Sintra: were our expectations too high?

Sometimes a sightseeing trip falls way below our expectations. We’re glad to say that it rarely happens, but our much-anticipated trip to Sintra took a turn for the worse soon after it started.

The day improved a bit and by late afternoon, as we walked the ramparts of the Castle of the Moors, we were happy to have made the trip. What could be more thrilling than walking on the fortification walls of a castle?!

We’ll tell the tale of our bad-to-great day in reverse – starting with the best of our day at Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An army of the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711. The castle dates back to the 8th Century, built by the Moors after their conquest of the area.

Of course, this was an ongoing building project, with a military fort added in the 10th Century. It was all over for the Moors when the Christians defeated them in 1147. With the Moors gone, local people occupied the Castle and some further construction took place. Eventually the Christians moved into the town of Sintra and a Jewish community moved into the castle complex. King Manuel I, who reigned from 1495-1521, expelled the Jewish residents – and the castle was abandoned.  After centuries of little use, the 1755 earthquake devastated the castle.

Rebuilding started in 1840 under Ferdinand II of Portugal. Most of the castle is gone, but the view of the countryside when walking the reconstructed fortification walls was well worth seeing – especially the view of the Palace of Pena.

The walk along the fort wall had many stone steps. The day was windy and the feeling of exposure at that height in the wind made us a little nervous so we proceeded with some caution. At the fort’s highest lookout, the Royal Tower, we watched others make their descent carefully on the steep steeps.

We managed to visit three of the many historical sites at Sintra in a very full day. The Castle of the Moors was our last visit – and our favorite.

Before our arrival at the Castle of the Moors, we spent many hours walking through the extensive park at the Palace of Pena in the early afternoon. After a difficult morning of crowds, delays, and heat, we thought walking through the wooded park would be a good change. We chose our route – a series of paths strung across the extensive park starting at the palace and leading to a rabbit warren. We’d read about rabbit warrens, but had never actually seen one. This would be a first.

Our visit started with a very small chapel, built by Hieronymite monks, near the rocky base of the palace.

Even though the Temple of Columns was built in 1844, we thought the classical style gave the impression it was even older.

Our favorite building was the 19th century pavilion housing the Little Birds Fountain. The signage describes the building as “neo-Moorish” and “built in commemoration of the safe return of Vasco de Gama from the discovery of the lands and countries that he did find, these being, the Cape of Good Hope, India, and others” in the year 1503.

Across from the pavilion, visitors rested in the shade and studied their park maps.

We continued on to find the rabbit warren. We walked by ponds, through forest, by pens holding goats. When we arrived, we were puzzled. We studied the map, but the rabbit warren was nowhere to be seen. Was it somewhere else or had it been removed? Disappointed, we made our way back. We think that sometimes touring is like the rabbit warren: the planned-for destination, the great build up, and then, nothing. Of course, we consoled ourselves that our disappointment was only temporary as our time at the Castle of Moors had been a memorable visit.

The retelling of the best of our day at Sintra has now been told and the next post will fill you on the worst.   We’re still asking ourselves: “How could it all have gone so wrong?”

 

…to be continued…

 

August 2018

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A favorite country. A different place.

We had a lovely time in Madeira and loved Porto. Should we go back to Portugal? YES! This time we’d go somewhere new, but where? We ticked off what we should look for: a smallish city, a beautiful place with some history, a beach would be nice, not too difficult to get to, and easy to get around as we wouldn’t have a car.

We knew very little about Portugal aside from the places we’d stayed on an earlier trip. We turned to Google and typed in “best towns to stay in Portugal.” We made a list of all the towns that appeared on the lists and started studying. Some were too small or too large; some were too remote. We gravitated toward coastal towns. The reality check came when we searched for places to stay in the towns. Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would be fine for day visits but not really affordable for a longer stay. We narrowed the list to see if there was a town on the coast where we could make day trips to Lisbon and Sintra giving us everything we wanted. And that is how we found Cascais.

Cascais turned out to be a beautiful place with a past, set on the ocean. It was a vacation destination for the wealthy from Lisbon in the early 1800’s.

Our early evening walk started with a two-minute stroll down to the charming plaza on our left.

On our right, the view took in the first of many beaches, strung out along the ocean and separated by rocky headlands.

We strolled by the beaches every day as we walked on Cascais’ promenade, stretching for miles along the coast.

We observed the ruddy turnstones (birds) on the rocks, watched paddle boarders glide across the water, and on one outing we saw a snorkeler with a speargun exploring for prey near the rocky coast.

Strolling wherever we wanted to go was not a problem, especially when we walked on the narrow lanes rarely used by cars.

We always consider food when choosing a region or country to visit. With a kitchen, we usually dine at home so produce markets take on greater importance.

We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best when we walked up to the indoor farm and seafood market in Cascais with our little wheeled shopping cart. The figs and tuna we purchased were superb! And the prices were quite low by US standards.

From other places we’ve visited in Portugal, we’ve been delighted with the street art. Would Cascais be as good?

A painted door we saw yesterday reminded us of the many painted doors in Funchal. So far, we’ve noted the architecture and building decoration has been on a higher level than the street art.

The most important consideration for us when choosing a location is finding an extraordinary place to stay…and this time we were very lucky.

Our AirBnB was right in the heart of town and had everything we needed to keep us happy for the month’s stay. (This view is from our living room window.)

The more we travel, the higher our standards are for staying in a lovely accommodation in a charming, artful, walkable place. Portugal came through for us before and now has done it again. We love Cascais.

 

August 2017

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Take your Parents to Work Day

Our son, Josh, offered to take us to his workplace. The day turned out to be a little twist on the usual “Take Your Child To Work” day.

We drove to the Cully Neighborhood of Portland, Oregon and there, tucked behind a church parking lot, was a one-acre urban farm, owned by Matt Gordon. Josh met us as soon as we arrived and gave us a tour.   Pole bean plants climbed up the corn stalks. Sudan grass sprouted in rows to enrich the soil when it will eventually be turned under. Josh apologized for the weeds in the carrot bed. (Don’t worry, Josh, your parents won’t take you to task for that.)

The Cully Neighborhood Farm grows vegetables for its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members and restaurants.

Josh has been a farmer for almost 20 years and in addition to farming, helps other farmers with writing, consulting, and development of tools.

His book, “Compact Farms,” profiles 15 small farms of 5 acres or less. Each story includes helpful layouts and photos.

Josh has taken us on many farm tours over the years. We’ve heard him lecture on healthy soil. We read his book with great interest. How did our son grow into this mature, knowledgeable professional? As parents, visiting our grown up child at work was more than gratifying.

The showiest vegetable in the Cully Neighborhood Farm was the Swiss chard in our opinion.

Harvested squash and blossoms

How many tomatoes can cascade down one plant?

Josh (left) and co-worker harvested beans.

As with any job, the challenges of farming are tremendous: pest control, enriching soil, bad weather, controlling water and labor costs….   It requires creativity and persistence. Josh has what it takes. He loves what he does, and we couldn’t be happier.

A light spray of water on a hot day in Portland.

 

July 2017

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AirBnB: 750 nights and counting

One of the worst AirBnBs we stayed in was our first. We had just started our nomadic traveling life on the road, and clearly we had a lot to learn. Four and a half years have passed, and we can tell you two things with certainty: AirBnB has changed a lot, and we have learned from 750 nights’ experience.

When we started planning our nomadic life, cost alone convinced us that we needed to find an alternative to hotels and inns. We turned to AirBnB.

The large terrace of our charming 2-bedroom apartment in Funchal, Madeira looked out to the sea, but, when we looked down to the street, this is what we saw. We stayed 3 weeks for $75/night (including fees).

The view of the Cathedral from our AirBnB studio in Porto, Portugal. The price and time period were the same as the apartment above.

We started off with shorter stays – anywhere from 1-7 nights a week – and, over the years, our stays have increased to an average of 17 nights. Our longest stay? 48 nights in a “Cute & Cozy 1bdr Condo in James Bay,” well-located in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island. The cost? $40/night (including fees).

We started off just wanting a place to get a comfortable night’s sleep and wifi. Over time we realized we should look for a “home-on-the-road” – a place with a kitchen, a chair or two, and if there was a washer we were ecstatic. We narrowed our search to locations where we could walk to shops, a grocery, and see the best sights.

From our perspective, AirBnB was less structured when we started booking places to stay. We had more informal interaction with hosts, stayed at funkier places, and rarely had a “hotel-like” experience. Today, more hosts give you a code to let yourselves in, and there are hotel-sized toiletries in the bathroom, along with better bedding and towels. Some changes are better, others not, but it is clear than AirBnB is on the move to becoming a powerhouse company.

We have now stayed over 750 nights in AirBnBs in 4.5 years and have 146 more nights booked for the coming year. Here are guidelines that we follow in selecting a good AirBnB for ourselves (and maybe they’ll help you, too):

Know what you want to do and stay nearby. We use the filter keys near the top of the screen (“Room type”, “Price Range” and “More filters”) to hone in on what we’re looking for.  If you plan to go to Paris to see museums, narrow the map down to be in a nearby neighborhood.

The Otavalan craft market operated in the San Francisco Plaza right in front of our large AirBnB in Cuenca, Ecuador. We were interested in crafts and couldn’t believe our luck to have the market right at our doorstep. The 1-bedroom apartment was $38/night (including fees).

Plan according to budget. Consider commuter time and cost when you’re looking to “save” money by staying far away from where you want to be. Also consider getting a kitchen if you’ll be in a location for many days. Eating in restaurants can add up and the joy of shopping in local markets and eating regional food can be rewarding, as well as save you a lot of money.   All of the AirBnBs we stayed in (with photo images on this post) had kitchens, greatly reducing our food budget.

Look at the listing photos carefully. They will tell the tale. Are there bedside tables and lamps? Are there enough windows to keep us happy? Is the refrigerator full or half size? Will we be happy there? We allow a lot of leeway in styles and can be happy with minimalist or highly decorated styles. We draw the line at messy and disfunctional.

Some AirBnBs are ever so much better than their photos. The AirBnB at Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia had a pool that provided the perfect place to read in the afternoon. We also walked to the beach for variety. We paid $102/night (including fees) to stay in the resort town.

Designed by architects, our AirBnB in Mendoza, Argentina was a visual (and functional) delight, all for $71/night (including fees) to be in one of the great wine-producing regions of the world.

5-star listings only. If an AirBnB has been rated 5 stars, we also scan down to see how many stars are listed for accuracy, communication, cleanliness, location, check-in and value. They all have to have 5 stars for us to consider them.   Yes, that eliminates all new listings and I’m sure some of those are good. What we look for are the tried and true, tested by many travelers before us.

Last step: read others’ reviews. Read at least 10 and better to look at 15. You would be surprised what you can pick up. Finding out from a past guest that a host will pick you up at the train station is always good news. Reading that “it’s not the host’s fault” that the local bar was noisy at night was all we needed to decide this listing was not for us.

The element of the unexpected came through in an elegantly crafted AirBnB cottage in Kuranda, Queensland, Australia. Joe sipped his morning coffee on a high deck looking out to the encircling green. The perfect way to start the day! $78/night (including fees).

Not every listing and not every night has been perfect at AirBnBs. For comparison, we’d have to say the same has also been true for the motels and hotels we’ve stayed at along the way. The low price and high value accommodations fit our budget and the helpfulness of AirBnB hosts oriented us in new places from Shanghai (China) to Whangaparaoa (New Zealand) to Missoula, Montana, US. AirBnBs may not suit everyone, but it’s been home for almost half of our very long trip. We could not have traveled around the world and up and down the Americas were it not for staying at AirBnBs.

 

June 2017

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Pizzazz

We do love our visits to Portland, Oregon, and who wouldn’t? Style, vitality, flair…

We’ll let photos tell our story:

Lots of murals, lots of art.

Even the koi at the Japanese Garden look artistic.

A one-of-a-kind car.

Flowers are everywhere around the city. We saw a coast hedge nettle in bloom (Stachys Mexicana) on Sauvie Island, an area in Portland.

We cheered the Portland Thorns to victory over the Washington Spirit in an exciting game, and what could have been better for snapping photos than a free front row seat (courtesy of friends).

For a quiet and inspiring space, we walked up to the Japanese Garden in Washington Park, filled with vibrant green moss under and on the trees.

Gothic arches under the St John’s Bridge inspired the name, Cathedral Park.

Select just 7 photos of your last trip to tell your own the story. “Less is more!”

 

June 2017

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Everyone has a camera (and opinion)

Sometimes there are just too many things to focus our attention on. We became easily distracted. Instead of looking at the prize-winning roses in the International Rose Test Garden, our attention was drawn to all the lovely people there doing what people love to do.

Selfies were the subject, and the roses provided a colorful backdrop.

No matter what the age of the photographer.

Portland, Oregon is known as the City of Roses. Roses are taken seriously in this city, so we thought that we should turn our attention to them. We made our way over to the garden’s central kiosk and discovered a list of prizewinners. We studied the map to find their locations.

With 7,000 rose bushes spread out in a very large garden, the hunt was on to track each down.

Sunshine Daydream won the 2016 Gold Medal Award. Really? We weren’t trying to second-guess the judges, but personally we liked the appearance and scent of several others.

The continuous blooms of Peachy Keen and their pink shell color won us over. It was awarded Best Shrub Rose.

Best hybrid Tea was awarded to Fiji. It’s a large rose with a striking cherry color. Do you think it’s too flashy?

We ricocheted around the garden to track down each and every winner. As we stood staring at one, we heard another visitor tell her friend exactly what we were thinking, “It’s not the most attractive flower, is it?”

Of course, the judges studied the roses over 5 years and took into account a long number of qualities, like length of bloom and pest resistance. So, maybe they had better reasons when they made their awards, looking beyond mere appearance and scent. That got us thinking about these prize-winning roses like so many other things in life: good qualities often take time to see – as well as expertise, while so many of us rush to judgment with no knowledge and only superficial opinions.

Enough said. Enjoy the roses.

 

July 2017

 

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Try a foreign destination: take a U.S. Road Trip

Our “places-we’d-most-like-to-visit” list starts and ends with foreign destinations, but somehow a few National Parks in the U.S. managed to sneak in there.

It occurred to us that 2017 would be the perfect time to string together sites we had longed to see in the American West – like Arches National Park and the Grand Tetons. The plan evolved to intersperse visits to the big parks with some quiet and iconic destinations that aren’t so often on others’ lists. (Photo: Capital Reef NP, Utah)

Our version of a road trip was just a little different. The plan did not call for us to jump in the car, start driving, and see where we ended up. We planned to take our time – 7 months actually – and the planning took even longer. (Not to worry, planning is always half the fun.)

Our version paid off in reduced costs: AirBnBs were booked for longer stays to get a discount and allowed us to do our own cooking; we were able to reserve camping sites (so much less expensive than motels); and the motels we did stay in were chosen for high ratings and low prices. (Photo: Missoula, Montana AirBnB where we stayed for a lovely week)

We started in Portland, Oregon with a family visit. In December we headed due south. By July, the trip had ended where it began – in Portland, Oregon. Blue dots mark AirBnB stays of a week (San Jose, California; Tucson, Arizona; Livingston and Missoula, Montana) or month-long stays (Palm Springs, California and Sierra Vista, Arizona). Green dots mark national parks we visited: from north to south: Waterton Lakes NP in Alberta, Canada; Glacier NP in Montana; Yellowstone and Grand Teton NPs in Wyoming; 3 NPs in Utah: Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands; and Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Saguaro NP in Arizona.

Weather can make or break a trip. We plotted historic temperature and rainfall as part of our planning, and it worked well.

Somewhere along the way, probably as we drove down a back road with an endless vista of sagebrush plains with layered, red rock mountains in the distance, it occurred to us that the American West was a foreign destination for us.

We expected the landscape to be very different – and it was. (Photo – Yellowstone NP, Wyoming)

The difference was more than just the landscape. Step into a town in the old west and glance at a restaurant menu, or clothing styles, or how towns are strung out along the railroad tracks, and we experienced a place foreign to the east coast.

We saw animals, like bison, we’d never seen at home.

Many miles of state highways were “open range” where cattle roamed freely across the roads.

As grand as the scenery was, the best part of the road trip started when we left the car and started to explore.

We spent time on a number of Indian reservations, including the Navajo and Blackfeet, but the native peoples’ presence was strongly felt almost everywhere we traveled. (Photo: Arches NP – Ute rock art carved between 1650 and 1850)

We walked or hiked at every stop. We saw rock formations, birds, bugs, wildflowers, plants, and many animals.

The huge old trees, especially in the national parks, were impressive. (Photo: Waterton Lakes NP, Alberta, Canada)

If we hadn’t walked by on our hike up to a waterfall, we would have missed this old cabin decorated with license plates in Chico, Montana.

Friends joined us along the way and we stopped to visit others, like Ken, on his cherry farm on Flathead Lake in Montana. The cherries were almost ripe. Next time, we realized, we should plan to be there during the harvest.

Our trip through the American West, so unfamiliar and unknown to us, wasn’t far removed from our trips to foreign countries. The excitement of the scenic, colorful, oh-so-photogenic landscape alone made it one of our best road trips ever. Could we ever be bored driving those roads? With each stop, all the discoveries to be made down paths and roads just made us more excited. This is exactly how travel should be.

 

July 2017

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