Southern Laos

We were very lucky to get away before ‘Lockdown’ and got back home just in time. Heathrow seemed surprisingly normal with a few sanitiser bottles dotted here and there. I don’t think at the time we were ready for what was to come …

Our holiday started off as we flew into Bangkok and then after quite a wait in the airport we boarded a ‘twin-prop’ plane to Pakse in Southern Laos. Although we’d been to Laos a couple of times this area was new to us. Our hotel, Residence Sisouk was built in the colonial style with an imposing teak staircase weaving around the building up to the bar and breakfast room. It’s a small, family-run hotel and was perfect for us. It’s true, there’s not a lot to do in Pakse but we enjoyed wandering round and found a lively bar/restaurant just down the road for our evening meal. Lao Beer, was in much demand! It’s definitely the national drink.

Beer lao bottles and Laotian menu
We love beer Lao and so it would seem so does almost everyone else in Laos! Not so sure about some of the Laotian delicacies though …

For our first full day we hired a tun-tuk to take us to the small village of Ban Saphai on the edge of the Mekong – very sleepy and that included the cows. It’s described as a having a Handicraft Centre which is definitely nothing to get excited about, not much activity there! We then took a short boat ride to the island of Don Khon which did live up to the description in Lonely Planet. It’s a weaving village and yes almost every house has a loom. We stopped and chatted to one lady who was working away and of course I bought something. Interestingly whenever I wore the skirt, it was much admired.

Don Khon island, southern Laos.
Ban Saphai is the main picture. Don Kho Island is mainly a weaving village.

Back to Pakse for lunch and a siesta before getting the same tub-tuk to Pakse’s main tourist attraction, Wat Phou Salao. There is a road up to the giant Buddha and temple but there’s also scores of steps to the top. We like a challenge especially when the taxi driver looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted to do it! Blinking cheek! If there’s steps to climb, then we’ll always go for it.

When you get to the top there’s great views over Pakse and the mighty Mekong. The Buddha is striking and also the rows of smaller Buddha statues all donated by the people of the town. There are hundreds of them. The best time to go up to the summit is either sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately the smog was pretty thick that evening so there was no sunset, but a nice golden glow. We enjoyed our walk around at the top and were especially pleased to receive a blessing and buddhist bracelets from a monk in the Wat (Temple). It’s always good to be blessed when you’re starting your holiday.

Wat Phou Salao
Wat Phou Salao

The next day we travelled by boat along the Mekong to the village of Champasak. It’s not on the tourist trail although it has a certain charm with its traditional Laotian houses and colonial villas. Our hotel was right by the river and we were luckily enough to be given the best guest suite in the place. Nakorn Cafe Guest House was excellent and the food, superb. It was a great find.

After a late lunch we explored the village which was very sleepy. Maybe it’s always like that? The handicraft shop run by a French lady was the one and only interesting shop we came across. School was out so we chatted to some children who were playing in the grounds of one of the many temples dotted along the main road. My man was asking the children the name in Laotian for elephant but every time he tried to pronounce it, it just sent the children into fits of giggles. One thing though, they loved having their picture taken which was great for me.

Children in Champasak, Southern Laos
Children in Champasak
Children in Champasak, Southern Laos
And more Champasak children.

The next day we started early to try to beat the heat of the day. It’s hard to walk around ancient sites or anywhere else for that matter in 35 degree heat. Most tourists staying in Champasak are there for one reason and that is to visit the world heritage site of Vat Phou complex and temple and we were aiming to do that but it wasn’t our first stop.

Wat Muang Kang in Champasak, Southern Laos
Wat Muang Kang, in Champasak, the oldest temple in Southern Laos, being prepared for a festival.

It just so happened there was a festival starting that day at Wat Muang Kang. The older ladies were decorating the temple whilst children were trying their luck on various sideshows – much the same as home really. I’m sure if we’d gone there any other day it would have been a peaceful tour round this ancient temple but this day it was just manic. Great to see everyone enjoying themselves.

Our next stop over very bumpy back roads was to a ruined 11th century temple which is undergoing extensive restoration. Basically Hong Nang Sida Temple is a building site. We had to sign a form as visitors although frankly there was little opportunity to to explore the temple ruins. We chatted to a couple of workers who were from South Korea. This country is working in partnership with the Laotian cultural heritage department. Slightly disappointed that our driver had brought us along miles of dusty track as apart from a buddhist shrine there wasn’t much to see except piles of stone slabs. It’s going take some time to re-build this temple!

And then it was on to Vat Phou, the ruined Khmer Temple complex and the main tourist attraction in Champasak province.

Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Shrine at the Hong Nang Sida ruined Temple (top picture), and below, entrance to the Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site a combination of Khmer architecture and Hindu religion. The picture top right is an example of the stone ‘staircase’.

This is a vast site at the foot of the Phou Lao mountain built along similar lines to Angkor Wat. By the time we arrived here it was almost midday and 35+ degrees and no shade. Fortunately you get a mini bus to the start of the first complex of temples. After walking through the first section you’re faced with the Phou Lao mountain in front of you …it’s uphill all the way from now on.

I’ve already mentioned that we like a challenge and getting up to the top wasn’t going to be easy but we had to go for it. Steps to each terrace are tricky; apparently there are seven tiers to the top although we didn’t count them. The views of the Mekong and surrounding countryside are stunning and at each terrace there are shrines to both Hindu gods and Buddha. So much to explore at each level and take pictures of course. Reaching the top we certainly weren’t disappointed. Water from a nearby spring comes down the mountain where there’s a makeshift channel so you can cup your hands and drink the wonderfully cold, water. You need reviving after this climb! The covered area by the side of the cliff is recognised as a spiritual place and the buddhist monk in front of us waiting in line to drink made the experience even more special.

Vat Phou World Heritage Site
Vat Phou World Heritage Site celebrating Hinduism and Buddhism.

Climbing down the hillside wasn’t too bad until we got to the flat area where the sun was at its harshest. Our water by this time had got very warm so we were thankful to arrive at the excellent Visitors Centre where a peculiar green drink revived both of us. The moral of this visit is …avoid going to a large temple complex in the heat of the day.

I’m going to end this Blog here as from Champasak we travelled by bus, boat and motorcycle to the southern-most tip of Laos, a spit away from Cambodia. There are more stories, more pictures to go into the next Blog and it probably won’t be quite as long as this one! I hope you stuck with this first account of our holiday in Laos and thank you if you did.

A Celebration in Croatia Part II

There has been a bit of a gap between Part One and Two on our trip to Croatia so apologies for that. Despite the current ‘Lockdown’ I’m always busy and when the weather is good, as it has been, I’m out in the garden rather than my office. Anyway that’s my excuse and now that gorgeous, sunny weather has left for a while, it’s on with the Blog …

You might remember if you read Part One that the reason my man and I went to Croatia was to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary. John had booked a rather splendid hotel on the Island of Rab. The island is just off the northern coast of Croatia. It’s famous for its beaches and the old town which is full of character and boasts four belfries rather like the ones you see in Italy. It all sounded idyllic so we were slightly surprised on or arrival to be faced with a completely barren landscape. Top left picture below). This couldn’t be it …surely?! Thankfully when you drive off the ferry about five kilometres down the road you hit civilisation and there below is the town in all its splendour.

Picturesque town of Rab with it’s four towers – landmarks of the island .

We absolutely loved Rab and had a great time. The four-star hotel, The Arbiana was built in the colonial style and is right by the seafront. It was a perfect place to celebrate our wedding anniversary and although we had a very disappointing meal, the setting was delightful and there was even a full moon that night. We had a wander around the town before we ate and outside one of the churches was a bride having her pictures taken before the Ceremony. We gave her our congratulations and then told her we were celebrating our fortieth that day which amused her. We wished her well and walked around the corner to look at the gorgeous sunset.

As we were the only ones having a meal at the hotel, (clearly the rest of the guests knew better than we did!), we wandered into the town afterwards to find the square teeming with life with bars full of people, stalls selling jewellery and even a German-style Oompah Band!

Celebrating our wedding anniversary.

The next morning we caught the ferry back to the mainland and had an interesting drive along the coast to the small town of Primosten. It’s actually built on a small island but is connected to the mainland and attracts lots of tourists because of the clear, blue waters which stay warm right up until October! The beach is very pebbly and tricky if like me you hesitate walking over them so I bought a pair of rubbery thick soled shoes. Not surprisingly every beach stall sold them but you don’t see the locals wearing them, I guess they’re used to the pebbles and the sea urchins with are everywhere in the water.

Of all the places we stayed on this holiday, Primosten was our favourite. The apartment was right on the sea front and had been newly renovated by the owners and was superb. I felt quite pleased as it was my choice – I’d chosen it above the three others in the town.

The view out of the window of the apartment and the sleepy street below our little balcony with just the fisherman sorting out his catch.

We had a lazy two days in Primosten; great swimming in the clear, warm waters although we never quite got used to lying on the pebbly beaches with just a towel as padding. There were lots of restaurants all along the waterfront – all a stone-throw’s away from our apartment. The seafood as you would expect was superb and I loved some of the small, local shops. It was just a perfect place – very unhurried and quite beautiful, we were sorry when we had to leave.

Primosten, Croatia
A final shot as we were leaving Primosten

Our next stop for the last two days of our holiday was near the town of Trogir. It’s a famous place in Croatia and has always been popular with tourists but since the screening of ‘Game of Thrones’ it has seen a huge increase in visitors . The programme used many locations in Croatia which isn’t surprising as many of the historic towns and cities were a perfect backdrop. The harbour at Trogir doubled up as the trading harbour of Qarth; the doorway into the historic old town featured several times and the monastery of St Dominic was yet another location. From the pictures below you can probably see why Trogir was chosen as the ideal location.

Sites of Trogir including, top right, the famous gateway into the old town
Interesting little corners amongst the paths and alleys of the medieval town.

It was only a short drive from our hotel, Vila Tina along the seafront to Trogir. Even in the low season the place was teeming. For ‘people-watching’ you can’t do better than have beer at one of the many bars along the harbour side. It was also interesting to see some of the very smart yachts arriving and mooring up there. Walking through the famous gateway into the old town it was obvious why Trogir is listed as a World Heritage Site. – it has a rich cultural heritage with intact medieval architecture everywhere. Great for photographs especially when you come across little corners where no-one else is around.

You won’t be on your own though when you stand outside the Cathedral of St Lawrence. This is definitely on the tourist trail and boasts a superb doorway if only I could have got a clear shot of it without people in the way! We paid 25kuna to go into the Cathedral which included access to the 14th century bell tower. The climb up the circular staircase was well worth it for the fantastic views from the top making sure you didn’t bang your head on one of the large bells!. Climbing all those steps gave us an appetite for lunch but it took quite a while to find a cafe in the old quarter which wasn’t full – goodness knows what this place is like when it’s busy!

The bell tower of the Cathedral of St Lawrence, Trogir, Croatia
View of Trogir from the bell tower of the Cathedral of St Lawrence

We were chatting to the hotel receptionist saying we were going to spend the penultimate day of our holiday in the city of Split. We were thinking of going by bus until she recommended taking the ferry from the little village of Slatine which was just further down the coast. This has got to be the best way to arrive in Split. The ferry is used by locals too and wasn’t expensive.

Going by ferry into Split harbour.

Split is the second largest city in Croatia and is famous for Diocletian’s Palace built in 305AD for the Roman Emperor of the same name. The palace is a massive structure and covers half of the old town of Split. It’s rather like a giant fortress and was built with four gates none of which survive but you can still see the carved stone pillars and arches. The Palace and the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was yet another location used in ‘Game of Thrones‘.

Just before we went into the complex I took this picture (below) which I have ‘aged’ a little. I liked this dilapidated building and the clothes on the line made the picture for me. Perhaps I should have photoshopped out the satellite dish and the air-con unit …? Looks like people still live there.

Built long after the Romans left the city.

Walking into the basement of the palace gives you a good idea of just how thick those walls are(Picture on the left hand side). Once you’ve walked through you’re then into an amazing open space, a Roman square which feels like a film set -what I would call The Forum but apparently it’s called The Peristyle. It wasn’t overly busy when we were there but I gather in summer it’s not pleasant because of all the crowds. Turning to go into the cathedral there are two very impressive large Egyptian sphinx which are 3000 years old. No-one seemed to mind that tourists were sitting on them!

Entrance through the basement and onto The Peristyle

So far everything is free but you have to pay to go into the Cathedral which was about three euros. Its quite small inside as it was originally built to house just the grave of the Emperor. He ousted all the Christians and it wasn’t until a few hundred years later that the building became a church again. Lots of gold leaf in here.

Cathedral of St. Dominus

Of course we had to climb up the bell tower where you had to pay again. Bit of a rickety staircase but it was well worth the climb for the gorgeous views of the city, its harbour and the hills beyond.

Pretty obviously …views of the city from the Belltower..

After lunch we left the palace through the Golden Gate to look at the statue of ‘Gregory of Nin’. (Great name). It’s an iconic feature of the city and is one of the most visited sights in Split. Apparently Gregory was a Croatian religious leader in the 10th century. Nowadays visitors, including us, give his big toe a rub to bring you luck. You can just see in the picture, bottom right that’s exactly what the little girl is doing.

Top left picture is The Golden Gate. Bottom left, part of the Roman wall with a delightful 21st century block of flats next to it. Gregory Nin’s statue (top right), shows he was a tall chap and apparently he had big feet!

After all this sightseeing it was time to head towards the harbour, grab a cold beer before catching the ferry back to Slatine and picking up our car.

That evening we went back into Trogir and had a superb meal in the old town. Stunning sunset too which was a fitting end we thought to our week in Croatia. We’d driven quite a few miles, visited several places, enjoyed the weather, the beaches, the people and the history, We didn’t have time to visit Dubrovnik but I think Split and Trogir were enough for us. We would thoroughly recommend a trip to Croatia but maybe avoid the High Season.

Sunset over Trogir, Croatia
Sunset over Trogir, Croatia

A celebration in Croatia

It’s been a while since my last Blog and there’s a reason for that … I wasn’t sure whether writing about travel at this particular time was the right thing to do. Then I noticed other travel bloggers were carrying on as usual, so I’ve decided to do the same. My ‘usual’ I should say means that when one of my Blogs go ‘live’ the holiday you are reading about happened a few months ago. I’m always aiming to catch up so you never know, with these current restrictions on travel due to the coronavirus and staying at home I might just do that. Croatia first and then Laos followed by our trip to Thailand, but I’m jumping ahead.

It was interesting how many times Croatia was mentioned last year. (2019). The travel pages featured the country quite regularly and we knew several people who had either been or were going so after doing some research we decided it would be a perfect place to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary.

My man had booked an apartment right in the middle of Pula. “Don’t take any notice of how the building looks outside,” we were told …and they weren’t joking! Thankfully despite the crumbling exterior the inside was really nice and a stone’s throw away from the city centre. Bags dumped, car parking space found, it was time to explore!

Arena in Pula

Pula is situated on the tip of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula and is known for its Roman ruins, picturesque coast and harbour. The arena is impressive and free, that’s if you don’t go inside. You don’t need to as you can see everything from the outer walls.

There are several Roman features in the city and loads of cafes and restaurants. No problem finding anywhere for breakfast in the morning we thought. After doing some more exploring we headed up to the the castle known appropriately as ‘The Fortress’. To be honest there wasn’t much to see inside but the views of the city and harbour from around the walls were impressive.

The Fortres, Pula
Pula Castle – The Fortress

By the time we got back to the apartment we’d tried the local beer and had a very mediocre afternoon snack. Fortunately the meal that night at the Restaurant Alighieri made up for it. What we hadn’t expected was how hard it was to find somewhere for breakfast the next day. There are cafes either side of the main streets and all of them were full of people …drinking. Croatian’s love their beer and liquors and obviously nine in the morning is when you come out and socialise and drink. Eventually we found a bakers which had a cafe but that seemed to be the only one around.

Having enjoyed croissants and a hot drink it was time to leave Pula and head inland to the medieval hilltop town of Hum. It claims to be the smallest town in the world and has 27 inhabitants, several tourist shops and two main streets with challenging cobbles. It has it’s own charm though and great views although there isn’t a lot if you’re looking for tourist attractions. You pay 10 kroner to park and to access the town you open two enormous copper doors. We tried the local speciality drink which is a brandy which includes mistletoe. (Funny I thought mistletoe was poisonous?) Anyway we survived that but weren’t tempted to buy a bottle. Coming out through the copper gates I spotted the town cemetery which if you have read any of my blogs you’ll know I can’t resist checking out a cemetery. There was one picture on a grave which caught my eye which I’ve included in the composite picture, I thought she was very beautiful.

Hom, Istria, Croatia
Hum – the smallest town in the world.

Leaving Hum you don’t have any option but to drive back along the narrow twisty road which seems to go on for ever. Eventually the coastline came into view and I spotted what looked like an ideal place for lunch …and indeed it was. Don’t know if Bakar is a touristy place but we were the token two. It didn’t take us long to spot the place to eat just by the water’s edge …freshly caught sardines served with chips and washed down with a beer for the equivalent of £6. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the holiday. The cafe was full of locals and you could see why. After we’d polished off our meal we decided to stretch our legs and walk up to the main village. Wow was it steep! The people of Bakar must be very fit!

Continuing along the coast our stop that night was a B & B overlooking the seaside resort of Crikvenica. This seaside town was the direct opposite of Bakar being a popular tourist resort. So popular that when we drove into the town that night for a meal we found it impossible to park. In the end we drove out a little way and found a pizza place. The one thing I’ll remember about our stay was the B & B had one of the smallest and coldest swimming pools ever but there was beautiful sunset that night. Our room had a balcony and faced west so I was able to get a few shots.

Coastline of Croatia
Picture top left is of the quiet fishing town of Bakar. The main picture is of Senj a much more affluent town on the Adriatic peninsular.

The next morning after a superb breakfast at the B & B we followed the coastal road for a while before heading inland towards the UNESCO world heritage site of Plitvice Lakes National Park. Its Croatia’s most popular tourist attraction so we knew it was going to be a busy there. It’s also high up in the mountains so it was bound to be cooler than on the coast but we were ready for it. It’s interesting too that these hardy types eat a lot of meat. An unbelievable amount. It’s fuel I suppose but it’s hard to find a meal that doesn’t come piled high with meat. We ate at our guest house Villa Verde the first night and my goodness it was a hearty meal to say the least whether you chose the meat or fish dish, but at least there was a choice.

Day three of our holiday and what a beautiful day it was for visiting the Lakes. We decided to walk from the guest house to Entrance number 2. As the park has so many visitors including coaches coming from far and wide it’s all very well organised. The walk through the forest was lovely with the sun coming through the trees and so quiet that it was a shock to arrive at the entrance and see so many people.

Walking to Plitvice Lakes

We managed to get on the first shuttle bus which drops you off at the start of the upper lakes. There are sixteen lakes in all, seven different routes you can walk round and four hiking trails plus the electric boats on the lake and the park bus. We arrived at 9.00am and already it was quite busy but by early afternoon the coach parties were in evidence and many of the tour groups wanted to take over the whole of the paths. Choose a hiking trail if you want to avoid them!

There are twelve upper lakes and four lower ones. The colour of the water is a beautiful turquoise and teems with fish. The waterfalls are so impressive as are the coloured rocks underneath which hopefully you can see in the picture below.

Waterfall at Plitvice lakes, Croatia
Waterfall at Plitvice Lakes
Waterfalls at Plitvice lakes, Croatia
Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes

Around every twist of the trails are stunning views, dynamic water features and deep rocks rising all around. The most impressive waterfalls are called Sastavci and when you see the Korana River flowing under the base of the falls it’s a stunning sight.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
The rugged landscape with the Korana river below.

This national park is very well organised. There is a trail to suit everyone whether you want to spend a day hiking to the upper Lakes or a more gentle stroll around the lower lakes travelling across to the other side on one of the electric ferries. There are plenty of places to buy snacks and there’s also a restaurant and for those preferring not to do too much walking there’s the panoramic bus tour too.

We spent most of the day in the park ending our visit with a well-deserved ice cream before walking the whole way back to our guest house. It had been a fantastic day. We’d walked about twelve miles, seen some wonderful sights and the weather had been perfect, we couldn’t have asked for more. Just to add that the park is as you would expect closed at the moment, let’s hope it won’t be too long before it’s able to re-open.

This seems like a good place to finish this section of my Blog on our trip to Croatia – it’s long enough I think and I’ve got lots more to write about. Hope you’ll stick around for Part II – when I write it!

Our week in Provence Part II

Midway through our week in Provence and we’re off to Les Baux in the Bouches-du-Rhone department primarily to see the Carriéres de Lumiéres – more about this unique spectacle later.

Perched on a rock, Les Baux dates back to the Middle Ages and is steeped in history. Even the rock itself has a legend attached to it. Balthazar (great name), one of the three wise men, is said to have continued his journey following the star of Bethlehem as far as Les Baux-de-Provence. Where he went after that the website doesn’t say!

The 13th century castle dominates the village and was a key stronghold during rebellions. Les Baux has gone through turbulent times like many Provencal villages but there was a turn of good fortune by the 20th century when it became a major gastronomic destination. We had a pretty good lunch here I have to say although being a popular tourist destination, prices are ramped up.

There’s no doubt about it …Les Baux is an interesting place. We picked up a map from the tourist information office in ‘La Maison du Roy’ which was completed in 1499. We made a good attempt at spotting and visiting some of the major places of interest listed there. I’ll mention just a few:- The 17th century chapel of the Brothers of the White Penitents, the 12th century church built half into the rock, The chapel of weavers and carders built at the same time and the renaissance mansion, Hotel de Manville, built in 1571. However as you walk round this medieval village there’s interesting architecture everywhere. It’s not surprising it’s listed as a world heritage site.

I like taking pictures of details which maybe get missed. Hard not to spot the remains of a 16th century mansion though as you enter the village (picture top left). There’s just one remaining wall supporting a heavily carved mullion window.

Having spent the morning walking round the village we had lunch then headed off to, what is basically a disused quarry but houses a beautiful multi-media show. It’s one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, Carriéres de Lumiéres

Basically it’s the location of a giant quarry which first opened in the 19th century. The stone is white limestone and was used to build local houses until new affordable materials such as concrete and steel took over. The quarry closed in 1935 and would have remained so if it wasn’t for the French film maker Jean Cocteau. He saw potential in the great stone slabs and filmed there. Then forty years later a guy called Joseph Svoboda saw that the whole area (7,000 sq metres) would be perfect for a sound and light show and Carriéres de Lumiéres was born.

Since that time, every year there’s a brand new show. The 2019 show which was the one we saw featured the paintings of Van Gogh projected on to the giant stone walls. My pictures don’t give the true impression of how it feels to be there, watching these moving images. Someone said it’s rather like being on the deck of a ship and that’s fairly accurate as you do feel as though the sandy floor is moving too. If you click onto the link in this paragraph it’ll take you to the website which features videos of this exhibition. It really is something else and I’m sure the 2020 exhibition which focuses on the work of Dali and Gaudi will be just as fantastic.

Carriéres de Lumiéres , Les Baux-de-Provence
Carriéres de Lumiéres Les Baux Provence

With just two days left before leaving Provence we spent the morning in L’Isle sur la Sorgue and the afternoon exploring the area around where we were staying. I wouldn’t say we got lost but our intended circular walk didn’t quite work out that way and we ended up walking through what was clearly private orchards of fruit trees. It’s the perfect fruit-growing area and the apples on the trees look so good. Did we pinch a couple of apples as we walked along …no – they weren’t ready!

Field of poppies in Provence.
A stunning field full of poppies just down from where we stay. Alongside that is a field of lavender.

For our last full day we were going to treat ourselves to a very special lunch and there was only one place we were going to for that …Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the restaurant at the top of the village, Le Verger des Papes.

On the way there we stopped near to the village of Saint Saturnin lés Avignon so I could take a few pictures of an intact Lavoir – a village wash place. We’d driven passed the building and water mill lots of times and because it looks interesting I wanted to see more. As you’d expect it’s not in use anymore but it was a shame to see the water wheel which had moved the water through the building in a poor state and beyond repair. A sadly neglected site.

Lavoir Saint-Saturnin-lés-Avignon

So on we continued to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If you google the place, the first thing it mentions is the famous full-bodied red wines produced from the southern Rhône, and is the main reason tourists flock there. As soon as you arrive you see wine-tasting cellars everywhere. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a small medieval village about 12 kilometres from Avignon and has around 2200 inhabitants. The ruins of the ancient chateau dominate the skyline and this is where the tourist trail starts as conveniently there’s a large car park by the chateau and its free. Apart from the winter months this village bustles with tourists.

Top picture shows the ruins of the Papal Castle built in the 14th century. Only a stretch of wall remains.

Having wandered around the castle ruins it was time to head to Le Verger des Papes for lunch where once again the food was superb. We would have sat out on the terrace but the weather wasn’t good that day and the view over to the Rhône was pretty murky. Nevertheless we had a great lunch followed by a wander round the village to walk it off a little.

That evening was spent in the company of our lovely friends whom we’ve know for years and are always so welcoming. It’s amazing how my French improves after a couple of glasses of wine! We were sorry to have to say goodbye to them and of course to Provence. There were more goodbyes the next day too as not only were we leaving but our hosts at Le Mas de Mijour are leaving after running the Mas for several years. Thank you Fred and Emma for your kindness, your warmth and your hospitality, you’re going to be a hard act to follow.

Saturday morning and it was time to return our rather smart Mercedes to the car rental in Avignon and catch the TGV to Paris. By sheer good luck we had time in Paris to enjoy a glass of wine outside a cafe near Le Gare de Lyon before getting the Metro to Le Gare de Nord and Eurostar. It was great just to sit and relax in the sunshine and talk about our two weeks away and all the things we’d done. Menton had been great but Provence as always takes some beating. Roll-on next summer when I’m sure we’ll be back again.

And it’s on to Provence!

My previous Blog ended with my man and I leaving Menton by train and heading for Avignon for the second half of our holiday. We left on a Saturday morning, caught the local train to Nice, then another train to Marseille and the TGV for the rest of our journey. We had to wait a little while to pick up the hire car at Avignon and although it was no hassle the hire company decided to upgrade our car to a rather splendid Merc. It was so whizzy we had to ask where the ignition was!

Having more or less got to grips with this rather splendid car we drove towards the town of Le Thor which is about twenty minutes from Avignon to ‘our’ cabin at Le Mas de Miejour We’ve stayed here for the last five years. It suits us being tucked away at the rear of the owners’ house. No-one bothers you, it’s adjacent to the superb pool there, the garden is private and it’s a perfect place to enjoy a glass of rosé.

Mas de Miejour
‘Our’ cabin (Le cabanon), at Le Mas de Miejour, near Le Thor

We first came to this area about thirty-five years ago, then had a break exploring more of France when the lure of Provence brought us back again. It is our favourite area, we know it very well and it’s never lost it’s charm or appeal. There’s so many places to visit including the delightful medieval villages in the Petit Luberon and the pretty towns of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Les Baux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and many more. You’re spoilt for choice.

There is a famous market every Sunday in L’Isle sur la Sorgue. It’s a typical lively French market with an array of local fruit and veg. If you’re interested in Bric-a-Brac this Sunday market is the place to go. Unfortunately though its become very touristy and in the last few years very crowded, you can spend ages just trying to park. We now prefer to visit the town in the week so we can have a leisurely walk round.

So on this Sunday we decided to drive just a few miles away to the large village of Monteux (This is a link to a Blog. The actual website for the town doesn’t mention the wonderful painted buildings everywhere). The whole of the medieval centre is like an artist’s canvas.

Monteux, Vaucluse
The town of Monteux with its many murals. All is not what it seems!

Murals in Monteux, France
A selection of some of the interesting murals in Monteux

As I’ve just mentioned, it’s very peaceful where we stay so we tend to go out in the mornings and then chill out by the pool in the afternoon. Sometimes we’ll have a bbq in the garden in the evening or a meal out, it’s not a week when we plan too far ahead or do lots of things.

The pictures below were taken in the medieval village of Venasque, famous for amongst other things, cherries. We weren’t there this time for the cherry festival but that’s quite something – the producers take their cherries very seriously. If you’re feeling fit you can always walk up to the village which we have done. It’s perched on a steep cliff so the walk is not for the faint-hearted! The 13th century church is well worth a visit and you get a terrific view of Mont Ventoux from the castle. As you can see from one of the pictures below there’s a handy fountain where you can sit and enjoy your wine and free nibbles if there are no seats left outside the cafe. The baguette at the nearby Boulangerie was excellent too.

A typical Provencal village, full of history.

Our friends who live near Le Thor suggested we take a trip over the next day to two villages in the Luberon which are not on the tourist trail but well worth a visit. They were right – we only saw two other tourists all morning. On the way to the first village of Joucas I made my man stop the car so I could take a picture of the famous hilltop village of Gordes. Now this is a touristy place, they even charge you to park and the price for a beer is just silly. It was featured in that lovely film ‘A Good Year’ about an investment broker who inherits a chateau and vineyard in Provence. That’s what dreams are made of!

Back to our tour of a few Provencal villages … We happily strolled around Joucas in the sunshine admiring the lovely old stone houses, winding pathways and great views over the plain towards the ochre cliffs of Roussillon. Then we drove to Goult, another village perched on a hill with a medieval castle and fabulous views. The steep walk up to the 17th century flour mill with its four sails was well worth it. It has been restored and apparently if you’re lucky it might be open – it wasn’t on the day we were there but you can still admire it from the outside.

Main picture is the hillside village of Gordes. Below is Joucas and Goult.

All this walking in the mid-day sun meant we were in need of refreshment so we headed into the Luberon to my favourite village, Lacoste. We usually manage to park just at the bottom of the village near to yet another favourite of ours, the Café de la France. The food is great and the views from the terrace are superb. Yes it’s touristy but with a location like this, you don’t mind. As I write this I’m back there now soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying one of their excellent salads washed down with a glass or two of provencal rosé …if only!

After lunch we walked up the steep cobbled street, through the 14th century Portal de la Garde gate and on up to the Chateau de Lacoste. This has had a chequered history to say the least, one of it’s occupants being the infamous Marquis de Sade. One can only guess what when on when he was in residence! Before the fashion designer Pierre Cardin bought it in 2001 the chateau was neglected and in a state of disrepair. We can remember when you could just walk in and look round the ruin, now its been renovated you have to pay to go in. Full price 12€. According to the village’s website Pierre Cardin not only spent a considerable amount of money on the chateau he also bought about thirty buildings which again he has restored. It sounds as though the jury is out regarding what the locals think of this. They’re already used to the many American students who come here every year to study art which has put Lacoste as the cultural, artistic centre of the Luberon.

There’s only so many hilltop villages you can visit in a day and with the temperature still around 25º mid-afternoon it was time to head back to ‘our’ pool. It’s rare for anyone else to be there.

Lacoste, Provence, France.
The beautiful, mediaeval village of Lacoste. My favourite Provencal village.

By mid-week we always pop over to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It’s known for its antiques stores and weekend markets, plus many waterwheels on the Sorgue river which winds its way around the town. In the centre is a very grand 12th century church which gleams in the sunshine having recently been cleaned. The Cafe de Paris opposite is a popular meeting place and good for people-watching as you sit outside to enjoy your beer. Alongside it is an excellent ice cream parlour. The town is very quaint and was once a very important centre for silk and paper-making. Nowadays some of the magnificent mansions have been converted into Art Galleries or antiques centres.

A hot day in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
A hot day in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Pictures down the r.h.s are of Partage des Eaux. A lovely peaceful spot outside the town.

After a leisurely walk around the town we drove just 2km east to the Partage des Eaux. This is where the crystal-clear river Sorgue divides into two. The water is a constant 13 degrees. Although I’ve never swam in it, we did go on a canoe trip once which was fun, especially the section where you have to wade through the cold water up to your waist without the canoe! It’s a popular spot for fishermen and great for a picnic if you want to brave walking across the weir to the opposite bank. We just enjoyed sitting on the seat by the waterwheel watching the river drift lazily along in two directions! We can recommend the local wine at the cafe Le Pescador alongside the river where you can sit in the courtyard escaping from the searing midday sun.

We’re halfway through our week in Provence and a perfect spot to pause this Blog. There’s plenty here including lots of pictures and I’ve still got more for the second half. Hope you’ve enjoyed this account so far. Please come back to read the rest.

Off to Menton in southern France all the way by train.

My man and I love trains and with the wonderful TGV and Eurostar it’s not difficult to wizz across Europe from London. The departure lounge at St Pancras is always packed with people sitting anywhere they can. All that space as you walk down between the arcade of shops and then at the end everyone is squeezed into this small holding area. Maybe sometimes it’s quieter but we’ve never seen it like that.

The TGV is a brilliant way to travel. You look out of the window at the cars going along the motorway and they seem to be travelling so slow …they’re not of course, it’s us flashing by. Within two and three quarters hours we’d arrived in sunny Avignon before travelling further south to Menton. The train goes a lot slower after Marseille but we didn’t mind; the weather and the terrain told us we were heading towards the glamorous Cote d’Azur with Menton being the last rail stop before Italy.

Hotel Lemon where we were staying for four nights was just down the road from Menton station. It was a perfect sized hotel for us with only eighteen rooms. Ours was right at the top of this French colonial style building, tucked away from everyone, the only snag being …there was no lift. The owner’s son was on hand fortunately and had no trouble taking both our cases, one on each shoulder up the two flights of stairs to our room – we were very grateful as by now we were definitely flagging.

The town of Menton in the South of France
The town of Menton – an interesting place to wander around.

I can’t say our meal in the town that evening was anything special but we made up for it after that. Our first full day there was spent discovering the town and walking along the promenade. Straightaway we loved the feel of the place. Menton is famous for its lemons and has a festival each year. As well as that it has apparently the most days of sunshine of anywhere in France. What a great boast, very good for tourism that’s for sure. As you can see from the pictures above it lived up to it reputation whilst we were there. I had to take a picture of these two art nouveau wall plaques – Alphonse Mucha painted decorative theatrical posters which was why these two were on the wall of a disused theatre. Good to see they hadn’t been vandalised.

That night we had as superb meal, not French but Italian. If you go to Menton do go to Le Napoli, their home-cooked meals are to die for! It’s more a locals restaurant than a tourist place which to be honest gave it a great atmosphere. The food, tasty sauces, the presentation, the price – everything was perfect. It was so good we went back there on our last night too.

Val Rahmeh Exotic Botanical Gardens
Val Rahmeh Exotic Botanical Gardens

Our second day in Menton and we were off exploring the hillside around the town. The Botanical Gardens of Val Rahmeh are delightful and very quiet. Entrance is just €7 which as they say on their website allows you to wander and enjoy the exotic, elegant, organised chaos of their gardens. Do check the opening times as the ‘old retainers’ go for lunch and they will get you out by 12.30 come hell or high water! The gardens are varied with paths winding through. It’s protected from the winds by the mountains which gives this exotic garden a subtropical micro climate.

I forgot to say that on our way up to the hills we walked through the historic old part of Menton and couldn’t believe how many passageways there are. It’s a mediaeval district with tiny houses built into the side of the hill. We never did find a way through to get out at the top road and maybe there isn’t one.

Cemetery du vieux chateau, Menton
Cemetery du vieux chateau

Leaving the garden we walked further up the hill coming out onto a main road and then turned into Park Pian which was full of olive trees (picture top left). It was so quiet and peaceful and a pleasure just to sit there for a while. Our next stop was the Cemetery du Vieux Chateau which as you would expect was equally quiet! If you follow my Blogs you’ll know how fond I am of cemeteries – well photographing them! This one has the best views of the old town and the harbour and some pretty good statues too. I was in my element taking pictures. There’s the grave of William Webb Ellis here. He is accredited with inventing the sport of rugby so this cemetery has become something of a pilgrimage site for rugby fans.

The rest of the day was spent flaking on the beach, reading and enjoying the sunshine. A couple of hours was enough; the beach was very rocky and quite uncomfortable and we only had a thin towel each. There was just one antidote to recover from our aching backs …a couple of beers at one of the bars along the promenade.

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin between Menton & Monaco
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin – a mediaeval village perched on an outcrop high over the Mediterranean

The next day we walked from our hotel to catch the number 100 bus which goes along the coast round to Monaco. We missed the stop by the first staircase which takes you up to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin but spotted the second in time for the driver to stop for us. It’s quite a steep walk up to the village which is perched on the edge of a cliff topped by a 10th century castle which offers a fabulous panoramic view. We were lucky to see the view as not long after we’d arrived at the castle the clouds started to roll in. The main tower is pretty much intact and in fact was rebuilt at the beginning of this century. The medieval village has narrow streets, lots of arched passageways and tiny individual shops and of course cafes and restaurants.

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Looks like we’re about to fall off the edge!

After refreshing ourselves with some local beer we made our way down to the corniche by the first staircase and decided to walk back to Menton along the promenade. By now we’re quite hungry and as luck would have it we came across a bakery with a cafe which was bustling with life and selling decent squares of pizzas and yummy cakes – perfect! I’m not sure how far it was to Menton except it felt a fair way so when we got back we headed off to the beach again for another couple hours R&R.

On our third full day we decided to visit Monaco and caught the 100 bus again. Monaco is the name of the country, it has several neighbourhoods and Monte-Carlo is one of these. (I looked this up!).

The Monte-Carlo Casino
The Casino de Monte-Carlo opened in 1863 and is the most prestigious of them all.

Our first stop after getting off the bus and walking along a street lined with very expensive shops (no surprise there), was to pick up a map from the tourist information office. We then walked though a small park with tropical plants and a manicured lawn to the ‘Place du Casino’, which says it all. There are four casinos in the Principality with the Casino de Monte-Carlo being the most luxurious. In the front, on the roundabout is the stunning ‘Sky Mirror’ designed by Anish Kapoor to reflect the fountain, the sky and the casino – it does that beautifully.

The harbour in Monaco
The harbour in Monaco with an enigmatic statue of ‘Le Plonger’ (the diver).

After watching the very smart limos drive sedately around the Place du Casino we headed off to walk around the marina on our way to the Prince’s Palace. It doesn’t cost anything to ogle these super yachts and it’s an interesting stroll. Loved the name of the motor cruiser registered in Poole …the name says it all. The statue of the diver was very impressive but despite trying to find if it was sculpted after anyone famous I’ve drawn a blank on that one.

The Prince's Palace and changing of the guard.
The Prince’s Palace. Every day at precisely 11.55 the Changing of the Guard takes place.

The Prince’s Palace of Monaco is the official residence of the Sovereign Prince of Monaco, H.S.H. Prince Albert II. Climbing up to the palace was a good aerobic exercise as there are plenty of steep paths and steps – there is an easier way but we like a challenge. We arrived at the square on the dot of 11.55, just as the guards were coming out. The Ceremony lasted about five minutes and although there were lots of tourists watching we managed to get near the front.

We then went to the shop to buy tickets for admission to the Palace which were 10 euros for adults. To my great surprise there was also an exhibition in the state rooms mostly of photographs and film of the afternoon on May 6th 1955 when Grace Kelly visited the Palace and met Prince Rainier. Less than a year after that this legendary film star married her prince. Sorry to disappoint if you’re visiting the palace this year, the exhibition ended on October 15th 2019. Even so, this 13th century Palace which was restored by Prince Rainier (with no expense spared) is magnificent with a spectacular marble staircase, opulent furnishings, frescoes, paintings and tapestries.

After that we were in need of something to eat but is there anywhere cheap to eat in this city? The answer is yes. Just by the market hall is an outside cafe selling drinks and sandwiches and panini at very reasonable prices. We felt quite pleased with ourselves but as by now it was mid afternoon it was time to head back to the station.

Two views of the harbour; inside the atrium of the casino; outside The Casino of Monte-Carlo
Around Monte-Carlo

One final thing we wanted to do was to go into the Casino de Monte-Carlo to have a peak inside – not to gamble but to admire the magnificent Atrium. It’s free to go in and photography is allowed. This superb space with its marble columns, frescoes and gold leaf everywhere is just amazing and impossible to photograph without any one else in the shot.

Did Monte-Carlo come up to our expectations? I’m not sure we had any. You can almost smell the money here but unlike Vegas this place is real. If it looks expensive, then it definitely is. It was well worth the visit but great to get back to some reality. For our last night in Menton we went back to the same Italian restaurant and the patron remembered us even down to the wine we’d drunk the first time!

When Saturday morning arrived we were sorry to leave Menton but as we were heading to Provence our sprits lifted fairly soon. We boarded the local train to Nice and then caught the TGV to Avignon. Next Blog … yes, it’s all about Provence!

Three go to Lisbon (Final Part)

Visiting a cemetery may not be on everyone’s holiday itinerary but I find them fascinating. So much scope for taking pictures and I don’t mean in a morbid way. There’s usually some beautiful statues and often on gravestones in Europe is a picture of the deceased person. Makes it somehow more personal. In this cemetery in Lisbon we came across a memorial to the firemen who had died in an incident in the city. (The memorial is the small picture below the statue).

Cemetery of Pleasures in Lisbon
Cemetery of Pleasures in Lisbon

At the far end of the cemetery is a separate area of graves dedicated to the men who gave their lives to the fire service. It was a peaceful spot, beautifully maintained with a superb view of the Tagus river with the 25th April Bridge bridge across. The cemetery is called Cemiterio dos Prazeres which bizarrely translates as the Cemetery of Pleasures. This would you believe, has become a popular tourist place to visit.

The website says …”When you walk through the large entrance gates and enter the central square, you don’t really notice how big this 20 hectare cemetery is. The paths along the graves are symmetrical, making Cemitério dos Prazeres look like a miniature city for the dead”. If you look at the picture (above), bottom right you can see what they mean. There are lots of avenues with small houses on either side which are the family mausoleums. They have little ‘front doors’ with glass windows which you can peer through and see the caskets …should you wish. Walking along this avenue felt a little weird so we decided to head out and find a beer. Fortunately as the cemetery is just by the terminus to the no 28 tram line, there was plenty of places to get a drink.

I should mention that if you do visit the cemetery there are famous Portuguese personalities buried there including actors, singers, writers and painters. Open every day of the week 0900-17.00.

And now it was our final day. We decided to walk first of all to the St Vincent Monastery to see if we could get in the church to look round. This imposing building dominates the skyline and is huge! Its name in Portuguese is ‘Mosteiro de Sao Vincente de Fora‘ which means ‘Monastery of St Vincent Outside the walls.’

Church of St Vicente

If you go there don’t be put off by thinking it’s closed; walk through the archway on the right which takes you into the walled garden and the entrance is opposite. For a mere €5 you can wander round and enjoy the church, the collection of paintings, sculptures, the museum, an impressive gallery and from the top of the roof of the monastery you get amazing views. I’ve already mentioned that our friend doesn’t like heights so my man and I went up to to check it out. You can just make it out from the picture above that the rooftop has a balustrade and this runs all the way round. I’m so pleased I went down to tell Liz that it was really safe up there – she came up to the top and loved the all-round views.

The convent and church of 16th century St Vincent
The monastery and church of 16th century St Vincent

This beautiful church is in the heart of the Alfama district. Historically this area was associated with poverty, prostitution and squalor where once the poor and disadvantaged lived. Walking through the narrow cobbled streets with its ancient houses, fashionable shops and trendy cafes you could hardly believe it now. It’s a really interesting area with some very steep stone staircases where you can take in the view at the top before descending down to the maze of alley ways lined with tiny independent shops and bars.

We had a simple but delicious lunch at a cafe perched on the corner of one of the streets. We wobbled on our chairs a bit but there’s hardly any streets in the Alfama District which are flat. The fish was fresh, the beer quenched our thirst and if there were fumes from the cars passing close to our table, we didn’t mind. We had time to chat about our fab week in Lisbon; all the things we’d done and how we’ll definitely come back one day. The Alfama District is where Fado is said to have been born. It’s a melancholic style of singing said to be a deep expression of the Portuguese soul and originally associated with sailors and prostitution. This link will take you to five restaurant in Alfama where Fado is sung. u There are lots more restaurants and bars so you need to do your research as meals vary in price. To discover more about this traditional music there’s the Museum of Fado but sadly we just couldn’t fit that in before heading home.

The pictures below were all taken in the Alfama district

My favourite picture from our trip to Lisbon.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our week in Lisbon. I felt I need to split the Blog into three parts otherwise it would have been too l-o-n-g! Thanks for sticking with it.

Three go to Lisbon Part 2

If you’re going to Lisbon a friend said, you must visit the Aquarium.

It’s probably something we wouldn’t have thought of doing but when we read about it and the fact it’s the largest indoor aquarium in Europe we decided to go.

The Lisbon Oceanarium
The Lisbon Oceanarium

We caught the underground train from Oriente (East) Station on the Red line and arrived in this very modern part of the city. It’s a redeveloped area by the Tagus River called the Parque das Nações, pictured top left. There’s lots of green spaces, famous Lisbon mosaics and striking contemporary buildings like the Camões Theatre and the Oceanarium. Nearby are trendy waterfront restaurants and the glass-roofed Centro Vasco da Gama, with shops and cinemas. Just walking to the Oceanarium was an experience in itself – a really interesting area.

Unless you have the right equipment, taking pictures of fish in tanks is never easy. Here is a selection which I have to say I was quite pleased with. Also, you know how after a while in these kind of places you start to get bored, well not here. It was brilliantly done and kept our interest going right to the cafeteria. That was the one let down …we should have gone elsewhere for our late lunch.

Oceanarium Lisbon.
Fish in an immense tank. Penguins fairly free to roam in their cold quarters.

My favourite picture is the one top right. It looks like the people are actually in the tank with the shark!

Did I mention that when we were in Lisbon the temperature got near to 30 degrees? It was pretty hot in the city when we got off the train so we decided to stop at one of the cafes in Rossio Square to have a reviving beer before heading up the hill towards the castle. I don’t know if you can make it out from the picture below, it’s the one top left, it’s of a large group of people waving flags and protesting. Actually it looked like thousands of people led along by the local youth choir! We were happy to sit in the sunshine enjoying our beer, eating a pasta de nata and listening to the music until the rally passed by.

If you’re wondering how the graffiti fits in to the picture below – there’s a short cut to the gateway by the castle which we used, we called it graffiti alley as all the walls there are covered.

Walking back from the station to our apartment, uphill all the way.

After our walk back and maybe because of the beer we all decided that we needed a siesta before visiting the castle that evening. In the summer it stays open until 9pm long after the tourist coaches have left. It was definitely the right time to go, not only because it was a beautiful evening but it was so much quieter wandering around than during the day.

Lisbon castle
The grounds of Castelo de S. Jorge complete with peacocks.
Castle in Lisbon evening views over the city.
Views from the Castle.
Sunset at Castello de S. Jorge, Lisbon
Sunset at Castello de S. Jorge

The light that evening was stunning and walking along the castle walls was just fabulous as it gave us good views over the city and down to the river. We left our friend to talk to the peacocks in the garden as she doesn’t do heights.

The picture below is my favourite of all the ones I took that evening. The buildings have turned golden in the late setting sun.

Evening light hitting the buildings in Lisbon.
Looking through to the city bathed in warm sunlight.

Day 5 and we’re off to the magical place called Sintra. It’s a short train journey from Rossio station to Sintra which is at the end of the line. The station is superb with it’s ornate exterior with two horseshoe-shaped archways. We didn’t have much time to appreciate the building though as there was no way we were going to miss this train!

I think most tourists to Lisbon take the time to go out to Sintra. One of the travel guides describes this World Heritage Site as a Portuguese gem; ‘a place full of magic and mystery with its rippling mountains, dewy forests exotic gardens, glittering palaces and ancient castles’. What it doesn’t say is that it’s teeming with tourists. Yes we were tourists too all heading off the train at Sintra to find the 434 tourist bus – it was chaos. There were touts selling guided tours, tuk-tuk drivers stopping you as you walked along and the lack of signs of where to catch the shuttle bus was really confusing.

We eventually found the bus stop and squeezed onto an already tightly packed bus. We had intended to get off at the stop for the Quinta da Regaleira which is a stone palace steeped in myth and legend with underground passages and grottoes and is surrounded in mystery – I was intrigued.. (A quinta by the way is a wine-producing estate). As it happened we could have walked there which as our non-communicative driver wasn’t stopping anywhere until we’d got to the Moorish Castle we should have done.

Moorish Castle in Sintra
Top picture is of an interesting set of steps we spotted on the way to Rossio station. The rest are pictures of the Moorish Castle.

This castle was built by the North African Moors between the 8th and the 11th century. To get the best views you need to climb up onto the battlements which of course we did. Our friend was quite happy to chat to other tourists who didn’t want to brave the heights. It’s a terrific viewpoint though and very blustery! You can see several other palaces including the Regaleira which we were still hoping to visit.

After walking around the battlements and weaving along the many paths through the gardens we carried on up to the amazing Palace of Pena. If you’re tight for time this is the palace to visit. It sits on the top one of the hills overlooking Sintra and is (apparently) the finest example in Europe of 19th century Romantic revivalism. The colours of this castle hit you straight away and surrounding all this is a large forest with hidden paths threading through it. Our ticket which we’d bought at the first stop after getting off the bus covered the palace interior and the terraces and the park.

Palacio da Pena
Palace of Pena and a view of the Moorish castle which had been our first stop.
Just some of the stunning features of Pena Palace.
Just some of the stunning features of Pena Palace. Clearly a Moroccan style of architecture in this courtyard.

The interior of the palace with its staterooms and chapel was just as interesting as the terraces. There were fewer people inside so it was easier to walk round unlike the perimeter of the castle terraces which was really busy. I guess you have to accept this when you’re visiting a major tourist attraction!

Features of the Palace of Pena
The Palace staterooms; the main archway into the palace and a view of the town from the Palace of Sintra.

By mid afternoon after doing lots of walk we were feeling pretty tired. We decided not to walk down to the palace of Quinta da Regaleira and hoped we could hop off the bus at the nearest stop.. Getting on the shuttle bus it was obvious that again the driver wasn’t stopping until we were back down to Sintra. Disappointed we headed to an outside bar, paid over the odds for a beer and thoroughly enjoyed it. We were sorry not to have done more but Sintra is not easy to work out. I’ve since read on a few web sites that these shuttle buses are a law unto themselves particularly in the high season. You can hire a tuk tuk but they’re not cheap and on top of that you have the entrance price for each palace. Don’t be put off though …the parks and palaces of the World Heritage site of Sintra are well worth a visit. Best avoided in the high season if you can and when it’s cooler – this is a hilly place.

I did think I’d finish this Blog on our week in Lisbon in two parts but there’s going to be a third. With a day and a half left when we visited the main cemetery in Lisbon, discovered Fado in the Alfama district of the city and visited magnificent Monastery of San Vincent de Fora I have more pictures to drop in and some more ramblings. For now I think this Blog is quite long enough! Hope you’ll stick around to read part 3.

Three go to Lisbon.

One of the iconic yellow trams which transport locals and tourists across the city. Cheap, clean and reliable and a great way to see this wonderful city. Take the number 28 tram for the classic Lisbon tram journey which screeches and rattles its way through the popular tourist districts. In this picture is also one of the hundreds of tuk-tuks ready to take tourists on a tour, costing rather more than the tram.

There’s no doubt that Lisbon is very hilly and our apartment was right on the top of one of the hills by the Sao Jorge Castle. We loved this area. In the day it teems with tourists rolling through the many souvenir shops or queuing to go into the castle and at night you’re transported back in time as you walk along the quiet, dimly lit cobbled streets. There was a full moon the night we arrived.

A full moon on our first night in the city.

Day one. First objective …to find a bakers for croissant and bread and a little grocers for fruit and yogurt. No problem at all. Our little apartment had a terrace which was one of the reasons we chose it. Perfect for eating breakfast al fresco or enjoying a glass of wine later. The terrace backed onto the wall of the castle which has several very noisy residents. It wasn’t unusual to see a peacock looking down on us from the wall or an adjacent tree, fortunately they couldn’t get out of the grounds! The thing about peacocks is that they are very noisy. I always thought that at night time birds go to roost and sleep. These delightful creatures sqwark all the time …morning, noon and night. No we didn’t get used to it! Our friend had the bedroom at the front of the building so she couldn’t hear them – we could!

Enough about peacocks, we had a city to explore. First stop was to walk down the hill to the the cathedral known locally as the Se de Lisboa. This Roman Catholic church is the oldest in the city and has an impressive Gothic cloister.

Not the prettiest church I’ve ever been in but the cloister is impressive.

Tour of the cathedral done, it was time for a sandwich and a beer before walking down to the waterside and the impressive Commerce Square.

Praca de Comericio (Commerce Square) by the Tagus river and the 25th of April suspension bridge.

This area is buzzing with tourists and locals. We thoroughly enjoyed just sitting by the river Tagus soaking in the atmosphere watching the boats go by and the antics of the seagulls. After half an hour or so we decided it was time for a little retail therapy …at least that’s what we girls thought.

You just walk through The Rua Augusta Arch and you’re into the main shopping centre. One of the most interesting shops was the window of a traditional bakers which was full of those delicious Portuguese custard tarts, Pasteis de Nata. More about these later. Having checked out the many shoes shops and making a mental note to come back to several we carried on walking to the ruins of the Carmo Convent.

You walk through a little door by the cash desk and suddenly there’s the impressive ruins of the convent in front of you. This ruin was one of the many victims of a devastating earthquake which hit Lisbon in 1755. As well as the ruins which in themselves are fascinating there is a museum housed in the apse and nave of the convent which still have a roof over them. The museum is full of an eclectic mix of objects, tombs and tiles. The party of school children in there found some of the objects very amusing … This ruined convent is well worth a visit and a great place to take pictures.

Carmo Convent, Lisbon
The roofless Carmo Convent and Church
Picking out the details.
To think that some of this stone work dates back to the 15th century.

After all the walking we’d done it was time to catch a tram back up the hill. Arriving at our stop we were definitely flagging and needed to re-charge our batteries. One last thing we wanted to do though before heading back to our apartment was to walk across the road to look at the view over the city. It was spectacular in the evening sunshine.

Stunning views wherever you look.

Even though we knew there was lots more to see in Lisbon we decided on our second day to catch a train to Cascais which is on the coast just west of Lisbon. It takes about forty minutes, mostly whizzing through the suburbs with almost every wall covered in graffiti. In our carriage we were serenaded by a group of students singing Queen songs – they were really good. Couldn’t help wishing that we get this at home on our trains sometimes!

Cascais (apologies for the slightly wonky middle picture)!

We expected the town to be touristy, what we hadn’t expected was all the tacky shops and oh my goodness, the buskers! A mixed lot! The tourist information website describes Cascais as … ‘an elegant fusion of decorative 19th century architecture and modern tourist facilities’. Yes there is some interesting houses especially away from the main street but overall we weren’t that impressed. We hadn’t gone to flake on the beach and we didn’t go into The Castro Guklmaraes Museum or walk far along the coast so we didn’t really do the place justice. Don’t be put off by my lack enthusiasm though.

Back on the train and this time we got off at the station nearest to the Belem Monument. An iconic structure built in 1940 celebrating the achievements of Portuguese explorers, it’s truly magnificent. There is a lift which takes you to the top for a modest price.

The work that went into these sculptures is incredible.

Just a stone throws away from the monument is the home of the iconic and delicious Pasteis de Nata. Pasteis de Belem is the place to go for Portugal’s famous custard tart. Flaky pastry and unctuous custard is a winning combination. This bakery and cafe have been making the Pasteis since 1837 and it appears the interior dates back from that time too. We may have missed out on a visit to the nearby Monastery on account of the huge numbers of tourists outside but we weren’t going to visit Belem and not buy Pasteis de Nata.

Clutching our delightfully package treats we caught a bus back into the city and then took a cable car up to the castle and our apartment.

Time to relax on the terrace with a Pasteis de Nata washed down with a glass of rose.

After all that it was time for a siesta. We needed to charge our batteries once again before before going out that evening to a famous fish restaurant down near the sea front. Should we have booked a table …yes of course we should.

Love this picture, top left of a traditional Portuguese twelve stringed guitar. It’s associated with the music genre, Fado. I took it whilst the street busker was chatting to someone. The guitar was just lying on the ground so I quickly took a picture with my phone. Fado is a form of singing which is very expressive and mournful and I would add, haunting. The music is often associated with pubs and cafes and originated in Portugal in the 1820’s. We noticed that restaurants advertising Fado singing were quite expensive which did put us off. I wish now we had tried one but as we will definitely be going back to Lisbon we’ll not miss out on this again. There’s also a whole museum devoted to Fado.

Walking the back streets of Lisbon at night is so enjoyable and feels safe. There’s lots of atmosphere, graffiti and interesting murals. It was a shame we had to wait outside Maria Catita restaurant for almost an hour for a table but we were given a drink along with all the other tourists waiting. Quite a party really except the wine was terrible! My lobster dish, pictured bottom right was delicious and well worth waiting for. This popular restaurant fully deserves its reputation but if you go, book a table!

Well we’re halfway through our week in Lisbon so I think it’s a good time to finish the first half of this Blog. Lots more pictures to come including what we got up to in Sintra and our visit to the Lisbon Oceanarium. I hope you’ll stick around to read the final part!

Hello to Singapore …again.

It’s hard to say whether we should have gone straight from Melbourne to London without a stop-over but as we love Singapore we decided to spend a couple more days there on our way home.

When it rains in Singapore it doesn’t mess about and my goodness was it raining when we arrived! Instead of getting soaked wandering around we decided to get our heads down for a while. We stayed in The Park Regis Hotel again and had a fab room looking out on the swimming pool.

Swimming pool at The Park Regis Hotel, Singapore.
Typical weather in Singapore – downpours and warm, humid days.

After a couple of hours sleep we headed to our favourite cafe bar for breakfast, Malaysian style. This place is such good value and the person who runs it is so welcoming. Cheapest place in the city for breakfast (we reckon) as long as you’re happy to have a little honey on your bread with a boiled egg and cake to follow. Interesting combination and it worked for us. I didn’t have to explain this time how I like my tea (black tea, cold milk and one sugar), our friendly owner remembered from our visits a couple of weeks earlier. If she thought that having milk in tea was odd she didn’t say!

Double U Traditional cafe in Singapore.
Chinatown (top left) and our Malaysian breakfast bar, Double U Traditional cafe.

Next stop after a bit of a wander round was to the imposing building known as Parkview Square. I’d spotted this Art Deco building when we were in the city last time and thought maybe it was a museum. Turns out it’s one of the most expensive office blocks in the city. This link will tell you all about it so I won’t go into the detail of its history here but enough to say that despite the Art Deco architecture it was built less than twenty years ago! Parkview is not all it seems!

Once my man had researched the place and discovered there was a rather excellent wine bar on the ground floor that was where we headed. Apparently amongst its patrons are members of the Divine Wine Bar Society, I can aspire to that! Sitting in the Atlas Bar surrounded by Art Deco frescos and statues everywhere, you just want to make your glass of fizz last for ever!

Atlas Bar in Parkview Square, Singapore.
Atlas Bar inside Parkview Square.
Inside the Atlas Bar in Parkview Square, Singapore.
Enjoying a glass of fizz in the Atlas Bar in Parkview Square, Singapore.

Eventually we managed to drag ourselves away and walked to the adjacent district of Kampong Glam Malay, home of Singapore’s Muslim Community. It’s a popular area for tourists as there’s lots of good value cafes but more importantly at the end of Muscat Street is the imposing Masjid Sultan mosque which is a must to visit. The massive gold domes are a magnificent landmark and inside is a huge prayer hall which can accommodate up to 5000 people. Before you enter the Mosque women are given a very fetching all-over robe and for men wearing shorts there is a sexy long skirt for covering the legs. As you’ll see from the picture below we both looked rather fetching! Our stay in the mosque was longer than planned as in true Singapore style the heavens opened and for about an hour the rain was torrential. Even a rather large scorpion came inside to shelter! We gave him a wide berth …

Visiting Masjid Sultan Mosque, Singapore.
Masjid Sultan Mosque

Back to the hotel for a swim and another snooze (this jet-lag is hard to ignore) and we were ready for the evening.

There’s so much to do in this city and one of the star attractions is to go up to the Observation Deck of the Sands Park Hotel. The lift whisks you up the 57 floors to the SkyPark Observation Deck. You can go up anytime (it’s not free!) but at night you can watch the light and water show which is spectacular. These pictures don’t do it justice but there’s only so much my Panasonic Lumix camera can do from that height! You can see the ‘Gardens by the Bay’ and the whole of the Marina Bay area and the amazing cityscape which is Singapore.

Then it was time to head for Chinatown for yet another decently priced meal at one of the many restaurants and to soak up the great atmosphere there.

Views from Sands SkyPark Observation Deck , Singapore.
Views from Sands SkyPark Observation Deck – 57 storeys up!

The last day of our trip. We were heading home but not until late evening. We’d already done lots both at the beginning of our holiday and this stop-over on the way back so what were we going to do on our last day? It was easy to decide …Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. It’s world famous and rightly so and a great way to spend a few hours. Apparently the Gardens are the most visited botanic gardens in the world with over 4 million visitors annually.

It’s easy to get there by metro and free to wander round the grounds. There are lots of themed gardens and although we didn’t have time to go round them all we managed quite a few. After lunch we headed for the National Orchid Garden within the site. I’ll never forget this experience; the most fabulous orchids you’re ever likely to see, even tops Wisley! It’s cheap to get in too, just $5 dollars for adults and $1 dollar if you’re over 60.

Singapore Botanic Gardens
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Grounds of the National Orchid Garden, Singapore.
I’m one of the 4 million tourists who visit the National Orchid Garden each year.
Orchids in The National Orchid Garden, Singapore
Just some of the fabulous orchids in The National Orchid Garden
Orchids in The National Orchid Garden, Singapore.
More of the amazing orchids in The National Orchid Garden, Singapore.
Orchid house at the National Orchid Garden. with each one dedicated to a famous visitor.
Orchid house with each one dedicated to a famous visitor.

If we go back to Singapore we’d definitely go to The Botanic Gardens again. There is so much to see and as interesting as the theme gardens are it’s the Orchids I’d head for straightaway. If you love orchids you’ll love this garden. This visit was the perfect way to end our holiday.