Azores Portugal

Azores Sete Cidades Panorama

The trip to the Azores was rocky but one beauty of solo travel is no one else suffers for your planning mistakes. You just chalk it up to learning and get on with the adventure.

Connecting flights were tricky – Lisbon north to Porto (1 hour) and over the Atlantic Ocean from Porto to Terceira (2.5 hours). The weather between Porto and Terceira was stormy and the small aircraft undulated during the entire flight. When booking the flights, I failed to notice that my accommodation was not on Terceira Island but Sao Miguel, so upon arrival in Terceira I had to book another flight to Sao Miguel.

Sao Miguel

The carrier, Ryanair, isn’t in my book of favorite airlines. They market themselves as “the low fare airline”, but their policies seem designed to extract the maximum amount of money from every passenger. Baggage requirements are extremely strict and punishment for exceeding them, even by a few kilograms, is severe. This is not a problem for those on short vacations, but it’s a nightmare for long-term travelers with more than one small piece of baggage.

Sao Miguel

My two pieces of baggage – one small and large – met measurement and weight requirements for British Airways and American Airlines, not for Ryanair. The weight allowance for the large bag on the other airlines was 50 lbs. On Ryanair, there is no free checked baggage and their limit per bag is 15 kg (33 lbs.). Of course I had to pay extra. My carry-on bag also turned out to be too large for their standards. While waiting to board the airplane I was asked to check my carry-on and pay an extra $50 fee!

Ryanair requires e-ticket passengers to print their own boarding passes – emailed a day or so before the flight. I didn’t have access to a printer and planned to use my iPhone instead. However, I hadn’t downloaded the boarding pass for scanning and at check-in couldn’t get an Internet connection to open the email attachment. Without a boarding pass in hand, Ryanair either rejects you or charges a 15 Euro fee.

Customer service doesn’t seem to be in Ryanair’s vocabulary. To the contrary, you must follow their rules to a T and be careful not to irritate their staff for fear of reprisal – really.

Passengers were interesting – including several screaming babies, members of Brazil’s soccer team who seemed to have just won a trophy, and a variety of European tourists. I met a friendly Egyptian musician / singer who was also bummed about Ryanair’s impossible baggage restrictions. He told me his band made extra money by selling t-shirts at their concerts and to stay within weight limit requirements, he was wearing about five under his jacket! Paying Ryanair’s excess baggage fees would cancel out most of their profit. Apparently, body weight is the only measurement for which Ryanair doesn’t charge – for now.

Azores

On board, no services are complimentary – not even water. The seating space is smaller than most airlines. For example, if you put your tray down, you can’t open your laptop screen all the way. When you’re finally seated and hoping to have cleared all obstacles, the flight attendants circulate asking for contributions to charitable organizations the airline supports. If you must use the toilet – good luck! Getting through the narrow aisles is difficult and once inside, it’s about half the size of toilets on other airlines. OK, so enough whining about Ryanair…. :o(

Since visibility was zero, the airline delayed the flight from Terceira to Sao Miguel for several hours. We finally boarded and after surviving a few rough spots in an otherwise uneventful flight, landed at Ponta Delgada an hour later. The weather was clear with starry skies.

Cloudy View This Morning

Sao Miguel is the largest of the nine islands in the Azores Archipelago:

  • Eastern – Sao Miguel and Santa Maria
  • Central – Terceira, Graciosa, Sao Jorge, Pico, and Faial
  • Western – Flores and Corvo

Azores Map

This morning I woke up to stormy skies, rain, and a temperature of about 60 degrees. The forecast for tomorrow is clear but with a location in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, weather in the Azores is unpredictable at best. I’m here for five days and considering several hikes. Weather permitting, a whale watching expedition would be glorious as the Azores are one of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world.

There are many attractions on Sao Miguel Island including “sapphire blue and emerald-green lakes, fertile prairies, volcanic cones and craters, colorful hydrangea and azalea fields, 15th century churches, and majestic manor houses”! The crisp unpolluted sea air and luscious green vegetation are heavenly!

More later….

Liberty Day in Portugal – April 25

Portugal celebrates Liberty Day on April 25th. It’s a national holiday marking the military coup of 1974 that brought democracy and civil liberties to the Portuguese people. Liberty Day begins at dawn when the president and prime minister meet to officially start celebrations.

“The revolution had a deep impact on Portuguese life. Many who lived through it participate in the celebration ceremonies. On this day, it’s common to wear carnations on the lapel. Carnations became the symbol of the revolution when on the day of the revolution a flower vendor decided to give carnations away to show support. While marching through the streets, the military put the carnations in their gun barrels as a symbol of their peaceful intentions.”

In the Portuguese Parliament, a solemn session is held with “interventions from all the political parties and their representatives, followed by a speech from the Parliament President”. Then the Republic’s President delivers a speech.

Tonight, there’s a musical celebration in the park across the street from my apartment. The musicians are quite good and have a folk music sound – like The Kingston Trio or Peter Paul & Mary – if anyone remembers them…. There are also some female Fado singers. Of course, all the songs are in Portuguese.

I had an interesting outing in Belem earlier today. It’s the more modern part of Lisbon. It was a little too far to walk – about 5 miles each way – so I took the tram one way and the bus back. Using public transportation turned into a long, drawn-out process. I’m not sure how the journey could have been shorter as every vehicle on the road came to a halt in the gridlock and the subway didn’t reach my destination. Despite the long waits, glad I spent time in Belem.

Some miscellaneous photos from the day are attached. I’m leaving Lisbon tomorrow morning for 5 days in the Azores. More posts later….

Sintra Portugal

Black Swan Parc de Pena Pond

Yesterday I joined a small group of 8 for a tour of Sintra in the Serra de Sintra Mountains near Lisbon. It was a 9-hour outing including an uphill hike through lush spring gardens. Named for a Princess, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historically the climate and beauty of the area attracted Portuguese nobility who built “palaces, extravagant residences, and lush decorative gardens”.

Palais de Pena from the Park

Palais de Monserrate

We hiked through sumptuously beautiful Pena National Park and at the top, toured the Palais de Pena. The palace and park are creations of wealthy, extravagant Dom Ferdinand II, a German prince who married Portugal’s Queen Maria II.

Mural Palais de Pena

Pena Park and Palace are examples of the extreme Romanticism of 19th century Portugal. Ferdinand built the Palace “to be observed from any point in the park, forest, and gardens”. The park has over five hundred tree species from the four corners of the world!

Tank of the Friars Pena Parc

Parc de Pena

We took a lunch break in Sintra with free time to explore. I found a small tapas restaurant full of rowdy Portuguese. They welcomed me and I enjoyed laughing and spending time with them. To be honest, not sure what Portuguese dish I ate for lunch but it was uniquely delicious!

Frightening Pena Palace Guard

Our next stop was Quinta da Regaleira near central Sintra. Within Sintra’s Cultural Landscape, the estate is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, and fountains. The palace is also known as ‘The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire’, based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.”

Quinta de Regaleira

Other imposing palaces in the area include Quinta do Relógio, Monserrate, and Seteais. It was a wonderful day exploring – so much history and information. Portugal is a fascinating country! I only have a few more days in Lisbon and wish I were staying longer….

Seteais Palace

Quinta do Relógio

Lisbon Portugal

Alfama District Lisbon

I arrived in Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese) a few days ago and it’s a glorious, exciting city! This is my first visit to Portugal. Lisbon has many unique qualities, especially its layout on a “series of hills” with views in every direction. Artists refer to Lisbon as Portugal’s “City of Light“.  Blue skies, long sunny days, white limestone buildings and walkways, outstanding sunsets, and water reflecting from the Tagus River (Rio Tejo) all add to the city’s well-deserved nickname.

Lisbon Tram No. 28

Visitors compare Lisbon to San Francisco and Rome. The Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge is a smaller version of the more famous Golden Gate Bridge. Like Rome, Lisbon is known for its seven hills.

As Europe’s second-oldest capital (after Athens) Lisbon’s history is rich and the Portuguese people are warm and animated. Portugal is deeply affected by its Moorish neighbors in Northern Africa and adjoining European countries – Spain (Portugal’s former arch rival), France, and Italy.

Fado Performer

Lisbon’s spring weather is fantastic – clear and in the 70s during the day and 50s at night. My apartment is in Bairro Alto near the Baixa, Rato, and Chiado Districts. I’m almost recovered from jet lag and still learning my way around.

Chiado District

The narrow winding cobbled streets are confusing and the white limestone tiles slippery! Yesterday I was hopelessly lost but after stopping at several cafés to regroup, managed to find my way back to the apartment hours later. The metro is slow with many delays, so walking is the most efficient way to get around. For a relatively small city of about two million, the traffic gridlock is horrific.

Ponte 25 de Abril

Yesterday I explored Lisbon’s “medieval village-like neighborhoods” and rode famous Tram No. 28. The popular tram was crowded, so exploring was mostly on foot. After walking cobbled streets for hours my feet ached. I’m taking it easy today. Tomorrow it’s a day tour of coastal areas including parks, palaces, castles, and beaches in Sintra, Cascais, and Estorial.

São Vicente de Fora

Like Buenos Aires, Lisbon comes alive at night and I’ve enjoyed a few late dinners and Fado (derives from the Latin word for destiny) shows! This will be my first weekend in Lisbon. I hear Saturdays are festive and thoroughly enjoyed by the locals.

Cathedral Spires

My itinerary includes visiting little-known side streets as well as notable attractions including cathedrals, bridges, monasteries, museums, and castles:

Belem Tower

Most of the city’s original architecture was destroyed by the devastating 8.5 – 9.0 Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 followed by a tsunami and fires. The earthquake struck on the morning of November 1st, holy All Saints’ Day. Reports state that the earthquake lasted between three to six minutes. The earthquake destroyed eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings, including most examples of Portugal’s distinctive 16th-century Manueline architecture.

Manueline Architecture

Lisbon’s Late Baroque architecture is magnificent. Each district has its own church. Today I saw several spectacular Cathedrals, including Sé de Lisboa. Photographs don’t capture their grandeur:

Alfama District

Next week I’ll spend a few days in the Azores (Asores in Lisbon Portuguese) and then on to Denmark in May. More later….

Portuguese Fado Guitars

Portuguese Tiles

Planning a Solo Travel Adventure

Rome Colisseum

Rome Colosseum

Successfully planning a long trip requires thoughtful preparation – especially when you’re traveling alone. This post discusses two essential considerations before embarking on a long-term solo journey – accommodation and transportation.

Why Plan? Why Solo?

Travel planning is important. It may leave you feeling exhilarated and full of anticipation or exhausted after confronting tedious details. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, a lack of planning can result in chaos and disaster. If things run amuck, there’s no one to fall back on, so solo travelers must be self-reliant.

Rome

Ponte Sisto Bridge Rome

In my travel blog, I describe a few hair-raising experiences that taught me to remain calm and have a plan B.  Although some adventurous souls travel on the fly, even in today’s electronic world wise travelers think their trips out in advance. The key is viewing travel adversity as empowering, not terrifying, but it’s OK to scream a few times along the way!

Years ago, before taking to the road on my own, I traveled with one other person or in large and small groups of friends or complete strangers. While focusing on your adventure, you must also get to know your fellow travelers and follow a deadline driven guide with a rigid, fast-paced itinerary.

Trevi Fountain Rome

Trevi Fountain Rome

At the end of these adventures I felt dizzy and unfulfilled and asked myself why was I doing it? Was it to be safer, because I felt incapable of planning a trip myself, or was I afraid of being alone and in need of having others to share the experiences? The answer to these questions was a resounding “no”. At the same time, I knew planning and some semblance of structure were essential to my comfort and safety.

When the basics are under control travelers can relax, forget themselves, and enjoy the reason for traveling – learning about delicious new cultures and environments! The eureka moment was realizing I didn’t need someone else to do the planning.

Lison

Alfama District Lisbon Portugal

People are as different as travel adventures and the way you plan or IF you plan depends on your personality and the journey you’re contemplating. The consequences of your decision are more serious depending on where you’re headed – Canada on the low-end of the scale versus Iran, Cambodia, Turkey, and parts of Africa on the high-end. I’ve experienced poorly and overly planned trips. In both cases I lived to tell the tale. Reaching a happy medium is ideal.

Accommodation – What Kind, Where, When

Prague

Skyline Prague Czech Republic

When staying in one place for a month or longer, accommodation becomes more important, at least it is for me. Although you’re exploring for most of the day, everyone needs a private, safe place to rejuvenate and collect their thoughts. For me a suitable accommodation is clean, well-managed, and in a good location.

Today there are abundant on-line booking sources, and they’re getting better and better. There are many choices depending on your budget and preferences – short-term apartment rentals, hostels, bed & breakfast, guest houses, pensions, hotels, paradors, and more. Because my goal is mingling with the locals and experiencing the “real” culture in a foreign country, I usually look for small, reasonably priced accommodations with glowing reviews.

Before booking anything, research the neighborhoods to understand which areas work for your style, budget, and interests. If you book in the wrong location, it might be uncomfortable and could ruin your experience.

Unless you’ve stayed at a place before, remember that reality and on-line photographs are two different worlds. Read traveler reviews and make sure they’re “verified” and not written by friends of the owner or someone benefiting from your choice. Honest people who have stayed in an accommodation are in the best position to rate it. Their comments are valuably e.

Church of Our Lady before Týn

Church of Our Lady before Týn Prague

Booking no penalty, “cancellable” accommodations before making transportation arrangements is wise. I’m leery of accommodations that require full payment up front and don’t like to commit to long-term bookings until I’ve seen them with my own eyes.

If you travel during high season, finding the right accommodation can be expensive and challenging. I’ve experienced the trauma of seeking accommodation in popular Cape Town South Africa during their glorious summer season. Vacancies are scarce and accommodations overpriced. The city’s infrastructure clearly hasn’t kept pace with the growing tourist industry.

Bosphorus Strait Istanbul

Bosphorus Strait Istanbul

Ask questions, communicate well, and clarify your needs – quiet, Wi-Fi access, a safe in the room, etc. Again, read reviews to discover catch-22s, e.g., buildings with 10 floors and no elevator, noisy cafés next door, and locations in crime-ridden areas or far from transportation connections.

A healthy breakfast is important before a long day exploring, so look for accommodations that include breakfast. Finally, a great concierge and friendly staff are important. They take care of you and become your family away from home!

To Book or Not to Book

During extended trips of 6 to 12 months, I don’t pre-book accommodations. Instead, I only make the next reservation when I have a specific departure date and am ready to move on to a new place. This allows a traveler to stay longer in places they enjoy and say goodbye when they’re not comfortable.

Copenhagen Denmark

Copenhagen Denmark

Transportation – Getting Around in an Unfamiliar Environment

In some countries renting a car and driving is the best way to go, but even with a good GPS system, this scenario is difficult for solo travelers. I’ve driven solo in Italy, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, and South Africa and admittedly scared myself more times than I care to recall….

There are many learning curves from freeway signage to poor lighting and driving on the wrong side of the road, not to mention an abundance of reckless drivers everywhere in the world! If you’re in an accident or put a dent in a rental car, it will cost you big time unless you pay a large fee up front to cover any damages. I’ve learned that no matter how careful you are, there is always at least one ding when you return a rental.

Most larger European cities have horrific traffic congestion but fantastic public transportation systems. It may take a few days to figure things out, but in the long run public transportation is the most cost-effective, efficient way to get around big cities. If you’re rich you can hire a taxi or limo and wait in bottlenecked gridlocked traffic for hours on the way to your destination. For long-term travel an inexpensive transportation pass helps you get in touch with “real” locals wherever you are.

Heed these notes of caution. Traveling on packed public transportation during busy commute hours isn’t a great idea, especially if you’ve been out all day and are feeling tired. Clever thieves and pickpockets know what they’re doing and can spot the most vulnerable targets easily. You can be sure that they won’t show you any mercy.

In Europe, traveling between countries via the Eurail system or local train connections is comfortable, affordable, and in most cases less expensive than flying. PLUS, you meet new people and enjoy incredible scenery along the way!

Bosphorus Strait Istanbul Turkey

Bosphorus Strait Istanbul Turkey

What If You Need Help?

If you’re involved in an accident or need help from a local organization, be calm and realize it may be a frustrating experience. I recall being pickpocketed in Rome and reporting the theft to the local police department. It was a long drawn out process and felt more like I was being arrested than reporting a crime. In the end, the experience produced the paperwork needed to send an insurance claim for my stolen camera.

Istanbul Taksim Trolley

Taksim Trolley Istanbul

I recommend visiting the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and registering your trip – especially for long-term travelers. The State Department’s notes, cautions, and special alerts are interesting and informative. When you register, you’ll receive email alerts about situations of concern in the countries you’re visiting. Keep in mind that even though this information is worthy of noting, sometimes the warnings may be overkill.

Wherever you travel, it’s advisable to know how to reach the US Embassy.

Other Considerations

Understanding the basics of booking accommodations and local transportation helps demystify your journey, making it easier and more enjoyable. Other considerations for long-term travelers include preparing for language differences, obtaining visas, exchanging money, and packing light but for both hot and cold weather. Travel apps help address many of these concerns but they are topics for future posts.

Next Solo Adventure

I’m planning my next travel adventure through five European countries on the way back to South Africa where I have a retirement visa. I decided to revisit three magnificent cities that stole my heart in the past – Prague, Rome, and Istanbul. Portugal and Denmark are new destinations on the itinerary. I’m so excited about the next adventure!

Oregon Ice Storm

Mother Nature had her way with Oregon this week as plunging temperatures and freezing rain delivered havoc with an onslaught of fallen trees and damaged power lines. We love our trees but they come with a price. Beautiful icy vistas were the unexpected outcome of the treacherous weather!

My area in the south hills was without power long enough to get everyone’s attention. The severe cold coupled with the sound of falling branches and cracking, splitting tree trunks continues. Temperatures remain in the 20s to low 30s as we listen to the sound of occasional thawing icicles falling on the roof. It’s unnerving being surrounded by frozen, skyscraper-sized trees bending low from a heavy coating of ice.

Side of House

Side of House

I ventured out yesterday and delighted in the beauty of dramatic skies and sunshine casting a halo-like glow on the ice-laden trees! It was like being inside a magnificent ice palace. Too dangerous to stop for photos while driving I managed to photograph a favorite area near my home – photography does not capture the magnificent show!

Cleanup begins as soon as things thaw out a bit. So far my roof and skylights have survived unscathed but maybe it’s too early to say.  Can’t help thinking about the beautiful beaches and warm summer weather back in Cape Town!

Franschhoek Valley South Africa

Franschhoek Valley

If there’s a “heaven on earth” Franschhoek must be as close as you get! The small traditionally French town is one of the oldest in South Africa. Embraced by three mountain ranges – FranschhoekWemmershoek, and Groot Drakenstein – the beautiful valley is a few miles east of Stellenbosch and Paarl and a one-hour drive from Cape Town. In 2000 Franschhoek became part of the Municipality of Stellenbosch.

Huegoinat Monument

Huguenot Monument

French Huguenot settlers arrived in the valley during the 17th and 18th centuries when France outlawed Protestantism in their homeland. The Dutch government gave land to French settlers in the area originally known as Olifants Hoek (elephants’ corner) because elephants crossed into the valley to calve.

Wemmershoek Mountains

Wemmershoek Mountains

Most wine farms in the valley retained their original French names. The buildings are examples of beautiful unspoiled Cape Dutch architecture. To preserve the spirit of the original settlers, there are restrictions on renovations and new construction. The area has miles and miles of vineyards and Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve with scenic hiking trails and sweeping views of the fertile valley.

Franschoek Vineyard

“The name of the area changed to le Coin Français (the French Corner) and later to Franschhoek (Dutch for French Corner). Many of the surnames in Franschhoek are of French origin and settlers named their farms after the areas in France from which they came. La Motte, Champagne, La Cotte, Cabrière, La Provence, Bourgogne, La Terra de Luc, and La Dauphine were among some of the first established farms.” These farms are now renowned wineries, many with famous four and five-star restaurants.

Cape Dutch Architecture

Got a late start and missed the last “wine tram” of the day. I drove the sometimes isolated vineyard route getting lost on back roads trying to find La Bourgogne’s outside restaurant. Instead I stopped for late lunch at Café BonBon at La Petite Dauphine off Excelsior Road. It was almost 3 pm and only a few people were dining on the peaceful , quiet patio. The food and beautiful scenery were so amazing I lingered for hours!

Dutch Reform Church

Huguenot Monument

To honor Franschhoek’s heritage, the Huguenot Monument stands at the end of the town and a nearby museum chronicles the history of the area’s first French settlers. Each Huguenot farm has a fascinating story.

Wine Tram

In 1904 a secondary train line was built between Paarl and Franschhoek to replace ox drawn carts farmers used to get their produce to market. “Steam locomotives operated along the route until diesel locomotives took over in the 1970s. In the 1990s railway service ended. In 2012 a clever private operator reinstated the tram line. Now known as the Fanschhoek Wine Tram, the renovated tram transports tourists between wine estates in open-sided Brill Trams of circa 1890.”

Cape Dutch Architecture

The popular hop-on-hop-off wine tram is a great way to tour the wineries. The area experienced a boom in the 1990s that never stopped. “Ideal summer weather, snowy mountain peaks in winter, and a location near Cape Town made Franschhoek a sought after address.”

Franschhoek Wine Tram

Franschhoek Wine Tram

Franschhoek Valley has similarities with Northern California’s Napa Valley and boosts some of the top restaurants in South Africa. This, together with “the strong wine culture and pristine natural and architectural beauty,” turned Franschhoek into what many describe as the “food and wine capital of South Africa”.

Franschhoek Valley

Franschhoek Valley

Shops in Franschhoek village include art, antiques, and galleries with restaurants. Cozy cafés line the main thoroughfare. It’s easy to lose yourself in this place. The valley is a “springboard to other wine routes and the Four Passes Fruit Route,” of which Franschhoek is also part. The four magnificent passes include Viljoen’s, Sir Lowry’s, Franschhoek, and Helshoogte.

Groot Drakenstein Mountains

Groot Drakenstein Mountains

Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve

Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve