Orvieto and Bagnoregio

The first stop on our Cruise to Dubai was Civitavecchia (the Rome port city). Since all of us had been to Rome before, we decided to book a private tour and explore Orvieto and Bagnoregio.

Cita di Bagnoregio is a small town near Rome that sits on a hill, like a lot of cities in the region.  It was abandoned for a long time, but now has about 15 inhabitants that most likely are there to caters to tourists.  The base of this city is eroding slowly, so eventually, it will slowly be abandoned again.

From here we set out to Orvieto to see their famous cathedral and the other sites in the city


We also had enough time to take a tour of some of the tunnels below the city that were dug through the years. They were used for different things: such as cellars, water storage, and even as a coup for pigeons.

Lastly, on our way back to our ship, we stopped on top of a hill to admire the view of a big lake in the region. 

Barcelona to Dubai Cruise

We decided to join Jen’s parents on a 16-day cruise from Barcelona to Dubai on a new Royal Caribbean ship called the Spectrum of the Seas. This was a good way to spend some time with them and relax. The Spectrum was a brand new boat and our portion of the trip was considered the inaugural trip.  The full journey was destined for Singapore where the boat would be stationed to serve the Asian market. 

Although this was a long cruise, it only stopped at the following ports: 
  • Barcelona 
  • Civitavecchia (Rome)
  • Naples
  • Athens
  • Aquaba
  • Dubai

The rest of the time we kept busy with multiple activities. Here are a few that we enjoyed: 

  • Progressive Trivia: Every day, we participated in a trivia contest that tested random knowledge. We learned a lot about South Africa (since that's where the trivia host was from), a lot about different phobias, and what random groups of animals are called.  Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?


  • Flow Rider: Yay


  • iFly: No better way to dry out your gums 


  • Fencing: This was their first attempt at having this activity on a ship, so the experience was pretty short, but it was fun to give it a try since neither of us had ever tried fencing before.. plus there is nothing like being equipped with a sword and saying, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" 


  • North Star: The North Star is a big bubble on top of the ship that gives you a bird's eye view of the ship. It seemed like a silly idea at first, but in the end, we were surprised at how impressive the view actually was.


  • Morning Yoga: Every other day they had free yoga classes :)


  • Comedy, Music Shows, and movies on the top deck: At night we had a variety of entertainment opportunities with semi-known performers.


Jen's parents stayed on the boat for another journey all the way to Singapore. But we had to go back to work after Dubai. 

Spring Visitors

This year, we were fortunate enough to have some visitors in the Spring. 

Guy and Cynthia came for about 1 week and we had a great time exploring London with them. 

The Kiss family also came for a quick long-weekend. It was such a pleasure to see them again. 

Sintra

Not far from Lisbon, there is a weird Lego-like palace called Sintra. It looked really vibrant and so different from other castles we had visited in the past. 

The Pena Palace was built in the mid-1800s on top of an old monastery. It was built as a royal summer residence but is now a royal attraction. If you want to know more, check out Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pena_Palace

After our stroll of the colorful palace, we walked over to visit another castle on the adjacent hill, overlooking Pena Palace.  This castle felt completely opposite to the Pena Palace.  Where Pena Palace is bright and vibrant, the old Moor castle is dark and gloomy. It was built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries and is really worth the walk as you can go around the battlements and see the scenic surroundings. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_of_the_Moors)
The trip took us a full day and involved a lot of walking.. but it was definitely worth the visit. :)

Belem

While in Lisbon, we wanted to go to a nearby town called Belem.  To get there, we decided to try out some electric Lime scooters for the first time!  

We zipped along the coast toward Belem and stopped to admire the sites along the way.

We also stopped at the famous Pasteis de Belem, the bakery that makes pastel de nata using the original secret recipe from the Jerónimos Monastery. The line outside is huge, but it is actually just for people who are getting items for takeout.

The actual restaurant seats hundreds of people, so if you by-pass the line and go inside, you will pass through several different rooms where you can easily find a free table and enjoy some fresh tasty treats and meals for a great price!  We lucked out and got a seat on the patio where we had a nice relaxing lunch... with extra dessert :)

Lisbon

We enjoyed our trip to Porto so much that we decided to check out Lisbon!

Lisbon is the largest city in Portugal, built on 7 hills (or is it 8?), home to the longing "Fado" genre of music, and most importantly.. sacred keepers of the original Pastel de Nata recipe! 

Since Pastel de Nata originated here, one of our missions was to taste-test as many as we could (without making ourselves sick ;) ). 

The two places we liked the most were Manteigaria

and Fabrica da Nata, which was recommended by our apartment host

Thanks to Dom's research, we also discovered that we could do a workshop at Pastelaria Batalha to learn how to make them ourselves!

Although the class isn't set up in a way that you can each individually make the pastries yourself, our chef kept it interesting and tried to have us participate in as many steps as possible. In the end we learned a lot, had fun, and got to eat more Pastel de Nata :)

Historic Granada

When we initially booked our trip to Granada, the only thing in our sites was the food.

After doing a bit of research, we discovered there's actually a lot of amazing history and architecture there as well!  We did a walking tour to check out the town, visit various sites, and enjoy the sun. 

Granada is home to Alhambra ("The Red One"), a great muslim fortress built between the 9th and 13th centuries.  

Within Alhambra, you need to book a reservation to visit the Nasrid palace, so we decided to reserve the first available spot to beat the crowds. It was a great idea, but it meant that we had to start our hike up to the palace in the -1ºC darkness.  Lucky for us, a small coffee stall was open at the top so we could stay warm while waiting for the palace to open. 


The Nasrid palace is huge and beautiful.  The walls are carved with incredibly detailed geometric patterns and the gardens are perfectly manicured.  A constant flow of fresh clean water flows through the many fountains and pools scattered in and around the palace.

We exited the Nasrid palace and and proceeded to Generallife. The name sounds like an insurance company or the name of a famous general, but it’s not. Generallife is another palace that was used during the summer because it lies up the hill in an area with slightly cooler temperatures.


We finished the tour visiting the rest of fortress grounds that overlook the city.

The most impressive part of Alhambra is its sheer size which allows you to appreciate it from the different points around the city. 

Our hotel was really close - we could easily spot it from Alhambra.

For more information about the history about Alhambra and Generallife, here is a good site: https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/historicalintroduction.asp


Free Tapas in Granada

Granada, the city with so much history... and free tapas! 

We love traveling to discover new foods and thanks to "Anthony Bordain Parts Unknown : Spain", Jen learned that you can get free tapas in Granada, simply by ordering a €2 glass of wine!  It was a done deal - the cool February temperatures were a non-issue - cheap wine and free food would keep us plenty warm.

Ok, free is never really free. 
For N. Americans it's hard to believe that a €2 glass of wine could possibly be an "inflated" prices to cover the tapas since we're used to paying 2-3 times that at our restaurants, but locals here say that elsewhere in Spain, a glass of wine is normally only €1 without tapas.  In our experience, this was certainly the case when we went to San Sebastian, but the restaurants that we went to in Barcelona and Seville still charged €2-3/glass and didn't include tapas.

In any case, we did indeed experience firsthand that when you order a drink at a Tapas bar in Granada, it auto-magically comes with a Tapas plate that will not be charged to your bill.  You don't even have to ask for it - it just.. shows up at your table.  The drink doesn't even need to be alcoholic - Dom loved the local €1.60 mosto ("non-alcoholic wine" aka "grape juice") and every time he ordered it, food followed.

We ended up having great weather while in Granada, the first day only reached 8ºC, but our last days reached 17ºC. We felt especially grateful after hearing from friends and family that Canada was -38ºC with windchill.  

Evening temperatures in Granada cool significantly once the sun goes down, but this made for the perfect opportunity to taste their other local treat - hot chocolate and churros!  The hot chocolate on its own wasn't the greatest, but the combo really hit the spot when we needed to stop and warm up. 

Christmas in London

This year, we decided to stick around and see what the holiday season is like in this part of the world.  We were thrilled that Dom's mom could join us to celebrate Christmas!

During the holiday season, a huge area of Hyde Park is taken over by the Winter Wonderland.  It started out as a small Christmas market back in 2007 and had been growing bigger and busier ever since.  

Best of all - it's free to enter!  

We went on a weekday to avoid the long lines and were amazed at how the peaceful Hyde Park had been transformed into this, massive carnival event.

Christmas is actually a wonderful time to visit London.  The city is covered with beautiful decorations on the buildings and through the streets.  Every high street (aka shopping street) has its own theme and each shop tries to out-do the other with elaborate and artistic window displays.  

Leading up to Christmas, the shopping areas are absolutely packed with people all day and night long.  The atmosphere is energetic yet relaxed, and everyone is out in the streets eating, drinking, shopping, and having a great time.

Then, overnight, the entire city stops.  

We ventured out on Christmas Day and the first things we heard was... silence.  It felt like we were wandering out in one of those zombie apocalypse movies where it feels like something is very wrong - it just feels too eerily quiet.  The trains and buses aren't running, there are very few cars or people in the streets, the neighbourhood shops and restaurants are all closed.  We actually hear the sounds of birds chirping far off in the distance.

If you venture to the main high streets you eventually start to see a few places open and a handful of tourists wandering the streets.  It's the perfect time to take in all of the lovely decorations without getting bumped and pushed around by hoards of people.



Hampton Court Palace

As Christmas approached, Dom’s mom flew to London to spend 10 days with us.  

Several people had recommended we visit Hampton Court Palace, one of the many palaces of Henry VIII.  Since Dom's mom loves European history, we finally had a good excuse to make our way out there.

The entire grounds are huge so we spent several hours there.  The impressive kitchen was built to feed the hundreds of people living and visiting the palace during Tudor times, and Henry VIII even had a huge 12 foot wine fountain in the middle of the courtyard with both red and white wine flowing for guests to drink.  

If you do plan to visit Hampton Court, definitely check out the events they have going on beforehand.  Apparently they periodically have food festivals and even fire up the palace kitchens to cook some of the traditional dishes from Tudor times!