Thursday 28 June 2012

Sao Miguel, Azores - The green island

A short visit to family in Lisbon, and soon I was on my way to Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Archipelago of the Azores, comprising of 9 islands.
I just visited the island of Sao Miguel, as this is the island where my husband was born and brought up until the age of 5, and where his youngest brother and his maternal uncles still live.
It had been 8 years since I last visited and I could see the changes in the city, in the way of new construction and new roads that have enhanced the island.
Maybe because they aren´t very well known and still not invaded by the tourists, the islands of the Azores are still very much a natural paradise.
(Note the Lagoons of Fire and Furnas in the centre of the island)
Ponta Delgada is the capital of the island of São Miguel, (the biggest island), with museums, monuments, streets with history, hotels, restaurants and shops. There is a newish marina with a variety of restaurants - "Portas do Mar" (sea doors), visited by sailing boats from Europe and America.
Portas do Mar - the marina in Ponta Delgada
There are lagoons surrounded by lots of greenery, valleys and mountains, country roads bordered by agapanthus and hydrangeas, basalt covered houses with green doors and window frames, and in some places the warm vapour of the old vulcanic craters remind you of the island´s vulcanic origin.  The beaches have black sand and the sea water is cold, so venture at your peril.

Lagoa do Fogo (Fire lagoon - a former crater)
Miradouro de Santa Iria (lookout)
Lagoa - Pools, church and village
Ribeira Grande - river and garden
The islanders are very religious and there are many processions and pilgrimages to the various Saints, especially during the summer months.

The islands traditional dishes are based on the fresh fish caught on the day (try the Tuna steak), the tender meat of the cows that graze on the green slopes, the Conventual desserts and the flavoursome pineapples the island exports.

Succulent Tuna Steak with boiled potatoes and Salad

The most tender and delicious steak I have eaten! It was only 1/2 dose but I couldn´t finish it.

Try also the delicious Passionfruit liquor and visit the only tea plantation in Europe - Gorreana Tea Factory - that produces about 40 tonnes of tea leaves. The black teas they produce are: Orange Pekoe, Broken Leaf and Pekoe, and the only green tea is: Hysson.

If you visit "Furnas", a town and lake in the east side of the island, the volcanic nature of the island is quite apparent. The "caldeiras" (hot springs) have for centuries been used to cook the "cozido (stew) using the steam coming out of the earth around the lake. Try the various mineral waters that flow from various fountains scattered around the town centre, each with a different taste. Sample also the corn boiled in the steaming pools and taste the sweet flat bread called "Bolos Lêvedos". Visit the Terra Nostra Park, a very lush botanic garden with tropical exotic species, as well as plants from cold climates.

The hot springs at Furnas - don´t touch the water, it is really boiling...
The lake at Furnas
At Furnas we went swimming at Dona Beija´s Pools, thermal pools with ferrous waters at a temperature of 30ºC. What a delight, the gardens and 3 small pools are very well cared for and the surroundings are beautiful.

Dona Beija Pools - you can see the ferrous water in the river

Dona Beija Pools - Furnas

If you enjoy sailing, diving, surfing, fishing, golf or tennis, there are plenty of opportunities for you to practice your sport.
Visit the craft shops and have a look at their handiwork  - miniatures made with fish scale or fig tree kernels, blue and white ceramics, hand loomed bedspreads, embroidered tablecloths and others in the traditional blue colours.

Visiting the Azores is to rediscover part of the original paradise. Where man and nature have joined hands to create eternal beauty.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and feel that the islands have a lot to offer the tourists, things they cannot find anywhere else...and there is something different in all of the 9 islands.

Flowers made with fish scales
Miniature windmills made with fig tree kernels from:

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Lisbon - first impressions

My trip from Braga to Lisbon was done in the very comfortable Alfa Pendular, the high velocity (up to 220km/h) train that crosses Portugal from Braga in the north to Faro in the south. 
Due to the fact I had 2 suitcases I decided to travel First class, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience - the seats recline, you are offered a magazine or newspaper to read; tea, free coffee or juice to drink. If you feel hungry you can order a meal if you wish or get something from the restaurant car.
Upon arrival in Lisbon at Gare do Oriente (Orient train station), my brother in law was there to welcome me and take my luggage back to his nearby office, and then I had 2 hours to wander around the area, before he was ready to get a lift to Cascais with him, where my sister and parents live.

The interesting Gare do Oriente(Orient train station) with the "palm tree roof"
Vasco da Gama shopping with a very interesting building behind resembling a ship
The 2 "ship like" apartment buildings with the shopping in the centre
I walked across the staion through the Vasco da Gama shopping centre, and into the former 1998 Expo grounds, now known as "Parque das Nações" (Nations Park) that adjoin the river Tagus. Although the pavilions of the various countries are no longer there, the emblematic Portuguese pavilion is there for posterity, as well as some of the other features built at the time, such as the Cable car, the Oceanarium - one of Europe´s most modern that receives 1 million visitors a year, etc.
It´s quite enjoyable to walk by the river or just sit at one of the cafe´s and sip a cold drink while watching the world go by.

The Portuguese Pavilion
The imponent concret slab linking the two sides of the pavilion
Gil - the mascot of the 1998 world exposition still stands tall
Vasco da Gama tower and cable cars by the river Tagus that is crossed by the 12km Vasco da Gama Bridge.
If you visit Lisbon do not miss this area. It used to be a derelict industrial area that was torn down and built from scratch and is now a very important and much loved area of the city. I had visited this area during the 1998 exposition and a few times after, but I think it has been about 7 or 8 years since I last visited it, and I enjoyed spending 2 relaxing hours walking around the area. It's also a great outdoor area for children.
One of the many "lava" fountains much loved by the kids. Behind the new Lisbon Casino

Sunday 17 June 2012

Braga - the Portuguese Rome

I'm now in Portuguese soil. On the 11th June, I flew from Marseille to Porto in the north of Portugal, to visit a good friend who lives in Braga, about 50km from Porto.
Braga was founded by the Romans over 2000 years ago, and is considered the "Heart of Minho" (one of the 11 Provinces of Portugal) or  "the Portuguese Rome", due to its many churches, squares and Baroque architecture.
It´s a city full of culture, history and traditions, but at the same time quite modern with it´s technological industry and universities.

Sadly I won´t be present for the festivities of St.John, to be celebrated on the 23rd June, for which Braga is renowned for. These are said to have been celebrated since 1515. The main avenue in the city (Avenida da Liberdade - "Liberty Avenue") is filled to the brim with people who walk up and down to the aroma of Basil and sound of music, and who "hit" each other on the head with plastic hammers, that substituted the former leeks.  
Already at the time of my visit, this avenue was full of little stands where everything is sold - from clothing to watches, jewellery and loads of little things that nobody needs!
There are also stands selling food and drink - the famous grilled sardines with corn bread (broa), roasted lamb, or the typical Portuguese soup made with Cale (Caldo verde), not forgetting the delicious fritters or churros with or without fillings. So forget the diet and enjoy yourself if you happen to visit Braga at this time of year!!
Make sure you visit the most emblematic monuments of Braga - Bom Jesus - a church atop a hill from where you have a great view of the town below. The whole area is very clean and the gardens are well taken care of, so it´s a delightful place to walk around and enjoy the views. There are hotels, restaurants and cafes in the area as well.
Bom Jesus de Braga

Another view of Bom Jesus de Braga

You can ride the funicular from the top to the bottom, 100mt below or vice-versa. It was built in 1840, and at the moment the oldest in the world, still in operation.

Inside the beautiful church
The grotto and lovely gardens at Bom Jesus

Friday 15 June 2012

France 5 - Aix en Provence - another great experience!

June 2012
On Saturday, 9th June, my daughter and I set out to Aix-en-Provence, about 50km inland from Martigues, where my daughter lives.
The city is totally different from Marseille just 32km away, in fact it's as if they were in two different countries. Aix is very upmarket and expensive, the buildings are just a few floors high, all in the traditional pastel colours of Provence, but a very clean and tidy city, unlike Marseille.

We wanted to do a tourist bus tour of the town, but unfortunately on that day they weren't working. So we did the next best thing - we had seen these tiny 7 passenger buses driving around the narrow inner city roads - and we hopped on one of them. They are even allowed on the pedestrian only lanes.

The tiny mini buses that have 3 routes around the town

We paid our 50cent fare, which entitles passengers to 1hour travel, and took Route A. The passengers are allowed to climb in and out anywhere along that route, the buses come along every 10 minutes, and this facilitates people doing their shopping and then being dropped close to their residence. Back in the city centre, as our ticket was still valid for another half an hour, we climbed on another mini-bus and did Route B. It was a very cheap way to see part of the city, without a tourist commentary though...

Beautiful wrought iron work atop this church tower

 On Saturdays they hold various markets in the historical centre and we visited 3 of them - flower market, fresh food market (fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat) and a clothing market.
The riot of smells and colours is amazing and you just want to buy the lot. The fruit was good and cheap and I found a great variety of flowers and plants, also very cheap, comparing to Australian prices of course.

Don´t you love the dotted colourful tablecloths?

Flower market

Apricots, strawberries and cherries everywhere!

Uhmm, the cheeses...

Spices galore, the smell was great!

Aix-en-Provence was the birthplace of Paul Cezanne, and where he lived after studying Fine arts in Paris. There are a few tours to visit his place of residence and art museums, but we were there just for a few hours, so had no time to do any of the cultural tours. 
The gardens around Aix are also quite pretty and there are a lot of mansions with gardens that can be visited.

France 4 - Castles and Ochre sands-Lourmarin and Roussillon

June 2012
An hour and a half drive from Martigues, through vineyards and poppy fields, the winding roads take us via Lourmarin where we decide to stop to visit a castle close to the road. 
The castle was built in the 15th-16th century, but fell into ruins and in 1921 was bought and restaured by a rich manufacturer from Lyon - Robert Laurent-Vibert. He then died in a car accident in 1925 and the castle was donated in his will to the "Académie des Belles Lettres d'Aix", so that a cultural and artistic centre could be created.

Nowadays it can be visited daily and there are some scheduled concerts and art shows.
I was impressed that they had an English flyer to aid the visit and in each room there were also English and German explanations regarding the style and furniture in each room.
The area is knows as the home of a famous British writer - Peter Mayle.
One of his books "A year in Provence" was made into a tv series and a film. This was about a British expatriate who settled in Ménerbes (about 14km away). Another of his books "A good year" starring Russell Crowe, was also filmed nearby, and as a result these villages which were in the lesser known parts of Provence, have now became better known in the English speaking world.
This village is also part of the prettiest 200 villages in France.

Lourmarin Castle and lovely garden

The courtyard. To the left on this floor is a library

After our visit we were on our way to Roussillon, 25 km away. On the way a few fruit vendors had stands along the roads and we stopped to buy cherries! They were delicious and my daughter and I ate almost the whole container.

Who could have imagined France also had a region with red soil, just like the northern areas of Australia?
The only difference is - Australia doesn't have a cute village like Roussilon with all the old buildings and monuments.
The village of Roussillon, one of the 200 prettiest villages of France, is situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world.
All around abound red cliffs in various tonalities, the houses and roofs also in the same tones. You can pay 2€ and walk around the former quarry on a short or long trail.
Then walk around the village, climb up to the walled fortress area where you can see some cute houses, plenty of restaurants and very interesting shops. If you are a painter, you can buy paint pigments in various colours made from the red earth.

The fortress walls in Roussillon
A very narrow staircase to the clock tower
A quaint shop and house within the fortress walls
View from the fortress
Certainly a worthwhile visit!
So if you are in this area of Provence take a drive to these cute villages...and if you go in summer make sure you buy some fresh cherries or strawberries from the fruit vendors, so delicious...