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!

Munich Christmas Markets and Krampus Run

Hmm... What to do during the cold winter months in Europe... 

We heard that Germany had some amazing Christmas Markets markets, so we booked a direct flight to Munich based on the city's high Christmas Market ratings (according to google). 

There are around 20 Christmas Markets in Munich and we probably only visited around 5.  Our favourite one was the medieval market which had a fun theme - people were dressed up and there was a free show with sword fighting for entertainment.  
Spoiler alert: The girl knight kills them all and saves the world (ok it was all in German, but that was our interpretation).

We enjoyed window shopping and tasting different foods like the local bratwurst and various fried dough snacks.  Wherever there were long lineups, we lined up!  

It was humid and cold, so we also learned how to warm ourselves up like the locals - by stopping to taste almost every variety of Glühwein (mulled wine) that we could find!  The black cherry one (kirschglühwein) was the best!  Each Glühwein stall has their own custom mugs - you pay for the wine plus a 1-2€ deposit for the mug and you can either keep the cute mug or return it to get your deposit back.

As usual, we did a free walking tour to learn about Munich’s history.


Our trip became extra worthwhile when our tour guide mentioned that there was going to be a "Krampus Run" at 15:00 that day.  A “what” run….?  Yeah, at the time, we had no idea what a Krampus Run was but we were told that it only happens twice a year and that we just happened to be here at the right time, so of course we had to go check it out! 

In North America, when kids are good, they are rewarded with Santa bringing them presents for Christmas.  If they are naughty, Santa gives them coal.

In Germany / parts of Europe, when kids are good, they are also rewarded with Saint Nicholas bringing them presents for Christmas.  If they are naughty, the Krampus comes in the middle of the night to scare them, sweep them up into a giant bag, and take them away from their parents!!

Krampus are horned demons - seemingly the counterpart to Santa or Saint Nicholas. The Krampus Run consisted of around 300 people  wearing very elaborate and scary demon costumes, parading through Munich’s main streets tricking, teasing, scaring, and beating up the spectators.  Although all in good fun, some were a bit rough when hitting you in the leg with their sticks!


The costumes were seriously amazing though - all of the Krampus stank like animals because they were wearing real goat fur!

Not all of our adventures are as glamorous as our blog might have you believe!  

We were supposed to have a very early flight Monday morning to get back in time for work, but little did we know that the Train Operators were scheduled to be on strike precisely on that Monday morning (of all the dates and times they could have picked...!!).  

On Monday morning, we set off extra early to catch the first train of the day to give ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport.  We noticed that the train station monitors had something written in German that we couldn't understand but figured it was just because the service hadn't started yet.  We bought our tickets and stood on the platform for some time waiting for the train.  There were other people waiting on the platform but no trains showed up and the monitors still didn't update with the train schedules.  We eventually tried to ask around, but at that hour, there were very few employees working and none of them spoke English.  We finally figured out that they were trying to tell us that the airport trains were not running from this station and that we needed to go to the central train station instead.  We still didn't know that it was due to a strike - we thought google just had an inaccurate station schedule.  

We contemplated using Uber instead, but after seeing it would be €107 for the ride, we decided to walk to the central station.  We found someone there who spoke some English and told us about the strike.  They pointed us toward the stop for the Airport Shuttle Bus that we would have to take instead.  The lineup was HUGE.  After waiting for 30 minutes, there was still no bus to be seen.

Time was starting to feel tight.  We made several attempts at booking a taxi using a local taxi app and phone number but had no success with either.  After much deliberation, we decided to bite the bullet and book an Uber despite the (now) €150 fare to get to the airport.  The Uber booking attempts also failed - "no cars available for pickup".  

We started to notice people jumping out of the line trying to claim and share the taxis that happened to be dropping other passengers off at the train station.  It was dog fight as these taxis were few and far between.

The lady behind us commented that the Airport Shuttles didn't seem to be coming and asked if we wanted to split a taxi to the airport. We told her that all of our taxi/Uber booking attempts had been failing.  She said she had a friend who could get us a taxi so we agreed.  After some time, her friend called back and was also unsuccessful at getting through to book a taxi.  The three of us decided to walk to a different road to flag down a taxi - still no luck.  

We returned to the back of the line feeling stressed as our flight time continued to inch closer.  After another 20 minutes of waiting in the unmoving line, a shuttle finally arrived.  It loaded up passengers and the line barely moved.  We finally made the decision to bail.  

We went into the train station McDonalds for a coffee and used their internet to booked another flight out.  On the plus side, there happens to be plenty of flights to London so we were able to book new flights for 4pm that afternoon at €192 for both of us. Since, earlier, we had gotten to the point where we were willing to pay €150 for the Uber, we reasoned that needing to pay for that new flight wasn't so bad.  Plus, since the train strike ended at noon, we were able to make use of the €23 of train tickets that we had already purchased that morning.  Lastly, thanks to our very flexible employer, we were able to make up the hours we missed during subsequent evenings/weekend.

As soon as the strike ended we went straight to the airport and discovered a full fledged Christmas market right at the Munich airport - with an actual skating rink! 

It was a long day, but we happily made it back home and wrapped up the trip with a good early night's sleep.

Seville

To escape the cold creeping into the UK, we went for a weekend in Seville. Seville is a wonderful European city with nice architecture, plenty of history and, most importantly, lovely food. 

We did yet another walking tour to get a good overview of the city and learn a few fun facts:
  • Sevilla is the capital of Andalucia and its main industry is tourism
  • The Moors were in Sevilla for around 500 years - it only took them 10 years to conquer the area.. it then took the Christians 500 years to take it back. 
  • When Columbus left to discover America, his departure port was from Sevilla.  
  • The city is covered with orange trees. The oranges are very bitter (which is why we didn't see anyone trying to pick/eat them) and are used for 2 things: 
    • Making marmalade for the UK (yep, we confirmed this with our UK friends)
    • Making a very sweet and delicious orange wine (vino naranja)
  • The University of Seville is located in what used to be the Royal Tobacco Factory (Real Fábrica de Tabacs) 
    • Traditionally, tobacco was ground up very fine and "sniffed" or shot up into the nostrils with a device
    • The gypsy woman character in the opera "Carmen", by Bizet, is a worker at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos. 

Seville was host to the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition (world fair).  In order to promote the city and tourism, they built the massive Plaza de Espana.  Unfortunately, the Great Depression began just months before the expo began, resulting in the exposition being a bit of a failure.  The expo building still remains and is a very impressive site to visit!


The Real Alcázar de Sevilla is a castle that was built by the Moors and survived as a royal palace through the various conquests. Today, it's still the official place where the Royal family stays when they are visiting Seville.  If you happen to come while they are visiting, the palace will be closed off to tourists. 

For those who are fans of the "Games of Thrones” series, this is also the location where many of the Dorne scenes were filmed.

On Saturday, we woke up early to do a Foody tour. The tour lasted 4.5 hours and we visited 3 markets, tasted some great local food, and learned all about the local culture.

Some of the things we tried:
  • Toast with olive oil, tomatoes, and fresh garlic (the "typical" Seville breakfast)
  • Salmorejo (Jen's favourite dish)
  • Fried Anemone ("Nemo’s home", according to our guide ;) )
  • Razor Fish
  • Micro shrimp
  • Jamón Ibérico
  • Manchego Cheese
  • Manzanilla (fino sherry)
  • Local Sangria (Fanta + Wine)


On Sunday, it poured all morning so we decided to sleep in and visit the Seville Cathedral in the afternoon.
  • The Catedral de Sevilla is the third largest cathedral in the world
  • It was built over-top of the previously existing mosque
  • The cathedral tower has 34 ramps (instead of stairs) that were used during mosque days by the muezzin, who would ride a donkey to the top of the tower 5 times a day to perform the Adhan (call to prayer)
  • Columbus is buried in the Seville Cathedral. Rumours say that Columbus did not want to be buried on Spanish soil, hence why his tomb sits in the cathedral atop 4 statues.

Just across the river from Sevilla is a neighbourhood called Triana.  People from Sevilla say that Triana is where the Gypsies invented Flamenco (... apparently there are several cities in Andalucia who also claim to be the "birthplace" of Flamenco :) )

We decided to check out a Flamenco show one evening and it was brilliant!  We attended a small show with only ~20 people in a tiny local pub so we felt really up close and personal with the dancers, guitarist, and singer.  We also got our first taste of vino naranja (orange wine) - YUM!!



Lille aux Merveilleux

We took a quick Eurostar hop across the pond to Lille, France for a weekend. 

Here we tried a local delicacy called “Merveilleux”. It’s a pastry made from meringue topped with ganache and surrounded with sprinkles. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious!  


Dinner was at a really delicious restaurant called “Le Barber Qui Fume” (The Barber who Smokes), where everything is smoked (really everything). 

We checked out the Lille Zoo which only costs 4 Euro for entry (it used to be free) and has a pretty impressive variety of animals including Red Pandas!

Lille is small so we visited the city quite quickly, but it made for a perfect little weekend adventure :) 


Amsterdam

Now that the Eurostar has direct trains from London to Amsterdam (only one way so far), it gave us extra incentive to visit Amsterdam :) 

We decided to do a walking tour to start off our trip and enjoyed it so much that we booked another one for the next day. 

Our first tour covered 3 km and recounted the history of Amsterdam through story-telling, and the second tour was 6.5 km through areas that are more off the beaten path.  Both tours were super interesting and funny.  In particular, the first tour was one of the most interesting walking tours we've ever done!  Here are a few notable things they told us:
  • The name Amsterdam comes from the dam built on the river Amstel that passes through the city.
  • Holland ("wood lands") is the western part of the Netherlands ("low lands").  It lies largely below sea level.
  • Since Amsterdam is located on swamp land, each house is built to sit on 40 to 50 wood posts that run 15 meter deep.  This helps to prevent the houses from sinking.  
  • The entire city burned down twice in history, so now there are only only 2 wooden houses left.
  • Napoleon, after his conquest, forced everyone to have surnames. Hollanders previously didn't use surnames and thought the idea was silly, so they made up silly surnames for themselves thinking it was just temporary. Although the French left, the surnames stayed, so, to this day many people still have their funny Dutch surnames such as Naaktgeboren ("born naked"), Piest ("urinating"), Poepjes ("little farts"), etc.


As you walk through the streets, you notice that the houses looks like they are falling over or leaning out into the street.  Sometimes this is due to the rotting of their wooden support posts, but in many cases, the leaning construction is actually intentional!  If you look up at the top of many homes you will see a pulley, rope, and hook.  The pulley system allows for furniture/goods to be easily hoist to the upper floors and attic.  Having the house tilted slightly forward allows the item to be pulled straight up without bumping into the front of the building on the way up.


The Red Light district
  • We always thought it was legal to consume marijuana in Amsterdam, but learned that it's actually "illegal, but tolerated".  Shops are licensed to sell it, even though it’s illegal.
  • Prostitution became legal and regulated in 2000. 
    • On average a lady gets 12 to 16 patron per 8 hour shift
    • The average time that a man spends with the woman is 8 minutes 
    • There are no male prostitutes for women - apparently they did try, but it failed after 4 days 

Jen couldn't wait to try all the Dutch Pancake restaurants we could find!

One of the other highlights of our trip was our hotel.  Hotel Not Hotel had a great location, amazing atmosphere, and a really fun twist on their variety of rooms - one room was made from an old tram car, others were "secret rooms" hidden behind the bookshelves.. and their "Kevin Bacon" restaurant food was delicious!!


There were so many interesting things we learned during the tour (way too many to blog about :) ).  So if you're planning to visit Amsterdam we definitely recommend taking the free walking tour with Free Dam Tours to find out more!  

Dover Castle and Tunnels

Dom’s nephew, Emilio, is currently studying political science in Lyon.  He decided to hop on a train to come visit us for a weekend. 

Since we didn't have much time to visit Dover during our previous trip (where we hiked from Folkestone to Deal), we decided to bring Emilio to visit the Dover Castle and the WWII Fan Bay Shelter.  

Our first stop was the white cliffs of Dover, before hiking up to Fan Bay Deep Shelter.

The shelter is a network of tunnels and accommodations 23 meters below the surface.  It was built to house the artillery crew protecting the English Channel during WWII. Our guide was very enthusiastic about the tunnels and seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to share the experience with us. His excitement was contagious, making it a very interesting instructive experience.  

Dover's white cliffs are made of chalk which formed from the remains of animals that died and decayed at the bottom of the sea over a million years ago - yep that means the 110m high cliffs of Dover actually used to be at the bottom of the sea!  Since the tunnel walls are chalk, there are many names and dates carved into the walls by those living there during the war.


Before heading home, we stopped to visit the medieval Dover Castle which also has tunnels that were used as a war room during WWII. You can even go out to the balcony where Churchill stood to watch the battles taking place in the channel.