Sintra: Medieval Portugal

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Kevin and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal for a few days in late-September, and we took a day-trip to visit Sintra. Since we spent an entire day, and this is a popular option for folks visiting Lisbon, I made Sintra it’s own post. To fill you in if you didn’t read about Lisbon, the temperature was hot and everything was crowded. We were surprised because we thought travel at the end of September would be ideal (kids back in school, European holidays over, etc.), but I guess a lot of other travelers had the same idea!) Generally, Portugal has really warm summers, so I’d advise going in late-fall or early-spring if traveling in the heat isn’t your cup of tea.

Sintra is a medieval city that is a 40-45-minute train ride from Lisbon and costs about 5 Euro round-trip. Two train lines will get you there: Oriente-Sintra and the Rossio-Sintra. Since this is a city train, you can’t pre-purchase your tickets. Once you get off the train, be prepared, like in Lisbon, to walk up-hill. A lot. There is a bus system in Sintra to take tourists to the visitor sites, but also be prepared to wait in long lines for the bus. Even though we fought the heat and lines (I swear, I don’t usually complain this much!), Sintra is definitely a worthwhile day-trip from Lisbon if you’re already there.

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Sintra from above

The cool part about Sintra is, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so there is a lot of history. We did 3 big things on our day in Sintra:

  • National Palace: If we’re being honest, I’d skip this. We arrived pretty early in the day and still had to wait in line quite a while for tickets. Plus once we got in, we were crammed into the palace rooms like sardines. It is tempting to do this first because after getting off the train and into the heart of Sintra, it seems to be the most obvious thing to do. If you go in off-season and the lines are short, this would be a good option. My favorite part was the elaborate ceilings in all of the rooms!

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  • Moorish Castle: Even though a lot of walking was involved, a lot of it was in the shade (hallelujah!). We got some amazing photographs and enjoyed sitting and looking at the incredible view.

 

  • Pena Palace: The colors of the palace and overall experience were awesome. Trust me on this one: pay for the bus to take you up and down. Seriously. It is worth a few bucks.

 

For one final tip: most of the food is down in the city (not much to eat at the sites), so be sure to grab some lunch before heading up to the Moorish castle and Pena Palace!

Lisbon, The City of Seven Hills

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For the last several years, I have been hearing a buzz about Portugal. Kevin and I finally decided to take a trip there in early fall. While there were a lot of things I loved about Portugal, I wouldn’t put it in my “Top 10.” Overall I would recommend Lisbon (known by Europeans as Lisboa) and Sintra to someone who is a novice European traveler (see my next post to learn more about Sintra). Like Prague, it is easy for Americans to get around in Lisbon because most speak English.

Like I mentioned, my husband and I went in late September, but it was HOT in Lisbon. Most businesses/restaurants do not have air conditioning (our hotel did, thank goodness), so traveling in the off-season is advised.  When we arrived, all of the taxis were on strike, so we had to take the metro from the airport to the nearest station and lug our suitcases about 20+ minutes up cobblestone roads in 90 degree heat. Normally we don’t mind walking/taking public transport and we rarely get taxis when we travel, but with luggage, walking to our hotel was a challenge. We stayed at the Casa Das Janelas Com Vista, a boutique hotel running about $180 a night. I would certainly recommend the hotel for those who like to walk a lot and want a neighborhood feel. For those who have read my other blog posts, you know that my husband and I prefer boutique hotels because they are often quieter and we feel like we get a more local experience. My favorite part about our hotel in Lisbon (other than the A/C!) was the breakfast area. It was an eclectic mix of furniture/dishes and had a great breakfast spread. The staff was also extremely helpful. The hotel was in the Barrio Alto district of Lisbon, a thriving bar and restaurant neighborhood. While there were some great views nearby and it was nice to be near a lot of restaurants at night, the mornings were dirty and smelly in the nightlife aftermath. Lisbon is known as the City of Seven Hills. When we booked our hotel, we were willing to be further from the metro to be in a cool neighborhood, but when the taxis are on strike (and no Uber), it is the City of Seven Million Hills. One cool feature of the area was the Ascensor da Bica funicular which could assuage the steep slopes of Lisbon (plus the street art was awesome).

Kevin and I spent the money to get the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus (Gray Line), and I wouldn’t really recommend this in Lisbon during high season. We usually do this in all the big cities (for a day or two), and they are really convenient, but the taxis being on strike, the heat, and the wait-times made the experience irritating. Although without taxis, I’m not sure how else we would have gotten to these places!

I won’t tell you about all of the stops we made, but one of our favorites was the National Coach Museum which houses carriages/vehicles from the 17th-19th centuries. I had never heard of such a place, and it was a pleasant surprise! The building itself is in an old riding school, so the sense of place was unique. It was only about 6 Euro to get in and it was air-conditioned! Kids under 12 get in for free. We also enjoyed visiting Belem Tower and got some great pictures (see below). Belem Tower is a 16th century fortification right on the water. We waited in line, but it moved pretty quickly since it was nearing the end of the day.

One of our favorite spots to visit was a bar named…Bar (no mincing words, apparently) near our hotel. One of our favorite experiences in Lisbon was the opportunity to find a watering hole run by locals that we could chat with other people. We met the owner, John a native Lisbon-ite who loved quoting American action films (black t-shirt below), met a German couple on their honeymoon and an American-born Ukrainian woman, among others. We had to drink outside because it was too hot to stay indoors! If you ever travel, try to take the opportunity to meet people and strike up a conversation (this is very American of me, I know). Our international crew spent the night talking about politics, travel, and our interests. Isn’t that what travel is all about?

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Our next full day in Lisbon, Kevin and I went to the Jeronimos Monestary. We took some nice pictures, but the line was so long. If you want to do this, go first thing in the morning!

Then, we decided to ditch the Hop-On-Hop-Off and take a ferry to the Cristo Rei Statue. We actually had to take a ferry AND to a bus to get there, but it was a beautiful day, and the breeze near the water was glorious. It wasn’t crowded at all, so compared to our other experiences of waiting in line everywhere, it was so pleasant! If you are in Lisbon, do not miss this experience. The views of the statue and the water were breathtaking. To get there, you depart from Cais do Sodré ferry terminal and then take a short bus ride from the Cacilhas bus station. Cristo Rei, built in the 1950s, was created by the same artist who did Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janero (Portugal colonized Brazil many years ago, so this makes sense). You can pay 6 Euros to go all the way up into the statue, but we thought the views were fantastic at the bottom. By the way, the bridge below is NOT the Golden Gate…it’s the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge over the River Tagus.

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Our last night in Lisbon we stopped for a cocktail and had dinner at Lost In with an amazing view back in the Barrio Alto district. Of all the places we ate in Lisbon, this is the restaurant I would recommend (ask for outside or a spot with a view – WOWZA).

While the experience is Lisbon wasn’t as amazing as we expected or as life-changing as other places we’ve visited, it was definitely enjoyable and we have many great memories there. If you are a city-person, it is worth exploring – cheers!

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Xi’an, China – The City of Western Peace

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At this point in my life, Xi’an was in my “Top 3” cities to visit because as the ultimate history nerd, I had to see the Terracotta Army. I was nervous when I finally got the chance to travel there because I had such high expectations of the historic site, but I was not expecting to love the city of Xi’an as much as I did, and I was certainly not disappointed about seeing the Terracotta warriors. Xi’an is a historic city – much more so than modern Shanghai, but it the city itself had so much character beyond the history.

We flew from Shanghai to Xi’an on China Eastern Airlines. The flight was smooth; it only took about 2 hours. The airline served noodles as a meal even though it was a pretty short trip. If you are traveling to Xi’an, I recommend getting a local guide for a day or two while you get your bearings. Plus, you learn a lot about the history and culture from someone who lives there! We had a local guide that was born and raised in Xi’an, and over the course of two days, I learned a lot! Upon arrival in Xi’an, we stopped to see the Ancient City Wall. This city wall is about 8 miles long, has 4 main gates, and a bell tower. In ancient days, no weapon was strong enough to break down a wall, so the city walls were the best form of protection each city had. In fact, many cities in China had large walls (like in Beijing), but during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao, most were destroyed. The city wall in Xi’an is probably the most  We rented bikes and took a spin along the top of the city wall – what a worthwhile experience! Renting a bike was only a couple of dollars (approximately 40 yuan).

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One thing I noticed as we drove around Xi’an was the pristine care and pride the city put into its built environment (flowers, sidewalks, buildings). It was much more beautiful than I imagined. That night, after several days of walking, we enjoyed a reflexology foot massage for about $20 USD – what a treat! I do this from time-to-time at home in Atlanta, but when in China…

The second day in Xi’an was the day I was waiting for. For those of you who don’t know about the Terracotta Army, I’ll provide an extremely brief history and perhaps you will understand why I was so excited:

In 1974, Chinese scientists stumbled on one of the greatest archaeological finds of all-time. It started with the discovery of a clay (terracotta) head, and this led to not one, but thousands of life-sized clay soldiers, arranged by military rank and each having a unique face. The army was said to be “protecting” the burial site of the first emperor (Emperor Qin) of China, buried around 208 BCE in an earthen mound several miles behind the terracotta army. This emperor is credited with (what would become) the Great Wall of China. Since the find in ’74, archeologists are still digging up these clay warriors. For those who are wondering, the emperor has not yet been unearthed because scientists are worried our climate and chemicals will destroy what is buried under the earthen mound. Perhaps one day there will be technology available to safely see inside the emperor’s tomb. The part that is most fascinating about the Terracotta Army is that no one had any idea (before 1974) that it existed. No written records describing a clay army, especially of this magnitude have been found.

When I walked into the archaeological dig site (which is actually a series of buildings), it was bigger and more amazing than I had imagined. It was extremely crowded, even on a weekday, but it was truly spectacular. I had goosebumps the entire time. To get there, you would have to hire a driver or take a city bus to get out to the archaeological site. After a 25-mile drive (which can take a bit of time on a bus), plan to spend at least a half of a day there. There are gift shops and things to spend money on, but I chose to explore with my time instead. Aside from the Great Wall of China outside of Beijing, this should be a must-see on your visit to China.

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After our morning with the Terracotta Army, we enjoyed the Tangbo Art Museum. This museum is a fairly small institution costing approximately $11.50 (80 yuan). For those interested in contemporary art, this would be a really unique stop. I also enjoyed the calligraphy and shadow puppet art. If you are taking public transport, Xi’an has a metro and you should get off Yanxingmen Station on the purple line. City buses also drop off near the museum.

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Shadow Puppet

One of my favorite parts of Xi’an was the Muslim Quarter (also known as Huimin Jie in Pingyin). The neighborhood dates back to the Silk Road over 1000 years ago. Around 20,000 Muslim residents inhabit this part of the city and the blend of cultures is truly special. If you are a vegetarian, you may want to pack a snack because the main street has a lot of street meat! I recommend roujiamo (beef inside a bun). I also enjoyed watching the shop owners make candy. Taking a couple of hours in the Muslim Quarter to walk around and try some food is well worth your time. One side note, be respectful with your camera. Sometimes I get so excited about capturing the moment, I don’t think about photo etiquette. Our guide suggested that we avoid taking pictures of individuals while they are working because the shop owners are not a tourist attraction…they are just doing their job. He made a good point, so I just took pictures of the area.

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Of all the cities in China I have been to (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong), the one I would most like to visit again was Xi’an. My husband has never been there and I know he would appreciate all of the unique things the City of Western Peace has to offer. Hopefully I’ll make it back before my Visa expires!

Shanghai, China

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In 2016, I wrote about leading a trip to Beijing, China. This year, I was invited by my dear friend, Queena who led a student-trip to China in 2018. This time Shanghai and Xi’an were also on the itinerary!

Our first stop (after a layover in Toronto) on our journey to China was Shanghai. Before the trip, the only things I really knew about Shanghai were that it is the most populated city in the world and that it is more of an international city than Beijing. I didn’t have many expectations, but after traveling there, I was certainly impressed! I will say, if you are interested in a trip about the history of China, I’d stick to Beijing or Xi’an. Shanghai should definitely be on your radar if you want to visit a bustling, growing, and modern metropolitan.

We arrived in the evening, and our tour guide gave us the option to do a night boat cruise on the Huangpu River with views of the skyline. Most people in the group decided to go to sleep after many hours of travel, but I decided to push  through to do the boat cruise, and I am SO GLAD that I did. It was one of the highlights of my entire trip to China. If you go to Shanghai and the weather is favorable, even if you see the Bund (a waterfront area in Shanghai) during the day, do the boat trip at night.

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The hotel in Shanghai was also the nicest we stayed in while in China. It was newer and modern as most areas in Shanghai are. The Holiday Inn Express Shanghai Jinsha had a full breakfast (American and Chinese food), the rooms were clean and there was air conditioning! Ask about A/C when booking your travel to China, especially in the spring/summer months. The hotel would run you about $45 a night which is a great price!

That first morning we went to the Yu Garden Pedestrian Street. It was really neat to experience the food and shopping, but it was extremely crowded. We got lunch (noodles for days!) and an ice cream cone, and many in our group decided to do some shopping (I was holding out for the markets in Beijing). We later visited a silk factory/shop and the Jade Buddha Temple.

 

Another major highlight for this city was taking the elevators (too tall for just one elevator so there were two!) up the Shanghai Tower and experiencing the view. It was incredible to see what a city of 26 million looks like from over 100 stories up. I was told to go into the last stall of the women’s bathroom and this is what I found – WOW!

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I called it “The Bathroom in the Sky”

We ended our afternoon/evening walking along the Bund in the day and shopping around the Shanghai Times Square. Overall, we did a lot in 1.5 days, but I could have spent much more time. This means, I’ll have to go back to Shanghai someday (hopefully before my $200, 10-year Visa expires!). Xi tien for now!

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Boston: It’s All Here!

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For Spring Break this year, Kevin surprised me with a trip to Boston! He’s never done a surprise trip for me before, so this was especially exciting. I knew a week before that we were going SOMEWHERE, but I didn’t know where until the day before we left.

Since I am a history nerd (especially colonial history), I was thrilled to find out we were traveling to Beantown (AKA Boston) – I had never been to Boston before! It was early spring, so we dressed warmly (sweaters and rain jackets). We were lucky enough to have a couple days of sun!

Kevin arranged for us to use Hilton points to stay right downtown at the Hilton Faneuil Hall. The room was small but clean and comfortable, and it was a great location. Had we not used points, the hotel could have run us $350+ a night. The benefit to selecting a location that was walking distance to public transportation restaurants and tourism was that we didn’t have to rent a car. Aside from a car rental cost (which isn’t cheap in Boston), we would have had to pay $50 per night for parking. A taxi from the airport to the hotel ran us about $30, but we did not arrive during rush hour. Even still, spending a little more on a hotel in a good location near MBTA (Boston’s public transit) would be more economical in the long-run.

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We arrived on a Friday and our first stop after checking into the hotel was to Sam Adams Brewery! We walked to the subway and took the Orange line to Stony Brook. From there, it was a 7-8 minute walk. I have been to several breweries, and this one is definitely in my Top 3. The tour and tastings were completely free, and we met folks from all around the country! Plus, I really like their beer. After the tour and tastings, we stuck around for another hour at the bar and had a couple more drinks before departing for dinner.

That night we ate at Bostonia Public House. They had a really cool atmosphere, and Kevin was excited to have a lobster roll! Since our trip, he has actually been back to Boston a couple of times for work dinners, and he still enjoys it. After dinner, we walked to Quincy Market to grab some ice cream for dessert. Quincy Market is tourist-y but still really great. It was constructed in the 1820s and has lots of quick restaurants and snack shops to choose from.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to take a guided walking tour of the Freedom Trail. We didn’t have to make reservations because of the time of the year, but I definitely would go ahead and make reservations during peak season. For being pretty chilly that day, it was still super crowded. Our stops included the Massachusetts State House, the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House. Our guide was dressed up in colonial-wear and he had a lot of information, but it was sometimes difficult to hear among the hub-bub of the city.

After the walking tour, Kevin and I decided to go north to Paul Revere’s house. Admission was $5 which we were happy to pay since the money goes to preservation efforts. Be warned that admission is CASH ONLY. We were only there for about 30 minutes since the house is small, but it was still really interesting and the docents were informative and friendly.

We didn’t make a lunch reservation, but we should have. Everything that was recommended to us in the north end was a 1-2 hour wait. We were lucky and stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant called Tenoch Mexican. No frills, just good food. Eventually we made our way to Mike’s Pastry for cannolis. Mike’s Pastry was founded in the 1940s and they have a couple of locations – we went to the original on Hanover Street. It was Easter weekend, so it was PACKED but the cannolis were 100% worth the wait. So delicious.

After eating our cannolis in the park, we made our way to Boston Harbor to see where the famous Boston Tea Party took place in 1773. It was fun to see all the historic sights that day, but it was a LOT of walking. If you are planning on seeing Boston in a long weekend, good walking shoes are essential.

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We DID make dinner reservations that night. Again, on a weekend, reservations are necessary. Italian food in the North End is authentic and YUMMY. We ate Trattoria di Monica where homemade pasta is the specialty.

On our last day, we had a late flight so we ventured out to the JFK Presidential Library. To get there we had to take a bus and a train, but the experience was worth it. Since it was Easter Sunday it was an extremely light crowd, but the museum was huge. Admission was $14 per person. Every presidential library has a (to-scale) replica of the Oval Office, so we enjoyed seeing how JFK’s was set up. Overall, we had an awesome time nerding out by looking at all of the First Lady’s outfits and the Kennedy family’s personal effects.

Our last stop of the day was Bunker Hill. This monument commemorates a major battle that happened nearby in 1775. You could climb all the way up the obelisk, but Kevin and I decided that after all the walking we did, we could enjoy the view without climbing all the way up!

Our weekend trip to Boston was just the tip of the iceburg – I’d love to go back to explore some more! We ate like royalty, saw 15/16 sites on the Freedom Trail, and enjoyed springtime in the northeast. Until next time…

Atlantis (Bahamas)

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Now that Kevin has healed from surgery and is feeling better, the doctors ok-ed travel again! (see previous post for details) This trip to Atlantis was Kevin’s annual customer conference. Previous trips for this conference were Orlando, Cabo San Lucas, and Dove Mountain. We enjoyed this getaway in the sun, but at the same time we are glad we were able to experience it without having to pay for the resort. Since the hotel and Kevin’s flight were totally covered for this conference, the only expenses we had were my flight (about $450 to Nassau) and lunches.

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Kevin and I at the Junkaroo, a Bahamian tradition

The water slides and rapid river were a blast, but since it was the very beginning of Spring Break time, there were some lines/crowds. I can imagine that chairs would be scarce and lines would be pretty long (and annoying) during peak season when cruisers also take advantage of spending the day at Atlantis when they dock in Nassau. The rooms and resort were a little tired for the price-tag overall. The food was also pretty basic (chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, burgers, etc.). I’ll say this: Kevin and I would have been disappointed had we paid $400+ a night for the experience especially since flight prices to Nassau weren’t cheap. It would be very easy for a couple or family to spend THOUSANDS of dollars to vacation at this resort, and Kevin and I prefer to spend our travel dollars more frugally, so we can see more of the world! That being said, if Atlantis is on your list, there are several different hotel options at the resort. The highest-end hotel is called The Cove which can be up to $1100 a night in peak season. This option has 2 private beaches. We stayed at the second-highest hotel called The Royal which ran about $400 a night. The cheapest hotel at Atlantis is called The Beach and it is about $200 a night. If you are planning on going to Atlantis for the water slides and sitting pool-side, don’t spend money on the more expensive hotel rooms because they aren’t worth it! Everyone that stays at an Atlantis hotel gets access to all of the slides, so you aren’t necessarily getting “extra” staying at a more expensive option.

Unfortunately, we never got to go to the beach because it was closed when we were there. The surf was too high and dangerous, but walking to the beach from the resort is an option if the weather is agreeable!

A highlight of the trip was our opportunity to swim with a dolphin! We were given the choice between a deep-water experience and shallow-water experience. We chose shallow-water, and we were really glad we did. According to many of Kevin’s co-workers and their spouses who did the deep-water, they had less interaction with the dolphin than we did in the shallow-water. Our dolphin’s name was Palmer, and we were able to hug her and pet her as she swam around us!

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All in all, this was a fun trip, but again, do your research before visiting. On to the next adventure!

A Medical Update

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Some time has passed since we last traveled. Last September, my husband suddenly became very ill with an unknown heart condition, and he was in the hospital for two weeks. Without exaggeration, there was a time I didn’t think we would ever be able to travel ever again. The only travel we did between our trip to Virginia last July (see previous blog post) and the Atlantis in March (see next blog post) was to see family/friends in Chicago and to go the Cleveland Clinic to see a heart specialist. I am so happy to say that Kevin is healthy and traveling again.

With Kevin’s medical condition, he is required to have a (subcutaneous) implanted cardiac defibrillator (S-ICD) which has changed the security process slightly in the airport. He can not go through a metal detector or get “wanded.” He has to receive a pat-down or go through the body scanner. Sometimes this slows down the check-in process, but overall it isn’t a hassle at all; the TSA agents are very familiar with people who have medical devices. It does present a problem occasionally when we are at tourist attractions with metal detectors because security staff does not know how to handle someone who cannot get the wand OR go through a medal detector.

I mention all of this because I never thought, especially in our 30s, that we would ever have to deal with anything like this. Sometime life throws you curve-balls, and you have to work through fear and other struggles. I am grateful that Kevin is able to travel, and we are going to spend this next year taking advantage of his second chance by seeing as much of the world as we can!

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