castles

Sintra, the land of Portuguese Castles

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Just a short train ride from Lisbon, the charming town of Sintra makes for a perfect day trip and a great way to escape the hustle-bustle of the city. Sintra itself is a small, charming little town but the main highlights are the castles in which the town and surrounding area is literally filled! It's like being in a fairytale and you don't even have to venture too far to experience it. If you've rented a car, the drive from Lisbon is only about 30min or it is about 45min by train. Just take the Linha de Sintra from Lisboa Rossio station to the end of the line which is Sintra station and you're there. Regardless of how you get there, it is a must see, so plan accordingly! Here is what you should see and do while you're there:

Palácio da Pena - A colorful palace adorned with azulejos and perched on a hill with wonderful views. Highly recommend purchasing tickets to see this amazing place. Perhaps THE highlight in all of Sintra and my absolute favorite.

Castelo dos Mouros - A moorish-style fortress with views of the sea. Also a popular one to visit and you feel like you've taken a step back in time to the days of knights in shining armor. 

Parque das Merendas - A lovely park full of trails through what feels like an enchanted forest. Forego the taxi to Pena Palace or the Moorish Castle and instead take these trails. Quite the little workout since it is mostly going uphill but not too rigorous. Enter the park from the street called Estrada da Pena.

Sintra Town - A charming little place with cobblestone streets and cute shops, restaurants and cafes. From the train station, about a 7-10min walk. Can get pretty lively and worth a stroll through. 

Queijadas da Sapa - What's a day in Portugal without having the local pastry? Lisbon may have pasteis de nata, but Sintra has these delectable cheesecake-like tarts. You can't go wrong with the traditional and almond flavors from Fabrica das Verdadeiras so be sure to stop in.

A full day in Sintra should be sufficient to see the highlights but if you want to see more than 2 castles, I'd recommend staying overnight in the lux but surprisingly moderately priced Ritz Carlton Penha Longa Resort located in an old royal monastery just outside town in the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais. Boa viagem!

The town of Sintra

The town of Sintra

City Hall of Sintra

City Hall of Sintra

Fonte dos Mouros

Fonte dos Mouros

Entrance

Entrance

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

The walk up to Pena Palace via Parque das Merendas

The walk up to Pena Palace via Parque das Merendas

Palácio da Pena

Palácio da Pena

View from Pena Palace...the clouds are crazy!

View from Pena Palace...the clouds are crazy!

Exploring the grounds of Pena Palace

Exploring the grounds of Pena Palace

Parque das Merendas

Parque das Merendas

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Path to the Palace

Path to the Palace

Entrance to Pena Palace...crazy detail!

Entrance to Pena Palace...crazy detail!

Ireland Day 4: Dingle & Limerick

Last but not least on the whirlwind tour of Southwestern Ireland is the Dingle Peninsula and the city of Limerick. On our last day, we headed northwest from Killarney (read about it in my last post) and after driving only about a half-hour we were on the must-see Dingle Peninsula. We spent most of the day exploring here but decided to rest our heads closer to Shannon Airport, in Limerick, where we had an early flight home the following day. Here's a recap of these two areas with my recommendations:

DINGLE PENINSULA

Located on the westernmost tip of Ireland, this area is as far as you can get in Europe before reaching the States. On the coast here, the ocean and the beaches, which are great for surfing, are the star attraction rather than cliffs and therefore it has a very seaside-village feel with lots of (green) Irish culture. From Killarney, the R561 brings you along the southern coast of the peninsula where you will find some stunning views of Inch Beach and its strong, rolling waves below. Follow this road until you reach the N86 which will bring you into the town of Dingle.

The view from Inch Beach on the Dingle Peninsula
The view from Inch Beach on the Dingle Peninsula
A few brave souls on Inch Beach
A few brave souls on Inch Beach

SEE/DO

Dingle Town - The only town on the whole peninsula, Dingle is a colorful, vibrant place chock full of cute shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. It has a fisherman's village feel, and seafood is as fresh as can be. The town is pretty small and you can walk it in 15 minutes or less. From the waterfront stroll along Green Street, which is especially quaint, and follow it until you reach Main Street where most of the action lies.

Colorful buildings in Dingle
Colorful buildings in Dingle

Slea Head - If you continue heading west past Dingle Town via R559, you will reach this westernmost tip of Ireland marked by a crucifix. Stop along the way to check out the stone beehive huts and old Dunbeg fort. Once you reach the point, admire the beach with its almost-tropical-like water (in color, not temperature!).

Gallarus Castle & Oratory - Keep on R559 all the way around the peninsula and on the northside you will reach one of the few standing castles on the peninsula and its worshiping house.

Connor Pass - Head back down to Dingle Town, where you can pick up Ireland's highest mountain pass. This lovely passageway, like Healy Pass on the Beara Peninsula, connects the north and south coasts cutting the peninsula in half. It only takes about 20 minutes to drive but on a clear day, expect to make stops to admire the views of Dingle Harbor to the south and Mt. Brandon to the north.

Can't get enough of the sheep and the green grass
Can't get enough of the sheep and the green grass
These sheep must pay a lot for their oceanfront property.....
These sheep must pay a lot for their oceanfront property.....

EAT/DRINK

Murphy's Pub - A traditional Irish pub located in Dingle Town serving up good pub food. Healthy options available. The fire is warm and the atmosphere inviting. (Strand St)

Bean - A delightful coffee shop serving up delicious espresso and fresh baked goods. Don't say no to a cinnamon roll, they are amazing and baked to perfection. (Green St)

The Little Cheese Shop - Exactly as its name suggests, this is a lovely fromagerie selling local cheeses and chutneys as well as those from mainland Europe. Cheese lovers are not to miss this place. (Grey's Ln)

Out of the Blue - One of the best seafood restaurants in all of Ireland, this is a must for dinner. Everything is so fresh that if they are not pleased with the catch of the day, they don't open. Reservations required to avoid disappointment. (Waterside)

 

LIMERICK

A great gateway to County Clare, the city of Limerick is located about 25 minutes south of Shannon Airport. From Dingle, it is about 2.5 hours north. Similar to Cork, Limerick has a very English feel, the buildings reminding me of something I would find in a (very small) neighborhood of London. It is also much less of a tourist town than the other cities of Ireland and many guidebooks skip over this city, but I am not sure why because I found it to be quite enjoyable and charming. It is where the sport of rugby began so if you can catch a match, even if only on TV at a pub, it's a fun way to get a peek into local culture. If you have an early flight out of Shannon, I recommend spending your last night in this city rather than the city of Shannon which doesn't have a lot going on.

SEE/DO

O'Connell Street - The main drag of the city, this is where all the action is. Or a lot of it. You can expect to find the usual shops, restaurants, pubs, etc. On the weekend it seems like everyone is out socializing. It is a very fun, happening scene. During the Christmas season it is all lit up and decorated making for a festive vibe.

King John's Castle - Located a short walk from the city center, this castle overlooks the River Shannon and offers tours for those interested. So easy to get to and doesn't require you to drive through the countryside. (Nicholas St)

EAT/DRINK

Nancy Blake's - A cozy, traditional Irish pub that fills up as the night gets going, on weekends anyway. It has a big outdoor beer garden with heat lamps but I prefer a seat by the fire. (19 Upper Denmark St)

Warming up by the fire with a whiskey
Warming up by the fire with a whiskey

Locke Bar & Restaurant - Closest thing to what we would call a gastropub, this place has a great beer selection and good food. Located on a cute street alongside the canal. It is near the university so the crowd skews younger. (3 George's Quay)

Curragower Pub - A short walk on the other side of the river, this is a traditional Irish pub also with an outdoor beer garden. It is cozy inside and can get packed, especially during a rugby match. Live trad music. (Clancys Strand)

Glen Tavern - Located in the Georgian quarter, this traditional pub offers live music (of all sorts) and a snooker (billiards) table in the back. Makes for some fun people watching. Like the other pubs mentioned, this one also fills up. I think people like to go out and have a good time in this city. (Lower Glentworth Street/ Theatre Lane)

STAY

No.1 Pery Square Hotel & Spa - A 4-star hotel overlooking the park in the city's Georgian quarter, this hotel is a lovely place to stay. From heated bathroom floors, modern decor, freshly-baked scones in the morning, you can't go wrong here. The hotel bar is a fun place to grab a drink before heading out for a night on the town or when you return for a night-cap. Staff was so kind and accommodating. Highly recommend. Rates from 150eur/nt. (1 Pery Square)

Overall, Ireland was definitely not a glamorous or luxurious vacation by any stretch of the imagination and we were constantly on the go. The weather wasn't great either, but let's put it this way, we don't go to Ireland for the weather. It's the friendly people and the beautiful surroundings that we go for (and the fun pub culture, of course). It's a place everyone should add to their bucket list especially if you have ancestry there because it's so cool to learn where some of your family traditions come from. And where the names of all the "Irish pubs" in the States come from.

Lastly, just some suggestions. I really encourage you to rent a car and drive because some of my favorite memories I have of the Emerald Isle are those little towns inaccessible by train and those windy roads in the middle of (beautiful) nowhere. You will get the hang of driving on the left quicker than you may think, so don't let that deter you!

Try some Irish whiskey (Jameson, Midleton, Red Breast) because it's loads cheaper in its native land and some of the aged stuff is actually tasty. Also try a stout on draught like Murphy's, Beamish, and yes of course Guinness to name a few. You might surprise yourself and like it-- I know I did! Sláinte my friends!

Awesome Alternative Accommodations in Italy: the Agriturismo

Castello di Bibbione
Castello di Bibbione

In my last post about places to see in Tuscany, I mentioned that you have some options in where/how you stay. Florence provides a great home base for taking day trips and is chock full of hotels, B&Bs, hostels even. It is also a common jumping off point for organized tours and public transportation such as trains and buses. But a great, affordable alternative is to experience an agriturismo. Agriturismi are actual working farms that offer accommodations in its farmhouses or villas. The style of accommodations can vary-- from rustic to luxurious, traditional Tuscan to modern-- and some even offer swimming pools and spas. One thing they all have in common is that they produce some type of food, usually olives for olive oil or grapes for wine, that you get to sample and bring home as a souvenir. Yes, you're technically staying on a farm but since you're in Tuscany the scenery is spectacular and nothing like Old MacDonald's. I've stayed in both a hotel in Florence and an agriturismo in the countryside and both were lovely experiences in their own way. The most memorable though was my week at Il Castello di Bibbione, an agriturismo in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, known for being Niccolò Machiavelli's hunting grounds. It is located just 30 minutes south of Florence, about 40 min north of Siena, and close to the autostrada (the major highway) which made it a perfect location for exploring. The grounds consisted of a castle which had a few separate rooms, a 4-bedroom villa for large groups, several 1 & 2-bedroom apartments, 2 swimming pools and a breakfast room. At one point in time it used to be a small village so the buildings are all in walking distance of each other. Each room/dwelling was outfitted in rustic yet charming Tuscan décor and each had its own kitchen so you could cook a meal with the food you picked up from the local market that day. Some apartments had outdoor patios with a grill and the villa even had a wood-fire pizza oven built into the side of the building. You can bet we took advantage of that!

Two things that you probably won't find at an agriturismo are daily room service (although you can request new linens if necessary), and a concierge (however the receptionists are very knowledgeable and friendly). That doesn't necessarily mean you won't find high-end amenities though if that's what you're looking for. They do exist, especially with luxury agriturismi popping up on the map more and more lately (I just saw one on Jetsetter). Also, some do not have restaurants onsite or only offer meals during part of the day, so that is something to keep in mind. But hey, it gives you a great excuse to get a flavor for local life at the market in town as you stock up on provisions. Which brings me to my next point.

A car was imperative for staying at the agriturismo and for exploring the area. You might be able to find some that are accessible by bus but more than likely you will be quite off the beaten path so I highly recommend renting a car. Don't be scared, rent that Fiat and have fun with it! Cars, especially stick shifts, are pretty inexpensive to rent ($100-150/wk for a standard size). Automatics are tougher to find but it is possible and you do need to reserve one in advance. Note: it's totally worth renting the GPS with your car or you're stuck reading maps and I bet it's been awhile you've had to do that, thanks Google. If you're not keen on driving, then you might be better off staying in Florence where you can catch trains, buses and tour groups.

Important note about driving: If you are renting a car, be sure to watch for signs indicating you are about to enter a Limited Traffic Zone or Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). You are NOT allowed to drive in these zones which are usually found at the historical city center of most cities in Tuscany and you WILL get a ticket. They have cameras set up that take pictures of your license plate and the rental agency will mail you a piece of paper in Italian several weeks later when you're least expecting it. More info on ZTLs here. Also, when on the highway watch for signs indicating a speed trap known as Controllo elettronico della velocità. You are always warned ahead of time, several times actually, that one is approaching so just keep an eye out for the sign with a little policeman on it and slowww down. Yes, that is probably why you see all the people ahead of you randomly braking. Do yourself a favor and take the hint.

Tuscany is such an amazing destination that no matter how you see it you will find enjoyment. But I hope that this article encourages you to trade the chain hotel for an agriturismo on your next trip. You might surprise yourself--I know I did--and find out there's more to traveling than staying at the Hilton.

Note: If you're not sure about how to go about finding an agriturismo, let me know below or shoot me a message and I'll show you a few websites that I've found to be helpful.

The view at Castello di Bibbione

The view at Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

One of the two pools

One of the two pools

Tuscan living room

Tuscan living room

Pizza oven

Pizza oven

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

7 Places to See in Tuscany

Tuscany. One of the largest and most-visited regions in Italy. It is no wonder that it tops many people's bucket lists with land comprising of vast plains, gorgeous green rolling hills, hundreds of vineyards and lots of quaint, medieval hillside towns. It is such a beautiful place words cannot describe and that photos don't do justice topped off with some of the most delicious food and wine around. If this dreamy destination is not on your list, it should be. And for a decent chunk of time. There is so much to see and do in Tuscany that you really should plan to spend at least a week to get a taste of the wonderful culture. And then you should go back and do more. Better yet, you should just move there like Diane Lane does in Under the Tuscan Sun. But if that cannot happen well then here is a list of 7 places to see on your next trip to Tuscany that will have you longing for more.

A street in Florence

A street in Florence

PISA

Home of the Leaning Tower and pretty much nothing else. A half day is more than enough in this touristy city and trains run regularly here every day from Florence (about a 30 min ride). The Leaning Tower can be found in Piazza dei Miracoli. It is free to wander the grounds but you have to buy a ticket to climb it. I've never felt the need to do that. There are tons of tourists here so you will probably just want to get your picture and turn right around. Avoid eating or drinking near the Leaning Tower because those places tend to rip off tourists. Instead stop at Il Crudo in nearby Piazza Cairoli (Piazza Cairoli 8) for a delicious panino.

An obligatory picture with the Leaning Tower

An obligatory picture with the Leaning Tower

FIESOLE

Another great day trip from Florence, this charming little town is located up on the hills slightly north of the city so has a spectacular view and also has a cute little piazza with trattorias and gelaterias. Make sure you wander the side streets up the hill because there are spectacular views once you reach the top. If you are staying in Florence and unable to spend time exploring the Tuscan countryside but want a taste for it, this is the place to go. It is a quick 20 minutes on ATAF bus number 7 from Piazza San Marco. Purchase your tickets inside the tabaccheria. Make sure to validate (stamp) your ticket in the machine as soon as you board the bus.

Views from Fiesole

Views from Fiesole

SIENA

Another major city of Tuscany but smaller than Florence and a little over an hour south. You will want at least a full day to explore this city. Piazza del Campo is the main square full of places to eat and bustling with people. Definitely fun to wander around. For an amazing Tuscan meal off the beaten path in a super cute tiny square with a great outside patio, visit Enoteca I Terzi (Via dei Termini 7). Also, the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo 8) is supposedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Tuscany, especially the interior. Other than that have fun and get lost wandering the streets, my most favorite activity.

Lunch al fresco at Enoteca I Terzi

Lunch al fresco at Enoteca I Terzi

CERTALDO ALTO

Definitely a lesser known town in Tuscany, my husband and I stumbled upon this place when we were searching for a town with a city hall to get married. This one definitely fit the bill-- old and medieval, perched up high on a hill with gorgeous views of the rolling Tuscan countryside, quaint, and filled with cobblestone streets for strolling. Cars need a special permit to drive up here so visitors must park at the town below (Certaldo proper) and take the funiculare up the hill, which just adds to the charm. It is a really small town that you don't need a full day for but is a great place to relax outside with some wine and bruschetta at a cute little cafe like Enoteca Boccaccio (Via Boccaccio 37) taking in the scenery. It's about 45 min to an hour south of Florence.

The quaint town of Certaldo Alto

The quaint town of Certaldo Alto

SAN GIMIGNANO

Another quaint medieval town great for wandering around located about an hour south of Florence. A few hours are perfect for exploring the many cute streets lined with shops and places to grab a bite or drink. This town produces one of the few white wines in Tuscany, Vernaccia, and it's pretty good so make sure to have a glass! The views on the drive to town are so amazing and exactly how you would picture Tuscany. This town can get pretty crowded but escape the masses and have a delicious panino and glass of wine for lunch at dal Bertelli (Via Capassi 30), a cute little spot off the main tourist drag that offers local ingredients.

The towers of San Gimignano

The towers of San Gimignano

MONTERIGGIONI

This small, fortified medieval town still has its walls intact. Walk along the walls for amazing views of Tuscany and relax in its piazza with an espresso or prosecco. You don't need more than 2 hours here because it is so small. It's about an hour south of Florence and on the way to Siena.

The view from the walls of Monteriggioni 

The view from the walls of Monteriggioni 

Not mentioned in the list above but something everyone should include in their trip is a visit to a winery. There are literally hundreds in Tuscany to choose from whether it be a huge, well-established brand or a small, family-owned name. On my last trip, I visited the new Antinori Winery (Via Cassia per Siena 133, Bargino) which was down the street from where we were staying. Antinori is a huge production (some bottles can be found in the States) and the facilities were nothing short of spectacular. On my next trip, however, I plan to make it to some of the smaller, independently-owned wineries for a more intimate experience. Here is a helpful site that lists all the wineries in the Chianti region of Tuscany and here is another helpful resource that includes some other Tuscan wine regions as well. Be sure to check the winery's own website to make sure they are still in business and for more details on their hours.

The crew at Antinori Winery

The crew at Antinori Winery

Curious about where to stay? You could choose to stay in Florence which serves as a good home base and has plenty of hotels. For a splurge, stay at the Westin or St. Regis which are centrally-located, on the river Arno and housed in buildings with beautiful architecture that make you think for second you're in a museum. OR, you could opt to stay in the countryside in an agriturismo which is an excellent and affordable option (you will just need a car). What is an agriturismo you ask? Well, my next post will be all about it and the agriturismo that I stayed at, so check back soon or follow me to receive a notification.

Wondering about Florence? Read my post on that here.

Not on this list but a top priority for my next trip to Tuscany are the towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano for their exceptional wine-- Vino Nobile and Brunello. If you've been to either of these places, I'd love to hear all about it including any wineries you visited. Leave me a comment below, per favore!

And as always, if you have any specific questions about Tuscany I encourage you to ask away! Happy traveling :)