Archives for July 2017

Porto, Portugal: Tiles and Wine and Other Things Fine

If you have a thing for tiles on the walls and on the floors, love Port wine, or are a foodie, then this is the place for you. Porto, or Oporto as the locals call it, is a modern city with iconic building facades and dynamic gastronomy.

It is like the San Francisco of Portugal and the Douro Valley is its Napa. As a matter of fact, Porto’s historic area was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. In 2001, its wine region, the Alto Douro Wine Region, was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage.

Port wine, that sweet, red dessert wine, is a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley. It is the literal reason why most people come to Porto. The Douro Wine Region Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

Unfortunately, we only had one day to spend in Porto. We woke up early in the morning and took a 30 minute flight from Lisbon to Porto (you can also take a 2.5 to 3 hour train from Lisbon). Because of our tight time frame, we did not have a chance to visit the Douro Valley.  If you have more time, I recommend an overnight in Porto so that you have at least one full day to visit the city and an overnight in the Douro Valley so that you have another full day to visit the region and do proper wine tastings.

We were met by Sara of Oporto & Douro Moments who would be out guide for a whirlwind of a day in Porto. Sara specializes in the Douro Valley and is native to Porto.

Despite that we would not have a chance to visit Douro with her, Sara made sure that we still experienced the heart of Porto – Port Wine. So, our first stop was Vila Nova de Gaia (or Gaia as it is locally know), which is just across the river from Porto, over the Dom Luís I Bridge, a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, you know, the Eiffel Tower guy. In Gaia is where most of the Port wineries have set up shop outside of the Douro Valley. We visited Pocas Junior.

We took a private tour and learned all about the history and tradition of port wine.They still use the traditional method of cleaning their wine storage units, which means that someone who is small enough to fit in this hole, climbs in and cleans by hand.  They have one dedicated employee for this task! They also have one dedicated employee who hand-makes their wine barrels at this on-site workshop.

Um, are these not the literal largest wine barrels you have ever seen in your entire life?  Apparently, at their Douro Valley location, they have even bigger ones! After tasting several varieties of port, including a port rose (there is such a thing and it is splendid!), we were in need of some food, so we headed back over the bridge to sink our teeth into a sandwich for which Porto is famous: the Francesinha (the Little Frenchie).

There is NOTHING little about this sandwich. The name is kind of comical, actually. One sandwich is enough for two people. Oh, and don’t even bother putting this one in your calories app.  I am pretty sure you will break the damn thing. Just know that you are going to need to up your steps after this one, which is fine because Porto is all hills anyway and calories don’t count on vacation.

Okay, back to the sandwich that gave me a mini panic attack: in between two very thick slices of white bread, you will find cured ham, two different kinds of sausage,  and steak. The sandwich is then covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. And, because there isn’t enough protein in the sandwich, it is topped with a fried egg.  And served with french fries. Take that McDonald’s! I see your Big Mac and raise you the Little Frenchie!

So. Much. Meat.

Okay, so after all that eating, it was time to walk. We walked all over the city admiring the amazing tiled buildings. We even went to a tile museum, kind of.  This place is a government owned and operated tile cooperative. While it does display all of Porto’s traditional tiles, it also supplies tile. So, if you have building that has traditional tile, and you are missing a few pieces, you come in, they verify that you are legit (as in you own the building and you are restoring it), and then they just give you the tile. As in, for free. They will also take tile if you are remodeling and getting rid of the tile (why you would ever do that is beyond me). They will not, however, sell you tile (trust me, I tried). We also visited some of Porto’s most famous food shops. These are legit shops that sell traditional Portuguese products. The most famous among them is A Perola Do Bolhao, open since 1917, and Comer e Chorar Por Mais, also in operation for over 100 years.

Now, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you are going to want to come to Porto. It is in Porto where the author, J.K. Rowling, got inspiration for her series. She apparently split her time between a little cafe, Café Majestic, and the oldest and most beautiful bookstore in the world, the Lello Bookstore, also known as Livraria Lello & Irmão.  Rowling frequented the bookstore when she taught English in Porto. The Lello Bookstore was built in 1906 by the Lello Brothers.

This was her cafe of choice:

And this is the bookstore.  The photo of the facade is mine, but the photos of the inside are courtesy of Mr. Google because there is a huge line to get in. This bookstore has become so popular that they actually charges 4 Euro per person to enter; but, if you buy a book, that is credited towards your purchase.

After all that walking in the heat, it was time for a little treat: Portugal’s famous Santini gelato! Some call it the best in the world.  It has been a staple in Portugal for more than 60 years, ever since an Italian named Attilio Santini set up shop in Estoril, Portugal.  With over 50 flavors made fresh daily, you are going to want to make more than one stop here!Alas, our day in Porto was coming to an end. We headed back to the airport with full bellies and achy feet; but it was worth every minute (and every calorie)!

Sintra, Portugal: An Enchanting Fairytale Land

I have a confession to make. Prior to planning my trip to Portugal, I did not even know that Sintra existed. Sintra may just be Portugal’s best kept secret.  Sintra, I learned, is a popular day-trip from Lisbon. It is just a 30 to 40 minute drive from Lisbon. Or, you can take a 30 minute train from Lisbon’s Rossio station to Sintra station.

Since it was our first time to Sintra, we decided to explore this magical little place with Sintra Magik Private Tours. Out guide, Diogo, was fantastic! He is a Portuguese historian and filmmaker.  He is patient, unconcerned with the clock, and 100% focused on your interests. He is a wealth of information about Portugal, and he really made Sintra come alive for us.  He took us to secret little spots and planned our tour so that we would always be running opposite the schedules of the big group tour buses.

To say that Sintra is picturesque is an understatement.  It is downright enchanting.  It is up on a hill, so it is cooler than Lisbon.  And, it has a seemingly endless number of castles to explore.

The most popular of the castles is Pena Palace. The palace stands on the top of a hill in the Sintra Mountains above the town of Sintra. Pena Palace is the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal. Its color and tile work make it a breathtaking site. This was our first stop in Sintra. We got there right as the doors opened and were the first in line to buy tickets.

Exploring Pena Palace sans crowds makes this spectacular palace even more magical. The palace is surrounded by Pena Park.

You have two options to reach the palace.  You can stroll through the park, which is slightly uphill and takes about 10 minutes of walking. Or, you can pay 2 EU per person and be driven up on a trolley. We opted for the short and picturesque hike.

The views as you approach the palace from below are incredible. The palace, lording over you from above (as you approach on the footpath below), is so striking that it doesn’t even look real.

We made our way through the impressive stone entrance, and then Diogo guided us through the part of the palace from which you would normally exit. This gave us a chance to see the entire palace complex with NO other people around. 

We next explored the outer grounds of the palace. The color and stone and tile detailing of the exterior of this palace are truly breathtaking. Seriously, pictures do not do it justice. 

But don’t think that all the eye candy is just on the exterior.  The interior of this palace is equally as impressive. 

You can also walk around the palace complex using exterior walkways and get some incredible views of Sintra and the Sintra Mountains, including views of the Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle), which pre-dates the Pena Palace by about 1,000 years.

We left the palace just as throngs of tour groups started filing in, and we headed back to Sintra’s town center to do some exploring. First, stop – snack time! We stopped at this little cafe, the oldest and most popular in the region to try the local queijadas, Sintra’s version of a pastel de nata (the ubiquitous Portuguese custard tart) made with a sweet cheese filling.

Sit inside by the window to enjoy a fantastic view.

The little town of Sintra is so charming, with darling cobbled streets that are lined with shops and cafes. After our brief snack stop, we made our way to the National Palace of Sintra, situated in the heart of Sintra.

We spent the remainder of our time exploring the shops, streets, and corners of this beautiful little city.

Diogo suggested that we head to the coast for lunch so that we can eat at an authentic Portuguese family-owned restaurant and visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost part of mainland Portugal and continental Europe.

Next, Diogo took us to a secret spot that I promised him I would not identify in this post where we had the landscape and beautiful views all to ourselves!

We ended our day in the beautiful seaside city of Cascais.

Honestly, our day trip to Sintra was my favorite part of our Portugal visit. But, I left Sintra feeling like I really just scratched the surface. To really appreciate Sintra, I think you need to stay here for at least one night, but probably two nights. There were so many sites that we did not get to explore, like The Quinta Regaleira, which has this beautiful spiral and courtyard inside (courtesy of Mr. Google):There are some beautiful properties to choose from for an overnight stay.  You can go wine tasting in this region, and, I am told that once the day-trippers leave, Sintra becomes a different place, and the sites stay open to allow the people staying there to enjoy them without the crowds.

This website offered a helpful three-day itinerary for Sintra:

sights of sintra portugal

If you find yourself in Portugal, make it a point to visit (and stay) in Sintra.  It is well-worth your time. Obrigado and Viagens Felizes!

Rhodes, Greece: The Island Of The Knights

Rhodes is often overlooked on most people’s Greece itinerary because it’s one of the furthest islands away from the mainland. Also, Rhodes doesn’t have the hype that Santorini and Mykonos have. Most people, especially first-timers to Greece, flock to these touristy islands for the sunsets, white washed buildings, blue domes, and the windmills.

Don’t get me wrong, both Sanotrini and Mykonos, like all of Greece’s islands, are beautiful. But, in my opinion, they lack the authenticity of the Greek culture.  They are  expensive and overrun with tourists and the dreaded cruise boats. Rhodes, on the other hand, is less crowded, more affordable, and, in my opinion, more interesting. It is also a photographer’s dream! Allow me to introduce you to this little gem.

If you read this blog, you already know that I am Greek and that Chad and I visit Greece at least once a year because my dad lives on the island of Crete. Every time we go to Greece, we try to visit new places and new islands in Greece. This year, Rhodes was at the top of our list.

Rhodes is part  and also the capital of the Dodecanese, “The Twelve Islands” (which is a misleading name because the Dodecanese are actually made up of 15 larger islands plus 150 smaller  islands in the southeastern Aegean Sea). It is the largest of these islands. Rhodes is most famous  for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Medieval Old Town of the City of Rhodes has been declared a World Heritage Site. In fact, the Old Town is surrounded by a huge, intact, wall, and there is even a castle!  It’s very A Knight’s Tale; and, even more importantly, it has a look and feel unlike anywhere else you’ll experience in Greece.

Rhodes has a long and rich history. Suffice it to say, there were many things that attracted to us to Rhodes. To get to Rhodes, you can take a very long ferry from Athens or Thessaloniki or you could take an less than an hour flight. I’ll let you guess which option we chose and which we recommend you do as well.
We chose to stay in the Old Town of Rhodes. Old Town is surrounded by medieval walls with seven “gates” (Gate of the Naval Station, Gate of Agios Ioannis, Gate of Agia Ekaterini, Gate of the Apostle Paul, Gate of Amboise, Gate of Agios Athanassios and the Gate of the Port). Today, the gates are the seven entry points into the Old Town. When you enter these gates, you feel as if you have entered another world. I am so glad we chose to stay in the Old Town. It was truly enchanting and much more charming than staying at one of the huge beach resorts in the modern city. You literally feel as though you have entered some sort of enchanted land.

We stayed at a small boutique hotel called Kokkini Porta Rosa (which loosely translates into  the red door) in the Old Town. Now, this is NOT a sponsored post, but I love this hotel (it’s really more of a guest house than a hotel) and its owners (who were just the loveliest, warmest, and most interesting couple) so much that I am going to dedicate part of my post about Rhodes to this fantastic gem because I think this hotel really colored our view of Rhodes in the most positive of ways.

This hotel is a model for what hotels should be. In a world that has become so impersonal, Angela and Nikos, the owners (who have lovingly restored an old home, while staying true to its history), break the mold and have truly created a home away from home.

Every single guest of their small five-suite hotel is treated like family. Angela and Nikos pay the utmost attention to detail. This little hotel is luxury and service re-defined, from the moment you walk in until the moment you check out, with homemade gift in hand.

First, there is no such thing as a bad room.  All the rooms are breathtaking. They are large, they are beautifully appointed with the couple’s own hand-selected furnishings from around the world.  The rooms have every comfort you could ask for, including a pillow menu, luxurious local, organic bath products, and a fully stocked mini bar that is FREE in every room for every guest for your entire stay. You read that right- the mini bar is FREE. Everything in it is FREE! And, there are A LOT of choices, which are replenished daily. Also, the Wi-Fi is strong! Angela and Nikos have anticipated your every need. They literally have thought of every single little detail. Each room comes with a fully stocked beach bag that includes towels, mats, and bottled water.

Also, every single room is assigned a tablet that is pre-loaded and customized to each guest every single day of your stay. Your tablet will have maps, itineraries, places of interest, and restaurants, which are hand-selected by Nikos every day for every single guest based on what you tell him that you are interested in.

The tablet acts as a GPS (which is helpful in the maze-like roads of the Old Town), and a means to communicate directly with Nikos and Angela from anywhere on the island. If you book directly with them, your room comes with a free car rental on a day of your choosing so that you can leave the Old Town and explore other areas of Rhodes, like Lindos.

Every day when you return, Angela and Nikos are there to greet you with a drink in hand and snacks. Every evening, they leave out a full array of cocktails for you to enjoy before or after dinner, including Angela’s homemade limoncello, which is literally the best I have ever had.  Ever. Including the ones we tried in Italy. Even in Positano. Breakfast is included with your room, and you would be a fool to miss it. It is literally the best breakfast I have ever had at a hotel, and Chad and I have stayed at some VERY nice hotels all over the world. Angela serves up a three-course, homemade breakfast. First, she brings you a French pressed coffee or a hand-squeezed juice (all of which are amazing) and an array of bread with homemade jams (which are also amazing).

Your first course will be something sweet and something savory from the local cuisine. This selection will change every day. Your second course is Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and bee pollen and/or honey. Finally, she will cook your eggs to order.

The presentation is beautiful, the food is delicious, and by the second morning, Angela has your preferences committed to memory. Oh, did I mention that your breakfast is taken in the garden oasis featured above? Also, the hotel is located in a quiet residential district, so there is no noise from cars, bars, restaurants and people, but it is walking distance from all the action.Here’s the best part: this hotel is affordable, especially when you consider what you are getting (breakfast, fully stocked mini bar, daily cocktails, car rental, etc.) and compared to the other options on the island. Hell, even if the hotel was a splurge, I’d spend it! Nikos is a wealth of information about the island, and both Nikos and Angela are truly passionate about what they do, which translates into the guest experience.  Everyone on the island knows them and their hotel. I am quite confident when I say that you will never again stay a hotel that is quite like this one.  I dream about this hotel and coming back. Hats off to Angela and Nikos for creating the ultimate guest experience. If you go (and, I truly insist that you do), please let Angela and Nikos know that I sent you.

After we were done swooning over the hotel, we spent our first full day wandering around the Old Town and taking in all of the beautiful little corners of this charming town. By the way, if you are into doors and floors, then hold on to your britches, because Old Town Rhodes is an assault of charm in the door and floor department. The ancient mosaic stone work on the floors is incredible! And, the doors…I died! On Angela and Nikos’s suggestion (which, by the way, were always spot on), we stopped to eat lunch at this amazing little restaurant and loved the food so much that we came back again, which is VERY rare for us, as we try to eat at as many different places as possible. After lunch, we decided to explore the area outside of the Old Town wall. On our second day, we hired Nick of Rhodes Private Tax Tours to give us a tour of the Rhodes outside of the Old Town and to take us to Lindos to visit the famous Acropolis of Lindos.

Lindos is a resort town with a small (touristy) village at its center, which is pedestrian only.  The village gets pretty crowded as does the Acropolis of Lindos, but it is well worth a visit. I would recommend spending an entire day here so you can go to the Acropolis as early as possible and then have time to explore the little village. You can also overnight in Lindos if you want to enjoy the beach.

However, before we left for Lindos, Nick showed us one of the places where the Colossus of Rhodes was thought to have stood. The Colossus of Rhodes was an enormous statue depicting the city’s patron god, Helios (the god of the sun).  Many believe that this wonder of  the ancient world stood in Mandraki Harbour, and there are rumors that a fundraising effort is underway so that an architect can build a new monument, albeit one five times larger than the original, to straddle the entrance of this harbor. However, there are some theories that because this monument was so important, it did not actually stand at the harbor, but at the Acropolis of Rhodes Lindos is a cute little village that has many shops and small, but stunning churches to explore before you make your way up to the Acropolis of Lindos, a climb that includes several hundred stairs of various heights with no guardrails.  Not to worry, it is totally do-able (if you are wearing the right shoes), the views are incredible, and there are donkeys to assist.

The irony of a Greek bank building being used to store donkey is not lost on me. This is just ripe for Greek financial crisis jokes…like the only ASSets being stored in Greek banks this year…but that’s not funny. I mean, it kind of is, but not really.

I wish we had a little more time to explore this village, but it was pouring that day, so as soon as the sun came out, we hiked up to the Acropolis!

And the views from the Acropolis of Lindos are not too shabby:After Lindos, Nick took us to the cutest little beach side taverna for lunch (which had the most INCREDIBLE views) before we set off to explore other sites around the island, including Filerimos, monastery is dedicated to Virgin Mary that has monuments of the seven stations of the cross and  is overrun with friendly peacocks, and Anthony Quinn Bay, which is a beautiful little bay riddled with controversy and drama. 

Filerimos:

Anthony Quinn Bay:On our third day on the island, we took advantage of the free rental car that came with our room and took to the roads with our tablet to explore other points of interest, such as the Castle of Monolithos, Profitis IliasAncient Kamiros, and the Seven Springs (Epta Piges). Also, in the right season, you can also visit the Valley of the Butterflies. Rhodes is a fairly flat island, so it is easy to drive and navigate. I would highly recommend renting a car for a day or two to do some independent exploring.

Monolithos: Ancient Kamiros: Seven Springs:

Make sure the water is running at the springs before you go because when we went, the water had dried up, so this lovely shot is courtesy of Mr. Google!On our last day, we stayed in the Old Town and visited the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. We also walked through the moat, which was kind of cool because you see the Old Town above you and there are a few little nooks to explore.  And, we walked on top of the medieval wall, which had fantastic views of the Old Town below, and the exist was literally in front of our hotel!  Finally, we visited the archaeological museum.

Moat:

Palace:

Medieval wall:

 

Museum:

There are several day trips you can take from Rhodes, including trips to Symi,  Kastellorizo, Alimia, and Chalki Islands. You can also visit Turkey for the day from Rhodes! We didn’t have time to do any day trips on this visit. We do, however, plan to come back to Rhodes to explore more of the island (but really to stay at Kokkini Porta Rosa again) and to visit some of the neighboring islands. Second to Crete, Rhodes is my favorite island in Greece. Add this little medieval gem to your bucket-list.  I promise it will not disappoint!