Friday, 26 April 2013

Fairyland Sintra

The beautiful hot morning made it rather difficult to say goodbye to our little hidden gem by the sea. Getting our togs on and going for a swim made it a little easier. The house we were staying at was full of......stuff and amongst that stuff, was a little toy sail boat that we took down to the river, and the gentle breeze took it for a good ride with Jasper chasing it with a big stick. After a quick play in the waves it was back to river for one final splash.

It was so tempting to stay longer at the beach as the weather was so beautiful, but we had to be in Lisbon by 6pm and wanted to go to Sintra on the way.

Sintra was the summer retreat of Portugal's kings. What they have left behind is a hill top town with the old district full of these wonderful palaces that belonged in a fairy tale except that they were real.

We were in tourist land as bus loads of tourists spilled out onto the narrow side walks and the restaurant owners did there best to get you to come inside. Penelope didn't like the man who was in a trance sitting on a chair of nails, it did look rather painful!

We got sucked into a restaurant for what seemed like a reasonable price - only to discover that the complementary cheese, was in fact more expensive than any main dish. It is one of the most frustrating things being gluten free not being able to just buy a takeaway sandwich.

After lunch we went to the toy museum which was home to thousands of toys that have been collected over the last 60 years. The kids loved it and the owner and collector was there in his wheel chair telling us little stories about the toys we paused to look at. One toy Ferrari I was looking at was apparently commissioned by Enzo Ferrari himself and was only for clients who had bought the real thing. After a phone call and a flight to Italy to pick it up, the collector was allowed one without having to buy a real Ferrari.

On the top of a hill overlooking Sintra, is the beautiful Palais de Pena, set in the most amazing grounds. We hiked up from the entrance to the palace, bribing the kids with a promise of ice creams, only to discover that the ice creams were inside the palace, which we had not brought tickets to. Rachel ended up taking Penelope and Jasper in as Hannah see's palaces as a bit of a race track and likes to see how fast she can drag us round in. As she was tired, it was good for her to spend some Daddy time alone and even though we ended up walking a long way up and down, she came back refreshed.

By the time Hannah and James got back down to the ticket office, the cafe was shut, so no ice creams.

We made our way into Lisbon and found our apartment without any trouble, and the landlord was there waiting for us. It is a lovely apartment and a lot more comfortable than Foz. We had a quick look around and then came back to the apartment for dinner.


The realities of sightseeing in a big city

Lisbon is an interesting city, it is vibrant, noisy, cultural and very easy to fall in love with but it also does not feel like there is any harmony between the lived in Lisbon and the touristy Lisbon. There are alot of tourists and it feels like the locals tolerate them and want to make money from them so therefore it is very hard to experience the real Lisbon. Most people we met were lovely and they all loved Jasper's blond hair and were keen for a chat - especially when he was wearing his Messi soccer shirt!

We decided to get up nice and early and jump on the famous 28 tram just down the steps from our accommodation. It was crowded and perfect ground for pickpocketers but we were fine.

We got off at a viewing area and Jasper wandered over to have a look. I was only a few steps behind him but by the time I caught up he was having a bracelet made for him by a man from the Senegal. Jasper was fine but it did catch him and me by surprise. The guy was fine though and we ended up each getting a bead bracelet.

We carried on our walk enjoying the wonderful views.

We ended up back in the Main Street and decided to get back onto the tram and do a loop. We ended up waiting ages to get onto a very crowded tram. We thought the tram would just loop around but instead we all had to get off at the top of the hill and queue up to come back down again. We waited ages for another tram all while trams on the other side of the road were stationary so the drivers could have a smoke.

Eventually one came and we got on taking us back down the hill. We went and did some souviner shopping and then headed back to the apartment for lunch, rest and to pack.

The last thing on our list of things to do in Lisbon was the castle. Even though it was just behind our apartment we had to go right around the hill to get to the entrance but after a few false turns we made it. The castle was amazing and our Lonely Planet guide book had not really recommended it nearly enough. It was build in the 11th century to house military troops and was not meant as a residence for the royal family. It has 11 towers which are quite outstanding and also very high - not great for my slight fear of heights!

We were all starting to feel in need of a rest so found a bar within the castle walls where they spoke a bit of Maori! We all got a drink and some of the yummy Portuguese crispy French fries.

It was still a bit early for dinner so we had a look at a few more sights including a great tree and a great cathedral.

It was only 7.30pm and we were struggling to find anywhere for dinner so walked down the hill then back up again and eventually found a nice restaurant with a great view and tourist prices. We were all happy though to get some food and rest our weary feet after a long day of walking.

The restaurant entertainment!

A view over the restaurant bar.

We headed back to the apartment to prepare for our early flight home the next morning.

Lisbon is a beautiful city with so much culture and amazing sights and despite the economic downturn and the hoards of tourists (not even high season yet) it won us over.

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Being won over by Lisbon

All the reviews I have read and everyone that we had talked to raved about Lisbon and how wonderful it is - on first glance I wasn't convinced. Wandering around the streets on Tuesday morning it came across as yet just another big European city with lots of tourists and even more graffiti. Also, when we arrived at our apartment on Monday night the owner gave us a warning about pickpocketers. Plus traipsing round a large city with children trying to sightsee is challenging. The kids are pretty good now at travelling but still it is never easy to walk for 10 minutes down a narrow street then realise you've gone the wrong way and have to retrace your steps.

So once James had dropped the car off at the car hire depot - a bit of a challenge as he couldn't find a petrol station, we headed down to the port. We found a Starbucks coffee on the way and a lollie shop for the kids so it was a good start all round. We found the information office and she pointed us in the direction of the boats. We arrived at the ticket office with ten minutes to spare and jumped on our boat heading for Belem. It was great to be sitting down and just being able to enjoy the view.

The trip took about an hour and we arrived at the Torre de Belem which is a tower that symbolises the voyages that made Portugal powerful.

We then walked along the esplanade towards the Mosteiro dos Jeronimous which dates from 1496 and is one of Lisbon's icons.

We were all desperately hungry and due to our gluten free needs decided that the best easy, cheap option was McDonalds (minus the buns of course). It was right by the park with a playground so perfect. We got our food and Hannah, Jasper and I went to investigate the playground while James and Penelope got the food. When we got to the playground we discovered that it had not been completed and was covered in graffiti. Also, there was a group of school kids a bit older then Hannah jumping all over it doing there best to knock the tower down. Such a waste as it was a nice playground but a few had ruined it for all. I guess the city council has thought why bother finishing it if it is only got to get destroyed. Hannah didn't seem to mind though and played on it happily. Jasper wasn't so keen though and instead found a tree to climb!

After lunch I bought two of the famous Belem custard tarts then we jumped on tram 15 heading back to Lisbon.

By this stage the kids were a bit hot and tired so James decided to take them back to the apartment and I went and had a look around on my own. My plan was to have a look at the shops so I set off in what I hoped was the right direction. I stumbled across a souviner shop selling the Portuguese roosters for 20 euros cheaper then in Porto, but as it is made of cast iron I thought I would come back later with James for that. I also found a bio store so managed to get some gluten free rolls for Wednesday lunch and some bread. I walked up the hill and stumbled upon the ruins of a cathedral that was partly destroyed in the earthquake of 1795. I walked along a platform and discovered that I was at the top of an elevator that we had seen from the ground - better then paying 5 euros!

I continued on not really knowing where I was going but came out onto the main shopping street - yah! It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and everyone was out enjoying the music by street bands and drinking and eating. Lisbon was starting to weave its magic on me and first impressions were being pushed aside to reveal a truly magical place.

On the way back to the apartment I went into a mall looking for sandals for James and came out with sandals for myself - well done me!

I arrived back feeling invigorated and ready to carry on exploring with the family in tow. First off though a rest on our deck with a glass of wine in hand - the portuguese certainly know how to make large wine glasses.

We all went back to the viewing platform at the top of the elevator (we walked up on course!). The views from the top were spectacular.

We went back up the shopping street on the lookout for somewhere for dinner. It was still a great vibe with lots of people out and about. Jasper seems to make friends with the locals where ever he goes and is constantly being touched on his blonde head as well as being talked to.

We couldn't find anywhere that appealed so decided to catch the tram as we had bought our 24 hour tram passes earlier. We all jumped on the tram then realised they were in the backpack back at the hotel. Off we all got and walked down to the port in search of dinner!

We found a pedestrian alleyway with tables outside that looked hopeful so went and had a look. What a great find! Friendly service, fresh produce and great food - plus a large jug of sangria perfect!

We had a great cheap meal feeling satisfied that we had found a hidden gem.

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Sand Blast

I had hoped that the wind would die down last night, but the romantic notion of being put to sleep by the sound of the rolling waves gently crashing against the shore was replaced by the sound of the wind trying to rattle the shutters off their hinges. Speaking of shutters, with the shutters we have at home, you can still tell if it is light outside, with the heavy wooden shutters here, we were surprised at how light it was when we eventually gave into the nagging of kids for food!
From our balcony, I looked out over to the beach and saw a line of Hi-Vis vest wearing men armed with what looked like rakes. They were either, Police looking for clues to a gruesome murder that took place there last night while we were being rocked by the wind, or the council was out in force tidying up all the bamboo drift wood and rubbish getting the beach ready for the coming summer season. As I could not see any police cars or news reporters we decided that it would be safe to head down and go for a walk.
We didn't get far before we were sidetracked by playing in the river. It was sheltered and had a nice view looking over the dozen houses that make up this settlement.

Further down the river the kids tried out their sand dune aerobatics.

We continued our walk and made our way to what we thought was an old abandoned church.

It turned out to be a half built house, that looked like it had either ran out of money, or more likely, they didn't have planning permission to build a house right on the beach on public land and got stopped half way through.

We decided to head to Ericeria, as our good friends Suzie and Coen had been there with their family and it was only 15 mins away. Picture a Portuguese coastal town in your head - that is what Ericeria is like. White buildings with terracotta roofs and blue trim surround narrow alleyways that open up into lovely squares where the locals and tourist chill out.

After a quick explore of the alleyways we ended down at the waterfront that is mostly protected by a big wall. The views are quite spectacular as the rough seas comes crashing in.

Ericeria is built up, but whilst the natural beauty has been lost, the apartments and esplanade along the water front have been done in a way that is beautiful in its own way.
Looking for a place to eat was a bit more difficult than we thought it would be, as it is still just the beginning of the season, also they are right into their pastries, so no good for us Gluten Free people. Whilst looking at the menu on the side of one restaurant, the patron beside the menu said "no, no no" and waved us on to the restaurant down the road. Now I don't know if he was disgruntled or if this was some sort of bizarre Portuguese marketing strategy where they deploy people to the near by competitor restaurants to wave people on, but the food at the restaurant that he recommended and where we ended up going, was absolutely fantastic! So maybe he was just a friendly local and seeing that we were five foreigners wanted to make sure we had a good feed.

We continued down the coast in the Lisbon direction and stopped at a lookout at yet another spectacular beach. Jasper spotted a path that lead down to the beach and took off with Penelope close on his heels. Rach spotted a car park at the bottom of the cliff so she chased the kids while I went and parked the car. By the time I had caught up to them the kids were doing there best to avoid getting wet in the surf. Of course they failed and got quite wet, to the point where we put them in their togs and let them go for it.

The surf was quite rough, so it didn't take too much persuading to get them to play in the lovely river at the end of the bay. This is obviously quite a popular beach as it has a great car park, boardwalks and restaurants.
Once the kids had had enough, we headed back north and went past the turn off to our settlement and up to the next one which is Santa Cruz. This is a lot bigger, but again done in a tasteful manor. The village is set up on the cliffs overlooking two beautiful beaches that are divided by rock formations that have been cleverly incorporated into paths, changing rooms and toilets.

The kids having got a taste for air time, found another small sand due to jump off.

It took the promise of ice cream to drag the kids away, so we looked for a bar that served ice cream as well as beer and sangria overlooking the sea, and it didn't take too long to find one.

Everyone was ready to go home, and after shower, food and dishes, it was time for bed.
Looking forward to Lisbon tomorrow.
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Location:Lisbon Coast