Sintra

A quick 40-minute train ride from Lisbon lands you in the picturesque town of Sintra, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were immediately taken with the romantic landscape. Following a path away from the masses of tourists, we found a picture perfect lunch spot overlooking the Palace of Sintra, built by the Moors in the Middle Ages. With only an afternoon, we chose two fairy tale scenes to discover.

Our first stop was the Moorish Castle, or what looks like the setting for Game of Thrones. This military fort was built just before the 10th century by the North African Moors. After falling into disrepair, is was restored by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century, and has since become a major tourist attraction.

We walked its lengthy walls and up its watchtowers. From a distance the Pena Palace was visible, our next stop.

The Park and Palace of Pena make up the most important part of Sintra’s cultural landscape. Arriving to this architectural marvel, it’s easy to understand why. The brightly colored palace is a balance of nature meets 19th century Portuguese Romanticism. In a word, stunning! I quickly learned that it was rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed this former 18th century monastery. It was King Ferdinand II who transformed it into a palace, creating the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family. We spent the rest of the afternoon discovering the elaborate interior while marveling at the exterior facades. What an extraordinary work of art!

While we could certainly have stayed overnight in Sintra, I was happy to head back to Lisbon and continue our adventure. All the while during our return I wondered, how quickly could we return to Portugal?

Lisbon

We had been planning a trip to Lisbon for years, even before it became the city to visit. Somehow Italy and Spain always took precedence, until recently. A week ago we set off to discover a city, country and culture neither of us had yet experienced. We had no idea what to expect on this three-day jaunt to Portugal. All we knew was that Lisbon would not disappoint.

We arrived to our historic hotel in the Baixa district and began our tour, map in hand. Lisbon is by all accounts a walking city if you don’t mind the hilly cobbled streets. The views are worth the hike up!

A popular mode of transport in Lisbon, and one of my favorites, is the tram, dating back to the 1930s. This is definitely an experience, particularly tram 28 which snakes its way along many of Lisbon’s most vibrant districts. Tourists line up for the ride up the steep hill from Baixa to São Jorge Castle and Alfama district. We opted to walk and hop on at a later stop.

We spent an entire day exploring, or rather, getting lost in the Alfama district, a tangle of streets that come alive in the evenings with traditional Fado music. This quickly became our favorite area, along with the historic Bairro Alto and trendy Principe Real where we discovered local restaurants and fashionable boutiques.

I often had to stop and admire the glazed tiles lining many of the buildings. Inspiration for a future bag collection? These azulejos as they are called locally, originated in Egypt but it’s the Portuguese that use them most creatively. The Tile Museum just outside the city center, details five centuries of these decorative tiles.

What we discovered while wandering the city was how friendly and happy most people appeared to be. The atmosphere in Lisbon was light and welcoming. We also happened to be there on April 25th, their Freedom Day celebrating the 1974 Revolution that ended the dictatorship and started democracy. Even more reason for the locals to take pride in their capital city.

SLEEP: Alma Lusa translates to “Portuguese soul”, and AlmaLusa Hotel has exactly that.  This family run boutique hotel opened in 2016, perfectly positioned in the Baixa district, close to many of Lisbon’s attractions. Our luxurious room with a view of city hall was once a Moroccan showroom, with select elements still intact.

EAT LOCAL: A pleasant surprise was O Cantinho da Rosa in Bairro Alto where we stopped for lunch. It was clear that locals were the main clients of this charming canteen. Never before have I tasted fresh sardines grilled to perfection! The dishes are ample, and the dessert is heavenly. Another local gem near Alfama is Zé da Mouraria.

EAT GOURMET: For innovative brasserie style dining Delfina is the spot. Elegantly set within the AlmaLusa hotel, their traditional Bacalhau dish is a must! Paired with local wines of course. If you’re in the mood for prime locally farmed meat, head directly to Vicente by Carnalentejana. The cave-like decor too is impressive!

EAT SWEETS: A trip to Lisbon isn’t complete without tasting the famous Pastel de nata, a Portuguese egg tart pastry. You can find some of the best at Manteigaria in the Time Out Market. Along with gelato and anything else your heart desires, both sweet and savory. There are even cooking classes offered.

DRINK: We happened to be in town during Lisbon’s first ever Cocktail Week. With so many bars (and very little time) we opted for rooftop views from recently opened Topo. I’ve also heard that Gin Lovers is another hot spot. Next time.

VISIT: One of the main attractions is São Jorge Castle, positioned on top of the city and restored in the 20th century. Belém Tower, a fortified tower and the Jerónimos Monastery not far from Lisbon are popular sights that we left for our next visit. We decided instead to take the train to the town of Sintra. Stay tuned…

 

 

La vie en français

In my continuing quest to perfect my French (some days I feel complete control and mastery of the language and others, less so), I have discovered a new platform. By connecting you with a local in your select country and city, airXpat assists anyone who is new, in settling in. In addition to language courses, they even help you find an apartment and deal with legal aspects. I know many fellow expats who could profit from these services! Curious to learn more, I connected to the site and quickly found a French teacher. What interested me most is that the lessons would take place around the city, a sort of cultural immersion while conjugating verbs.

At the suggestion of the teacher with whom I’d already had an initial assessment, my first meeting took place at Le Café Marly, set within the Louvre. I don’t think the location can get much more chic or French than this! Before the lesson even began, I was feeling confident and eager to learn. Once we met, I felt very much at ease, sipping café crème and speaking about all my favorite topics of travel, food and culture, in French bien sûr. 

As the hour lesson ended, I was clear on what I needed to do to improve my conversation skills and what I loved most about this city I call home. How could we not speak about our shared experience of living in Paris? I’m already looking forward to our next meeting, a new destination to explore and new vocabulary to learn. On y va!

Weekend in Lombardia

Traveling to Italy often, I am well acquainted with certain of its 21 regions including Toscana with its rolling hills and capital city Firenze, Trentino and Alto Adige with the majestic Dolomites, and Liguria, my second home in Cinque Terre. On this trip, I discovered another region that quickly became a favorite, Lombardia.

The journey began in the town of Varese, just 55 kilometers north of Milan. I soon realized that this was the perfect spot from which to tour the region. The first stop to discover the magic of Lombardia was the Sanctuary of the Sacro Monte of Varese, 883 meters high, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the top of the hill stood the Pogliaghi House with its enchanting garden, a museum open to all. An eccentric lover of art, Ludovico Pogliaghi began building his house in 1885 and in the years that followed he collected over 1,500 artworks. An artist himself,  the door of Milan’s Duomo was his most famous commission, with the original plaster door sitting just above his grand piano, which I attempted to play.

With church bells ringing in the distance, I walked along this 2 kilometer long “Holy Way” of Sacro Monte, encountering 14 chapels dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary. This sacred cobbled path dates back to 1604 when Capuchin friar Giovanni Battista Aguggiari set upon creating it.

Each of the 14 chapels are unique in design and feature statues and frescoes created by major Lombard artists of the seventeenth century. With every encounter I felt the mysterious air of a spiritual past.

The following day another grand villa awaited in nearby Gazzada Schianno. Nineteenth century Villa Cagnola was a sight to behold overlooking French and English gardens and views of the countryside. Most impressive were the treasures hidden on the inside. In addition to a large private collection of Italian paintings from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the collection of ceramics, both European and Oriental porcelain is awe-inspiring! Certainly worth a visit and an overnight stay.

From here I walked the historic route Via Francisca del Lucomagno to Castiglione Olona, surrounded by fields of blossoming flowers and the splendor of nature.

The fifth century town of Castiglione Olona charmed even from afar. I couldn’t wait to enter its walls.

A lunch stop at Osteria degli Artisti for a plate of strawberry asparagus risotto? There’s a first for everything!

A site worth visiting is La Collegiata, built where once stood the ancient castle. The Collegiate church along with the Baptistry, makes up the Collegiate Museum. Both were decorated by Masolino da Panicale, one of Florence’s most recognized painters.

From here the afternoon continued to Torba Abbey, a former benedictine convent. The annual flower market was taking place and the entire monastery was in bloom!

The next morning it was time to discover Lake Maggiore, Italy’s second largest lake after Lake Garda. How best to tour this majestic lake than by sailboat. This may in fact be my preferred mode of transport.

The views were stunning, as the wind sent us sailing along the coast of Lombardia. Complete serenity as we reached a breathtaking monastery built within a cliff.

Santa Caterina del Sasso is one of the most ethereal sights I’ve ever seen.  Legend has it that after surviving a storm, wealthy local merchant Alberto Besozzi dedicated his life to Saint Catherine and had part of this Hermitage built in her honor. The rest as they say, is history.

My days and nights discovering Lombardia were filled with so many moments of awe and inspiration, both natural and spiritual. Enough to last until the next time. Meanwhile, here’s a video for more bella vistas.

 

Paris in Bloom

Spring has made its way to Paris! And with it comes the charm of discovering cobbled paths that lead to secret gardens, where you can sit for hours and lose yourself with a good book, or better yet, a good friend.

A favorite of these spots can be found in the Marais, of course. Where exactly? 60 Rue des Francs Bourgeois.

The Archives Nationales is the heart of Parisian history since 1808. Within two regal buildings, Hôtel de Soubise and the Hôtel de Rohan, all the pre-French Revolution archives are stored. Upon entering, you discover an enchanting space hidden within a bustling city.

Pass through the small entrance on the north side of the courtyard, and the scenery quickly changes from architectural marvels to verdant landscapes. A maze-like path weaves through fountains and rock formations. The four gardens you encounter were designed by French landscape architect Louis Benech, also known for the Tuileries Gardens. Have a seat on one of the benches surrounded by the scent of roses, and enjoy this clandestine Parisian paradise.

If you’re looking for more ways to the spend the perfect afternoon in Paris, here are a few tips in my recent collaboration with Eurostar. Though I warn you, you may never want to leave!

Paris Picks: Coffee Shops

In the last few years, a new coffee culture has made its way to Paris. Once upon a time you could only order a mediocre café noisette (espresso with hot milk) at a bistro counter, or for a little extra, sit on a terrace nursing a scalding café crème (the French version of a latte). Thankfully for us coffee connoisseurs, things have changed and a good coffee is not so hard to find, due to expat baristas brewing top roasts. But you must know where to look. Here is a list of my favorite coffee shops all over Paris, some of which are conveniently located in my North Marais neighborhood. (Café date, anyone?) In addition to stellar coffee, most offer free WiFi.

Télescope: 5 Rue Villedo, 75001 / Monday-Friday 8:30-5 / Saturday 9:30-6:30 / Sunday Closed

Café Kitsuné:  51 Galerie Montpensier, 75001 / Monday-Friday 10-6 / Saturday-Sunday 10-6:30

Matamata: 58 Rue d’Argout, 75002 / Monday-Friday 8-5 / Saturday-Sunday 9:30-5:30

Café Loustic: 40 Rue Chapon, 75003 / Monday-Friday 8:30-6 / Saturday-Sunday 10-6

Fragments: 76 Rue des Tournelles, 75003 / Monday-Friday 8-6 / Saturday-Sunday 10-6

The Broken Arm: 12 Rue Perrée, 75003 / Tuesday-Saturday 9-6 / Sunday-Monday Closed

Boot Café: 19 Rue du Pont aux Choux, 75003 / Monday-Sunday 10-6

La Caféothèque: 52 Rue de l’Hôtel de ville, 75004 / Monday-Friday 8:30-7:30 / Saturday-Sunday 10-7:30

Le Peloton Café: 17 Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, 75004 / Monday-Friday 9:30-5:30 / Saturday-Sunday 9:30-6:30 / Closed Wednesday

Coutume Café: 47 Rue de Babylone, 75007 / Monday-Friday 8:30-5:30 / Saturday-Sunday 9-6

Honor Cafe: 54 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 / Monday-Friday 9-6 / Saturday 10-6 / Sunday Closed

KB Café Shop: 53 Avenue Trudaine, 75009 / Monday-Friday 7:45-6:30 / Saturday-Sunday 9-6:30

Republique of Coffee: Boulevard Saint-Martin, 75010 / Monday-Friday 8-7:30 / Saturday 9-7:30 / Sunday 10-7

Blackburn Coffee: 52 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, 75010 / Monday-Friday 9-6 / Saturday-Sunday 10-7

Peonies Café: 81 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 75010 / Tuesday-Saturday 9-8 / Sunday 10-4 / Monday Closed

Ten Belles: 10 Rue de la Grange aux Belles, 75010 / Monday-Friday 8-5 / Saturday-Sunday 9-6

Folks and Sparrows: 14 Rue Saint-Sébastien, 75011 / Tuesday-Saturday 10-6 / Sunday-Monday Closed

Café Oberkampf: 3 Rue Neuve Popincourt, 75011 / Monday, Thursday-Friday 8:30-4:30 / Saturday-Sunday 9:30-4:30 / Tuesday-Wednesday Closed

Passager: 107 Avenue Ledru-Rollin, 75011 / Tuesday-Saturday 8:30-6:30 / Sunday-Monday Closed

Hardware Société: 10 Rue Lamarck, 75018 / Monday, Wednesday-Friday 9-4 / Saturday-Sunday 9:30-4:30 / Tuesday Closed

Lomi: 3 ter Rue Marcadet, 75018 / Monday-Sunday 10-7

CREAM: 50 Rue de Belleville, 75020 / Monday-Friday 8:30-5:30 / Saturday-Sunday 9:30-5:30

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