish Castle is quite straight forward. Once you get into the ground, everything that can be explored is within your field of view at the entrance. If you’re not afraid of heights, take the path on the left, where you can climb to the highest point of the castle ruin. It should take you no more than an hour to cover the entire place.
The Pena National Palace ground (including the surrounding Pena Park) is huge. Once you get past the main entrance, there is a slope to climb to get to the palace. Electric trams are available (at a price of course) to take you up there if you don’t wish to do it on foot. Making your way back to the main entrance after visiting the palace isn’t as easy as it seems – i got lost trying to do so, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The route took me through Pena Park, which was breathtakingly beautiful. It was quite a walk, but every bit worthwhile. I would suggest making it a point to walk through at least parts of Pena Park despite the risk of getting lost inside the park. It is otherworldly and not quite like what you find in the gardens of British Manors or French Castles.
A beautiful corner in Quinta da Regaleira
You may be exhausted after doing both the Moorish Castle and Pena National Park, but believe me, the mysterious beauty of Quinta da Regaleira is more than enough to keep you going. Nothing quite compares with this quaint estate. It is an adult’s playground, with many secret passages and tunnels. The Initiation Well is undoubtedly the most well known feature of the park. To be honest, you’d want to spend more time here than my one day itinerary allows. If you did proper planning and are properly equipped (i think walking poles will help a lot), you should still be able to spend a good 2 to 3 hours here.
The Initiation Well
The Alhambra was one of the main highlights of my trip and it was so awesome that i had to dedicate an entry to it. It consists of palaces and gardens, perched on two hills, so magnificently put together that it is visually stunning from any angle. It was granted the well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition way back in 1984.
Since the Wikipedia entry gives you all the details you might be interested to know about the Alhambra, I will just let pictures do the talking.
Here are some tips for visiting the Alhambra:
- Book your tickets in advance online (search for Alhambra). Except maybe in winter, the tickets are likely to be sold out everyday and cannot be purchased on the spot.
- Choose the timing to visit the Nasrid Palace carefully and make sure you get there on time, or you may be denied entry. This is the first thing you should see in the Alhambra, and this is also why, on your booking confirmation slip, you are advised to collect your tickets one hour before your selected time slot.
- Remember to bring the credit card you have used for purchasing the ticket as you will need it for ticket collection. The ticket collection machines are near the ticket sales booth.
- There are two ways to get to the Alhambra on foot (there is also a bus). The Alhambra map and information brochure advices you to go up from the south side, whereby halfway enroute, there is a “shortcut” to get to the Nasrid Palace first. This will save you a lot of walking to and fro. Since i did not take this route, i cannot confirm whether they have the ticket collection machines at this entrance, but i reckon they should have it if it is an official entrance. See below for map and direction on how to find this route, the one which is pleasantly lined with trees.
From the main road, Calle Reyes Católicos, look out for a pink coloured sign that directs you to the Alhambra into Cuesta de Gomérez. Here’s what it looks like:
Walk further up the slope and you’ll see this gate. Proceed past the gate and up the left side.
If you’re going to visit the Alhambra soon, have a great time! I’m sure you will. By the way, the city of Granada itself, with its many parks and fountains seemingly inspired by the Alhambra, also makes for an enjoyable visit.