A grand day out

Weekend mini-breaks don’t usually warrant a day excursion. That’s probably the case with Lisbon as there’s more than enough to fill a weekend, but several friends had recommended that we should visit Sintra, a hillside town about 40 minutes from Lisbon. With the added bonus that our Lisbon tourist cards gave us free train travel to Sintra, we decided that Monday (when many museums in Lisbon are closed) would be a good day to visit.

From Sintra station it’s a short walk to the town centre – just follow the crowds! Sinatra’s popularity means there are a lot of tourists. In mid-March the numbers were just about bearable, but I imagine in mid-summer it would be heaving. Our first stop was the National Palace, situated right in the heart of the town. It has two distinctive white chimneys which make it easy to spot.

It is the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal, being inhabited more or less continuously from at least the early 15th century to the late 19th century. Compared to many palaces, it is actually quite domestic in scale. The rooms are not enormous and the decoration is, on the whole, quite restrained. The highlight for us were the stunning Moorish tiles and some interesting ceiling paintings. The latter are quite quirky and often explain the name of the room, there’s the swan room, the magpie room, the galleon room and the crown room – each with corresponding ceiling decoration. I might try this at home, we could have the dog slobber room, the crack room (several of these) and the cobweb room.

After the National Palace we sought advice from the tourist office on a walking route to the Moorish Castle. Although there are frequent bus transfers between the palaces (not to mention tuk-tuks, electric scooters, mini vans, taxis etc which will take you for an inflated price) we decided to walk. With map and directions in hand we set off for an anticipated climb up the hill through the wood. What we weren’t expecting was that more than half the walk was set out as a delightful garden with winding paths, terraces, follys, pools, rills, pergolas and lots of wonderful plants. It was odd to see spring flowering hellebores, primrose and cyclamen alongside plants we’d expect to see flowering in mid-summer. Arum lillys, agapanthus and acanthus were all in flower. This sheltered Portuguese garden clearly doesn’t get much cold and frost.

When we reached the Moorish Castle were very pleased we’d walked. The busses were heaving with people. It didn’t look like a pleasant way to travel – I’d definitely recommend the path if you can manage a brisk climb. The castle was wonderful. Perched high on the hill the views extended far and wide, even though the cloud had started to form you could still see the sea – one of the reasons the Moors chose this spot. Once inside you can walk around the battlements (not for those without a head for heights) and peer down on Sintra, up to the Pena Palace and the many other palaces dotted about on top of almost every hill. There is also a wonderfully preserved underground cistern that provided an essential water source for the castle.

Our final destination was a short ten minute walk – the Pena Palace. Originally a monastery, it was acquired and rebuilt in highly romanticism style for King Fernandinho II. It is rather bonkers with a mash-up of Moorish, Gothic, Classical and Romantic styles. Not somewhere that would be easy to live in, but definitely worth going to see. For me, the highlight was the park and gardens. Arranged on the steep hillside below the castle, wooded walks, fern filled valleys, rills and streams, and several follys and glassshouses were a joy to discover. Fortunately they also lead down through the ‘valley of the lakes’ to a back entrance that joined back up with the trail back down to Sintra.

The walk down was considerably quicker and got us to the station in perfect time for our return train to Lisbon. Two palaces and a castle was quite a lot in a day – even for two queens – but well worth the effort. These two queens certainly slept well in their beds!

Style with a tile

If there’s one thing Lisbon does with aplomb it is ceramic tiles. Wherever you go you will see them adorning floors, walls, benches, metro stations etc. The tile or Azulejos as they are known date as far back as the 13th century, when the Moors invaded the land that now belongs to Spain and Portugal, but they secured their foothold in Portuguese culture between the 16th and 17th centuries. The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning ‘small polished stone’. Originally they were fairly simple structures cut into geometric shapes in neutral tones.

A great place to trace the origins of the tile and to trace their history is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (the national museum of the tile). Set is a former monastery the collection is displayed in date order dating from the Moors right up to the present day with some contemporary examples of tiles. It’s surprising just how contemporary the oldest tiles seem with their sharp geometric patterns and bold colours compared to the more classical C16 and C17 versions.

You leave the museum feeling inspired to rush home and tiles something. Given the tiles other wonderful quality – their ease to clean – it’s quite tempting to go home and tile the house. It would make removing Zoly’s slobber from the walls so much easier!

We have lift off

Being built on several hills, there are no shortage of lovely views and vantage points in Lisbon. To reach many of them involves serious climbing up steep hills, but some have very welcome trams, funicular railways or escalators to take the strain. Just round the corner from our hotel is one very unusual example. The Elevator Santa Justa is an ornate gothic iron lift and bridge that carries you up 148ft (45m) to the Convent do Carmo, (a monastery destroyed in the 1755 earthquake on which re-construction was never completed).

On top of the Iron lift is a viewing platform which has become a popular tourist spot. We’d walked past the elevator several times over the past few days but long queues had put us off. I know we’re British but queuing for the lift was even beyond us, especially when the adjacent H&M store has entrances on the ground and 3rd floor which allow you to pretty much climb the same height on their escalators. However after dinner in a lovely vegan buffet (our second visit) we though the crowds would be quieter if we walked over to the top of the elevator.

Sure enough, no queue and being at the top meant only a short climb up a metal spiral staircase to the viewing platform on top. Unfortunately the absence of much metal work between Michael and a very long drop down turned him a very queasy colour and led him to freeze two thirds the way up the stairs. As it was a one way staircase I had to coax him up the final few stairs. Worse was to come. The views from the top were lovely, but alas not if the only thing you can see if the 3ft high guard rail around the edge. I’m guessing Portuguese people were a lot shorter in 1902 as by today’s standards the guard rail around the edge of the viewing-platform was very low. Michael stood frozen in the very centre of the platform. Bless him, he managed about 20 seconds before we had to defend. I went first down the descending spiral staircase with strict instructions to Mike to ‘look at me, don’t look down’.

Thankfully it was only one flight to the elevator car and he felt much more secure in that. Feet back firmly on the ground and I was informed that we ‘wouldn’t be doing that again’ and in a very strange turn of events, that Michael would be ‘going via H&M next time’ – a phrase I never thought I’d hear uttered from his lips!

Gurt Lush

For those more familiar with our blog, you may have noticed the absence of the more descriptive and precise accounts of our travels. One hastens to use the word ‘long’ but there is usually a more thorough account of our travels alongside my more ‘magazine-style ‘ updates. Alas the author of the full-length version is somewhat otherwise distracted. It wouldn’t be a proper holiday if Michael didn’t have a load of student essays to mark, so each day he has set himself a target to wail, gnash teeth and cry (otherwise know as marking). While he does this I have to find things to distract myself with.

On Sunday I took the metro to Parque stop to visit the Parque Eduardo VII. This is the largest park in central Lisbon and strangely isn’t named after some old Portuguese king but an old English one. When Edward VII visited Lisbon in 1902 they renamed the park in his honour. It was originally called Parque da Liberdade (Liberty Park), as staunch republican we think that’s a much better name (cue tutting royalist aunt).

The park is set out on a steady slope that rises north of the Avenida da Liberdade and the Marquis of Pombal Square in the centre of the city. A large lawn an low hedge maze cuts through the centre of the park running up to the monument and fountain marking the 25 April revolution. There are numerous sculptures, lots of trees which must provide much needed shade in the heat if summer, tennis courts and a children’s play park.

The real gem lies tucked away in the north west corner of the park, something you’d almost miss if you didn’t know was there. In the site of an old quarry is the Estufa Fria De Lisbon. This large greenhouse – well to be precise two modest greenhouses and a huge shade house – contains a stunning collection of tropical, Mediterranean and arid planting. Pools, streams and paths meander through the lush planting taking you on a horticultural journey through the worlds warmer climbs.

In the UK outside of the warmer south-easterly parts of the country we tend to see this kind of tropical planting confined to containers as domestic houseplant. Here there are whole walls of what we commonly know as cheese plants (so named for its holy leaves) reached up the wall to a height of at least 15 meters and Clivia plants with their orange tubular flowers in giant clumps 2 meters wide (mine at home has about ten leaves). Banana plants and palms touch the wooden slated roof and pink, purple and yellow flowers and foliage put on their best show to compete for your attention. As we’d say back in Bristol, this place is ‘Gurt Lush’.

This green paradise really set my heart a flutter and excited at the thought that back home spring is just around the corner. Even better than that, in less than a week Gardeners’ World will be back on our screens every Friday night – the return of Monty Don is surely a sign that beckons the start of spring

Fun in the sun

The last week of February 2019 has rather alarmingly smashed all uk records for high temperatures – no doubt a worrying consequence of climate change. However when we left Bristol the grey had returned and storm Freya was looming out in the Atlantic. Arriving in Lisbon to warm spring spring sunshine (21C) was just the ticket. On Saturday our first full day we took advantage of the lovely weather to take a walk east along the river Tagus towards Belém.

Much like Bristol, Lisbon’s old industrial waterfront has gradually been cleaned up and become a new leisure destination for the city. Cafes, bars and clubs replace warehouses and wharfs with families taking a stroll and tourists on foot, bike, roller blades and electric scooters replacing dock workers unloading cargo. The riverside walkway and cycle path runs for miles out to Belém and beyond. Along its path are a few cultural delights to please the passers by.

First is the Ponte 25 de Abril, originally opened in 1966 it was named the Salazar Bridge after Portugals military dictator, it was appropriately renamed in memory of the ‘carnation revolution’ that returned Portugal to civilian rule. In 1999 the bridge was strengthened and a second lower train deck was added. I know a motorway bridge isn’t your conventional tourist attraction but this one is pretty impressive as it soars high over your head with the traffic making a distinctive clatter as it passes over the metal carriageway. On the opposite side of the river the bridge is watched over by the statue of Christ the King.

Further long you come to the MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. A swooping white tile clad ‘space ship meets sea creature’ style building sits alongside a former power station. Both buildings now host exhibitions of contemporary art and design. The current offerings include a jaw-dropping display in the main oval exhibition gallery highlighting the problem of plastic waste. A ship sinking in a sea of plastic detritus – both suspended in mid air allowing you to view from above and walk below. Alongside this a ‘contemporary art installation’ of cardboard boxes and coloured paint – or as Michael put it ‘a load of shit’. An exhibition on robots and artificial intelligence and how they are taking over our lives, slightly chilling. A replica of ‘Little Boy’ the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and last but not least a wonderful installation in the old turbine hall that tells the story of the power plant, allowing you to walk through the old boiler and visualise the (grim) working conditions of poor sods who had to feed this fiery beast.

Our final destination on this perambulation was the delightful Torre de Belém, a 16th Century fortified tower built as part of the defence system to guard the Tagus river. The stone tower far exceeds its primary purpose as its solid stone battlements are adorned with the most beautiful decorative stonework. Pepper-pot turrets, candy twirl volume and delicate fret work balustrades adorn the tower. In the warm late afternoon sun, with the light shimmering on the blue waters of the Tagus, the tower was enchanting. It was a perfect way to end our stroll before we heading back to the centre on the tram – but not before grabbing a bag of roasted chestnuts (a traditional Portuguese winter street-food snack) to nibble on.

Blogging on again

It’s been quite a while since we holiday blogged. The addition to our family of first four legs, then another four somewhat cut short our long international cycle rides. First to arrive was Zoly our smooth haired Hungarian Vizsla, he was just 8 weeks old when he came to live with us (and stole our hearts) in late 2013. 

Jump forward four years and we decided to adopt Jojo a wire haired Vizsla. She’d had quite a life by the time she came to us – she’d been found on the street in Hungary with a nasty broken leg after what was believed to have been a hit and run car incident. She went through months of surgery and recovery all paid for by the amazing charity Vizsla Mentés before she was rehomed in the UK.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out for her in her new home so she was back with foster carers which, is when we met her and fell in love with her fury joy for life. When she came to live with us in January 2017 she was still only using three legs, but after two years of regular running to help rehabilitate her, this super dog is now powering on all four paws. 

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Zoly and Jojo make our family complete, but alas despite some attempts with a bike trailer (filled with lots of chicken) Zoly made it very clear he preferred to keep his paws firmly on the ground. So our dreams of cycling holidays with dogs happily watching the world pass by from the comfort of their bike trailers turned out to be just that, a dream. So instead of two wheel adventures we’ve discovered the joys of dog friendly campsites, and with the help of our wonderful dog walker/sitter Jake, re-kindled our mini-break trips to European cities. Which brings us neatly to Lisbon, where we’ve come to escape the grey and drizzle of early March in the UK.

As I’m sure you know Lisbon (or Lisboa as the locals say) is the capital of Portugal. As capital cities go, this one has got to be one of the most chilled out there is, it has a distinctly ‘shabby-chic’ feel about it, perfect for a chilled out weekend break. And for those of you who love their Eurovision facts (that’d be me then!) last year Lisbon hosted the 63rd Eurovision Song Contest following the countrie’s first ever win. Singer/songwriter Salvador Sobral won the 2017 edition in Kyiv with his song Amar Pelos Dois. Although Portugal had never won the contest before, it does have one rather unique Eurovision claim to fame. In 1974 Portugal’s entry “E depois do adeus” was used as the first of the two signals to launch the Carnation Revolution. So there you have it, Eurovision is revolutionary – fact.

Back on track

If you’ve not been on an overnight Stena Line ferry, you won’t have experienced the early morning wake-up call. It’s a bit surreal! At 5.30am the constant hum of the engine is interrupted by the playing of a whistling cover-version of the late-80s Bobby McFerrin hit: ‘Don’t worry, be happy’. Then announcements in Dutch and English let you know that breakfast is being served. After not much sleep it’s all a bit disorienting.

After breakfast it was time to rescue Zoly from the kennel. Mike took in his breakfast and when I arrive Zoly was spinning with excitement with his tail wagging at super-speed. He was clearly thrilled to be reunited with his dads. So breakfast didn’t get much of a sniff. Our arrival also caused a mass chorus of barking from the other dogs, which wasn’t helping to get Zoly to settle down to eat his breakfast either.

The foot passenger gangway at Harwich is being replaced, so we had to disembark on a clapped out old bus. We wondered why a new gangway wasn’t put in place before the old one was taken out – clearly another demonstration of the excellent British welcome. Another gem was the large tourist poster in the custom hall selling the delights of visiting Essex all ‘…in under an hour!’, who knew it would take so long?

Essex needs to change its ad agency

As usual these days, the customs officer hesitated somewhat about letting us cross the border back in to the UK – several times she very carefully examined Mike’s passport picture, then looked at his face then back at the passport – even holding it up to check the picture alongside Mike’s face. Losing patience, Mike explained that he’d lost lots of weight and that he went running with our dog. This seemed to work and we were allowed in.

The train journey from Harwich to London was uneventful – Zoly mostly snoozed (mostly on our laps). We walked from Liverpool Street over Tower Bridge and along the south bank of the Thames to Westminster. It was a beautiful morning and we wondered who will occupy City Hall next week – obviously we’re hoping it will be Sadiq Khan.

We had to catch the Underground at Westminster to get our train to Bristol from Paddington (we didn’t but that’s another story – but we did spot Dennis Skinner MP waiting on the platform). As the train arrived at Sloan Square the driver announced “This station has no working escalators, so anyone who cannot go upstairs should remain on this train until the next station: High Street Kensington”. There was a pause. Then the driver said: “Actually that isn’t going to work as there are no escalators at High Street Kensington either. Hmmm, you could cross over at High Street Kensington and get the train back again – but that means going up stairs too. I’m afraid you’re going to have to go up stairs”. These are the sort of announcements we’ve been missing in Holland. It felt good to be home!

Chip and pinch

I won’t be the only one watching my weight after this trip!

We’re on the ship and heading home as I write this. The train ride from Amsterdam went smoothly once Zoly had settled. I put his blanket on a seat and he dozed with his head on my lap and my arms wrapped around him. The train was quite full and the sight of a (large) snoozing dog caused much amusement. I couldn’t quite translate what they were saying in Dutch, but I suspect it was something along the lines of ‘what a big baby’ – the emphasis on big! Thankfully the journey was only just over an hour, so the circulation in my legs just about held up under the weight of Zoly.

Mike was wishing he’d paid a visit to the little boy’s room at Amsterdam station. An hour’s train journey was pushing his bladder to the limit and one misplaced paw would have been like the dykes bursting. As soon as we reached Hook van Holland Mike rushed off in one direction to use the facilities and I went the other way with Zoly to find the nearest bush. Once the boys had had their comfort breaks we made our way to check in.
The terminal building was pretty quiet – we guessed that not so many people catch the Monday evening ferry. As we wandered towards the check-in desk we were intercepted by a friendly Dutch women. It turned out she was the check in supervisor and had the job of checking in the dogs. She took Zoly’s pet passport and checked that he was who his passport said he was. She returned shortly afterwards with her scanning device to verify Zoly’s chip and when it bleeped he looked a little surprised! I did wonder if there is a reject bleep and whether people actually try and smuggle dogs through with false passports or even try to bring dogs in disguise through.

We took Zoly to the kennel and three of his room mates were already bedded down: a lovely golden Labrador who seemed very content. Next to the Labrador a collie and opposite these two was an Alsatian who was barking furiously. Zoly isn’t very comfortable with Alsatians and this wasn’t helping to settle Mike’s anxieties. “What if he barks all night?” “He won’t” I replied – trying to be reassuring. “How on earth do you know?” said Mike. This is the standard response I expect from Mike to most of my statements. This is what I got for marrying an academic – they always expect evidence-based answers to their questions. Zoly joined in with a bit of ‘twilight barking’ of his own and I’m grateful that Kennel TV (which was tuned in as soon as we found our cabin) doesn’t have sound.
To calm Mike a little, we went for a bowl of chips in the cafeteria. Comfort eating seemed to settle Mike a little. The trouble is that ‘moment on the lips’ will inevitably turn into comments about those chips ending up on my hips! After all the naughty holiday treats we’ve been tucking into, there will be more than an inch to pinch before long. I resolve that the bad eating stops here (well after we’ve finished off the marzipan chocolate bar).

Into the woods

The gardens at Keukenhof were an expected delight, but the unexpected pleasure of this trip has been the Keukenhof Forrest. Located just over the road from the gardens (but totally unconnected) the forest is a beautiful tranquil beech woodland with several well marked trails.
We walked Zoly in the Forrest every day of our trip here. Although the signs says ‘dogs on leads’ we followed the local dog owners and let Zoly off to roam free, he loved it. The sandy soil meant that there wasn’t a lot of woodland plants, just lots of leaf matter – perfect for sniffing and zooming in, sending leaves flying in all directions.

Where’s Zoly? A whole wood to himself

On each of our visits we barely saw more than a couple of other people in the wood, it felt like it was Zoly’s private playground and he loved it. Sticks were thrown, holes were dug and plenty of marks were left.
The Forrest was also a great haven for wildlife, we saw rabbits and lots birds. There was a very active woodpecker pecking away but the most impressive resident was the stork who had made its nest high in the canopy and was sat guarding its content, hoping for a special delivery very soon.

Special delivery coming soon

Zoly’s favourite part of the wood was the hollow where the soil gave way to pure sand. It was a bit like s beach in the middle of the Forrest. Zoly loves the feel of sand under his paws so as soon as he reached the sound he went crazy, leaping, bounding and digging. It’s a joy to watch him enjoy such simple pleasures. Maybe I need to get him his own sandpit at home so it can be like viz-vacation every day!

From tulips to Amsterdam

Today was an odd day. We split it between Lisse and Amsterdam. We’d never been to Amsterdam together and since the first monument to the gay victims of the Holocaust is in Amsterdam – near to Ann Franks’ house – it felt like a good reason to go and see it. We could also take the train from Amsterdam straight back to Shiedam, where we can change for Hoek van Holland and on to the overnight ferry. We weren’t sure whether it would be possible to exercise Zoly very much in Amsterdam so Matthew suggested visiting the botanical gardens in Lisse.

The fire alarm went off at the hotel at about 6:00am (a false alarm, but everyone was out in the street in their nightwear), so we were up and about quite early. We wandered around Lisse and it took a while to find the gardens – it seemed to be hidden out beyond the suburbs and when we eventually found them on the outskirts of town, they were closed! Still, we did happen upon a rather nice thatched windmill.


As we weren’t in a hurry we had plenty of time for one last circuit of Keukenhof forest before getting the bus the Haarlem (a beautiful city – we must go back to explore) and then the short train ride to Amsterdam.


Walking through the narrow streets near Amsterdam station was a bit nerve-wracking and a a little unpleasant with Zoly because the streets were so crowded and also because so many people were smoking (and not all of them tobacco, this being Amsterdam). It’s curious how quickly we’ve become used to smoke-free public spaces in the UK.

On our way to the homomonument my sister Lisa called – she’d finished the Milton Keynes marathon – only her second – in a London marathon good for age qualifying time of 3:48:33. This despite the fact that she lost a few minutes after tripping over a tree root and falling at about 14 miles in. I’m so proud of her – and hopefully this means that both she and me will be running in London next year. Can’t wait!

The monument was good to visit – I worried a bit that people were sitting on it and picnicking, perhaps without realising what it was or its significance. It’s a pink granite triangle that steps down and juts out into the canal. But maybe it’s fitting that it’s enjoyed as well as being serious.


The Olympic stadium was lovely, but also closed! We did a quick circuit and then there was time to visit Vondelpark – built in 1865 and named after a 17th-century playwright and poet. The park is fantastic – long and narrow, with hundreds of runners and cyclists. It was lovely to walk through with Zoly off his lead after the streets of Amsterdam. There were lots of other dogs to meet and greet, lakes and fountains, an outdoor gym, open air theatre and lovely little cafés all over. Zoly had been so good today that we treated him to an ice cream while we had a picnic and wrote postcards.


We’d done quite a bit of walking around today by now, so we took a tram back to Centraal Station for the train back to Hoek van Holland. Zoly and Matthew were both very tired.