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An afternoon in Belém

A short Tram 15 ride away to the southwest from Lisbon, Belém beckons. Two main sights draw the visitors in – the Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém. Some may say there’s a third attraction – the Pastéis de Belém where queue stretches beyond its front door with a length that rivals the monastery and the tower. Arriving late in the afternoon from Tomar, we skipped the pastry and visited the heritage sites. (There are quite a few museums around too but they don’t have quite the pull like these three.)

Belém

Belém

We visited on the first Sunday of the month, so both Tower of Belém and Jerónimos Monastery were free to enter. That being on the weekend, there were quite a lot of people visiting too, but without the delays caused by ticket purchase, we did get in reasonably quickly. A 10-minutes walk separate the two if you go along the seafront, passing the Monument to the Discoveries en route, with a view of the reduced-size Golden Gate Bridge (actually Ponte 25 de Abril) and Christ the Redeemer (known as Cristo Rei) in the horizon.

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Enigma of the Convento de Cristo

Strategically placed on a hill and overlooking the town while remaining near to River Nabão, the Castelo de Tomar is an imposing figure, protective over the Convento de Cristo, as both constructed were under the watchful eyes of Gualdim Pais and set to be the seat of the Knights Templar in Portugal. Today a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the air of mystery is abound within the walls of the castle and the convent, alongside interesting Templar and Manueline architecture – with hints of Moorish and Gothic influence – to feast our eyes upon.

Convento de Cristo

Convento de Cristo

The castle, expectedly, forms the defence system which in the past, secured the Christian Kingdom which was advancing from the north against the Moors which reigned supreme in the south. The outer defensive wall has sloped lower half and round towers to make it more difficult to attack. When the citadel within reached its capacity for residency, dwellings outside the walls were built, which gave rise to Tomar. As you can imagine, it’s now a relatively easy walk between the town and the castle.

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Festa dos Tabuleiros

Every four years, the town of Tomar honours the Holy Spirit. Every four years, for about six months before the Festa dos Tabuleiros (aka Festival of the Trays), households were busy making flowers and leaves from crêpe paper. Every four years, expectant tray bearers put their names onto a list and hope to be a chosen ones. Every four years, the streets are lavishly decorated and there is a certain zing in the air.

Festa dos Tabuleiros

Festa dos Tabuleiros

During each festival, parades are organised where the locals are paired up, age-appropriately, and the girls/ladies carry the tabuleiros on their heads. Typically, for adults, the tabuleiros are approximately the height of the bearer! Built using stacked breads decorated with paper flowers, leaves and oats, often topped with crown and dove or crown with holy cross, the tabuleiros are not very heavy per se but there are certainly some training needed to balance the trays against the elements. (We spotted many who practiced walking with their trays around town, usually in the evening when it was cooler.)

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Postcards: Tomar (PT)

The legend of Knights Templar, rebaptised Order of Christ in Portugal, is well and alive in Tomar. Founded in the 12th century by the 4th Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Gualdim Pais, it is today a town of pilgrimage – it lies on the St James’ way from Portugal – which honours their tradition by hosting the annual Festa Templária, the Knights Templar Festival, where hundreds of local participate and dressed as Knights Templar to parade through the streets.

Tomar

Tomar

The heart of it all is the Convento de Cristo (more on this in an upcoming post), perched above the town, a symbol of the glorious past when the Knights Templar enjoyed great privileges and revered by many. The distinctive cross that came to represent them can be found all over Tomar, and there’s even rumour of hidden treasures of the Order but like any good ol’ legend, who knows its veracity? After Sintra, Tomar may on the surface seems less spectacular but there are enough mysteries to keep a healthy imagination going. ;)

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Palace-hopping in Sintra

I debated if I should write a single (long) post of the palaces we visited in Sintra, or break them down individually. Laziness won. ;)

Palaces of Sintra

Palaces of Sintra

The one really tricky thing task is whittling down the number of photos on this entry, so scroll down for the links to the Flickr photosets if you really want to see them all. Be glad I selected only some 30 photos on average per palace, from the few hundreds I took for each! :p

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Exquisite Sintra

We took one look at Sintra and F turned to me, “Are you sure we won’t add another night here and reduce one in Tomar?”. In hindsight, yes, we should have done that. Don’t get me wrong – Tomar is a lovely historical town (more on this when I get round to writing about it) but there are just so much more to do and to visit in Sintra – in addition to being drop dead gorgeous – by comparison that we could benefit from a longer visit here. The 48-hours we allocated flew by far too quickly so we were also rather baffled to see so many day-trippers from Lisbon shuttling in and out quickly in a few hours.

Sintra

Sintra

Travellers from Lisbon, us included, can easily get to Sintra in about 45 minutes from Lisboa-Rossio train station, if one managed to find the train station in the first place… It is not the best sign-posted train station we’ve ever came across and from the exterior, it could easily passed for a city hall or something to that effect. Gorgeous building, terrible signage. In any case, armed with our topped-up Viva Viagem card, we beeped our way across the barrier and hopped on the next train out. There are trains every 10-30 minutes, depending on the time of the day, and one-way travel costs €2.15 per person.

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Postcards: Caldeira do Faial (PT)

At the heart of Faial lies the Caldeira, seated atop Cabeço Gordo (“fat mountain”), which opened to a spectacular view not only within the crater but the coasts of the island too. Standing at 1,043m above sea level, this is the highest peak of Faial that on a clear day, opened panoramically towards neighbouring Pico, São Jorge and Graciosa.

Caldeira

Caldeira

The caldera is 2km wide with a depth of 400m, and a 8km path exists for a short 2-2.5 hours hike for the keen. Clouds hovered over us as we made our way around the caldera, at time walking on narrow path with immediate drop on both side of the path (eeek!), at time on wide-enough-for-a-car path, and at time on muddy ground especially after some rain. The strong wind was my bigger concern – what if it tried to blow me away?

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Not too blue in Faial

“If you drive non-stop along the primary road, you can complete the loop in about an hour.”

Faial is not a very big island, home to about 15,000 inhabitants, a large caldera at Cabeço Gordo (more on that in a separate post), a relatively new land mass called the Capelinhos, and if the name of one of the hiking trails is anything to go by, a series of 10 volcanoes on a route of 20km (it’ll take 7 hours to hike). To us, Faial is more green from the vegetation than blue, for we didn’t see quite that much blooming hydrangeas that help earn the island its nickname of the Blue Island…

Faial

Faial

Like Pico, micro-climate is everywhere but we largely got lucky and managed to stay ahead of the rain cloud most location we went, unless it happened to be raining heavily islandwide… I managed to get a bunch of postcards written up while waiting for the sky to clear, even as we lamented the loss of time to be out exploring. Or go on a marine excursion.

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Postcards: Capelinhos (PT)

Just under 60 year ago, over at the Azores, the sea was rumbling. Throughout the course of the following 13 months, regular tremors were felt and active volcanic eruptions sent the residents of Faial, especially those on the western half of the island, packing and sailing for Boston after they lost their homes and agricultural lands, abandoned and buried under thick layers of ashes. To this day, the surrounding area remained largely uninhabited.

Capelinhos

Capelinhos

Those who stayed, or came to study the event, saw the birth of a new land mass that attached itself to the Costado da Nau Volcano, extending Faial with an area of about 2.4km² off the coast of Capelo. It was baptised Capelinhos; it is also the most western land point of the Eurasian plate. Today, what we see is a unique landscape of barren layers of submarine ashes and hardened lavas. Mother Nature sure knows how to make an entrance.

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Up, up, up Mount Pico

How do you spot the unprepared pair of hikers at Mount Pico, the highest point on Pico Island with an altitude of 2,351m? Well, they arrived at 1pm to commence what is normally a 7-hour trek (3 hours up, 4 hours down) with 1.5L of drinking water between them, a puny sandwich each for lunch, plus a couple of cereal bars for snack. And oh, no trekking poles either. There you go, it seemed F and I were off on a great start, no? :p

Mount Pico

Mount Pico

After a scenic drive from São Roque to the Casa da Montanha (i.e. House of the Mountain) that took longer than expected, but we suspect much prettier and off the beaten path compared to the route that most visitors have normally been sent along, we duly reported ourselves to the staff in charge so we can be registered, provided with a GPS tracking phone in case of emergency and rescue, and briefed on safety and relevant information. We were lucky that the day was clear and the conditions to trek, according to the staff, was the best for the dates that we were in Pico. We also had just about enough time to do a day hike and return before the day turned night. Up we go then!

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The young, volcanic Pico

We flew a couple of hours across the Atlantic from Lisbon, where all that I could see from my 5E seat (read: not much) was a large expanse of water for the bulk of the journey, when billowy clouds start to make their appearance. I joked to F that it’d just be our luck to get cloudy weather in the Azores when it had been clear up until now, and boy I should have kept my mouth shut. Indeed, we would soon be landing, and the clouds were there to stay and kept us company for the day.

Pico

Pico

The masterplan: fly in to Horta, Faial, on the first flight and catch a ferry to Madalena, Pico, the same morning at 10.45am. However, our flight departure was delayed so we missed the sailing by 15 minutes and had to wait till 1.15pm. Maybe just as well. We were at the ferry terminal when I noticed that “our” checked luggage was not ours. Darn! A frantic call later – thank goodness for luggage tag – we managed to locate its owner who, in turn, had our luggage. He was also travelling to Pico, so at least we could luggage-swap without having to return to the airport.

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Fort du Dellec to Pointe du Petit Minou

It is a given that I cannot head to Brittany without my runners or hiking boots in the bag. F and his buddy C are always looking for trails they can walk, and there are certainly plenty of them around Brest and its environs. Admittedly, I quite like these picturesque chemins côtiers too, it’s just that I’m often trailing behind them because (1) I stop all the time to take photos, and (2) the boys have longer steps that my short legs can’t quite catch up with.

Dellec to Minou

Dellec to Minou

The trail from the Fort du Dellec to the Pointe du Petit Minou (how cute are the names?) is a relatively short one compared to most that we do. It take about two hours to do a return trip, and C often even jogs here. If there is such a lovely jogging space nearer to our place, perhaps I could be motivated to run more often too. Or not. :p

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Weekender: Mont St Michel

F and I were up at an ungodly hour – or what felt like it, since I got home near 1am after a week of work trip away – yesterday morning to kick start our long weekend trip in Brittany. The train from Gare Montparnasse took us to Dol-de-Bretagne in just under 3 hours, and a time-coordinated bus was waiting outside the train station (slightly to the right) to take us to Mont St Michel in 30 minutes.

Mont St Michel

Mont St Michel

On arrival, we headed to the visitors’ information centre, where free lockers are available for safe-guarding our main luggage for the trip and relieved us from having to drag it everywhere with us. A 1-euro coin will do the trick in locking up the door, which you can retrieve when you return the key later on. Time to make our way to the famous abbey-and-fortress-on-a-large-rock, and we opted for a walk instead of queuing up for the free shuttle; anyone feeling fancy could take a horse-powered carriage!

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Central Glasgow

I did not know what to expect of Glasgow but I understood that it is rather different from Edinburgh, which I visited a good few years ago over a chilly December weekend and spotted JK Rowling in a park as well as observing hundreds of Santas who participated in a charity run. I also wished I did not underestimate its wind chill and had brought a coat with me instead of the slim cardigan – pretty but not practical enough this far north in Scotland!

Glasgow

Glasgow

With several meetings and a conference to attend, it was not all leisure for me in the largest city of Scotland. Luckily, as the days are long in the summer, I get an hour or so each evening to wander about with S, one of my colleagues, before getting our dinner, and even a good few hours on the final day. If only there was more time to visit areas other than central Glasgow…

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Postcards: Rosenberg Castle Gardens (DK)

The oldest park in central Copenhagen, Rosenberg Castle Gardens – also known as the King’s Garden (Kongens Have) is a beautiful spot to leisurely stroll in, even on a day when the sun decided to stay hidden behind the layer of cloud. Tourists by the bus load were busy queueing up for the castle and trying to catch a glimpse of the royal crowns and whats not, but we just wanted to walk around the gardens.

The King's Garden

The King's Garden

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Copenhagen City Hall

The Copenhagen City Hall started its life as a palace of the people, built by the skilful hands of the guilds who also funded its construction. It remains a palace of the people, today the seat of the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen and the municipal council, with its door open to all, even tourists who just wish to roam its halls randomly. Getting in is a very informal affair – just walk through the main entrance. (Nonetheless, understandably, not all areas are accessible at all time to everyone, since it is a workplace afterall and not an amusement park – that, is right across the street.)

Copenhagen City Hall

Copenhagen City Hall

Curious culture buff that we are, on finding out there are guided tours of the Rådhus and its tower – costing DKK 50 and DKK 30 respectively – J, F and I made a (small) beeline for them, and soaked up some interesting info shared by a staff who has worked for 15 years in the building and absolutely loves discovering, and uncovering, its secrets. Afterall, the architect responsible for its form and decor, Martin Nyrop, did not leave behind written legacy to describe his toil of 12 years, despite all the intricate details he incorporated to the structure.

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Postcards: Christianshavn (DK)

A short walk from Slotsholmen via Knippelsbro took us across to Christianshavn, a neighbourhood laced with canals and cobblestoned streets. For an area considered part of the city centre of a capital city, it has all the charm of the countryside by the sea. It oozes an unique vibe of cosyness, perhaps reflecting the philosphy of hygge that the Danes subscribe to. Or maybe it’s the waft of herbal joints from the freetown Christiania?

Christianshavn

Christianshavn

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Delicious Danish eats

You know we’ve got to talk about Danish food at some point, no?

Much as I wish I could report back on an experience chez Noma, that did not happen because it’s so freaking difficult to get a table, not to mention the risk of going into an overdraft given how puny my salary is by comparison to the living standard in Denmark. But, there were plenty of delicious things to eat at more wallet-friendly prices *phew*

Danish cuisine

Danish cuisine

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Cemetery parks

I know this is going to sound morbid, but if it is at all possible, I wouldn’t mind calling the Assistens Kirkegård or Bispebjerg Kirkegård my afterlife home. If only you’ve seen how beautiful, well-tended, serene and calming these cemeteries are, you’d wish for such a fine final resting spot too. The famous – and over-crowded – Père Lachaise in Paris would be envious of its Danish cousins.

Cemetery park

Cemetery park

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Postcards: Nørrebro (DK)

On our way from central Copenhagen to J’s place, we travelled past and overhead the S-Tog Ringline. On one side of the road, I noticed colourful structures and street art installation. Unfairly known as the ghetto, according to J, the neighbourhood had seen some riots in the past but the transformation that took place in recent years has brought it new prestige. J happily showed us around this multicultural and bright – and increasingly hipster-friendly – quarter.

Nørrebro

Nørrebro

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Goddag from Christiansborg Tower

Goddag! F and I have been fortunate enough to spend a long weekend in Copenhagen, and to see our friend J who was also a fantastic host, proudly showing off what the Danish capital has to offer. In no time, he got us oriented well and one of the first places that we visited was the Christiansborg Tower – free to visit, by the way – that stands high over a former royal palace but is today the seat of the Danish Parliament as well as the Office of the Primer Minister and the Supreme Court. Parts of the palace remains in use by the monarchy.

Christiansborg Tower

Christiansborg Tower

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Postcards: Schloss Heidelberg (DE)

The ruins of the Heidelberg Castle perched romantically to overlook the Altstadt, surrounded by forest and park. First built in the 1200s and successively expanded by Palatine prince electors, it was through French hands that it fell rather thoroughly in the late 1600s, burned and blown up during the course of the Nine Years War. Subsequent attempts to reconstruct the castle was hampered by financial difficulties and fires caused by lightning strikes, the latter taken as an omen from heaven that the Palatine court should not return to Heidelberg Castle. And thus, a well-loved ruin is born, no doubt helped by beautiful descriptions written by Victor Hugo and Mark Twain, among others.

Schloss Heidelberg

Schloss Heidelberg

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Postcards: Heidelberg Altstadt (DE)

Work travel recently took me to Heidelberg, a town which up to then was known to me largely because multiple research institutes are based here, including EMBO, EMBL and Max Planck Institutes. Somehow it escaped my radar as a place to visit, given the famed Heidelberg Castle and the picturesque, baroque Altstadt have made it a popular tourist destination. Whenever I did not have a meeting session to attend, I went out exploring ;)

Heidelberg

Heidelberg

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So many places…

Q: What makes a wonderful gift to someone who has been bitten by the travel bug?
A: A scratch map! (pun not intended) ;)

Scratch map

Scratch map

Anne gave me this highly entertaining gift for Christmas but I’ve just got round to getting the materials to hang this map in the apartment. Right now, I’m attempting to remove the curls out of it, after a lot of fun scratching out the places that I’ve to, plus a couple of countries which I’ll be visiting soon – I’m too excited to leave them off the map!

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Once upon a clear sky in Hong Kong

Sunny days with blue sky were hard to come by during my little sojourn in Hong Kong. We had snatches of it on our first day – ah, what a bright welcome – and then the city was just shrouded in foggy whiteness/greyness on the following days. I was beginning to wonder if I was actually in Hong Kong or in Beijing… Lo and behold, on the final day of my trip, I woke up to clear blue sky and everything was basking in shimmering light!

Sunny Hong Kong

Sunny Hong Kong

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So many markets

I’ve lost count of the number of markets I stumbled upon in Hong Kong. In the vicinity of Mong Kong/Yau Ma Tei, visitors’ guides are recommending the Bird Market, the Flower Markets, the Ladies’ Market, the Temple Street Night Market and the Jade Market. The variety of things that anyone could buy is just mind-boggling. Not only that, all of these markets could be pretty much visited in one go – they form a complete walking tour route! Somewhere along the way, there are shops and stalls to pick up walkabout snacks. ;)

Hong Kong markets

Hong Kong markets

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Hong Kong by night

Central Hong Kong puts up a colourful display of neon lightings no matter where you go and look, and over at the harbour waterfront, the Symphony of Lights set to wow visitors nightly at 8pm with its almost-15 minutes lightshow. I caught the show one evening from the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, and for anyone interested in listening to the accompanying narration, the places to be are the Avenue of Stars and Golden Bauhinia Square (Wan Chai).

Hong Kong by night

Hong Kong by night

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Postcards: Stanley (HK)

For yet another change of scenery from central Hong Kong and its skyscrapers, A and I took the bus out to Stanley, one of the oldest villages in Hong Kong, and the site of a former English fort that is now famous for its market bearing the same name. En route, I spied the cable cars that transport visitors to the Ocean Park and some of the park’s rollercoasters, and I also looked admiringly at the scenic Repulse Bay – nothing repulsive there, right? We found Stanley Market highly commercialised and generic to many other local markets; walking along the main street waterfront and Stanley Ma Hang Park was decidedly more interesting.

Stanley

Stanley

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Tai O fishing village

A short 20-minutes bus ride away, to the west of Po Lin Monastery, lies Tai O, a traditional fishing village that sits partly on Lantau Island and partly on a small island mere metres away – not immediately obvious until I had a closer look at the map. The small island is today connected to Lantau by way of 2 bridges: Tai Chung footbridge (completed 1996) and Sun Ki bridge (completed 1979); until then, river crossing relied on punting and even rope-tow ferry pulled by elderly Hakka women! If you want to experience the latter, it may be possible on some weekends and holidays, but not on the day I was visiting.

Tai O

Tai O

On arrival, we were lured by the touts selling boat tour of the village and to see the pink dolphins. The 30-minutes ride is very affordable, and while no sighting of the dolphins for us that particular day, what I actually found more fascinating is the way of life in this small village that relies heavily on the river and the sea for their livelihood. It is as different from central Hong Kong as day and night. No skyscrapers, no shopping malls, but houses so close that the neighbours could stick their heads into each other’s living rooms.

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Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha

SL and I arrived at Tung Chung, and we started to hem haw – should we trek for 3-3.5 hours or queue up for for the cable car in order to get to the Ngong Ping plateau, where the Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha are located? It was already past noon, the sun high in the sky, and the queue for the cable car didn’t look too bad (it ended up being a 40-minutes wait). And I admit it, I was feeling lazy too. Cable car, it is!

Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha

Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha

The 6km-ride from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping plateau took about 20-25 minutes, over uninhabited peaks and rather magnificent view. We could also see the trekking trail just below us, and spotted the occasional walkers heading downhill towards Tung Chung. Clearly, they’d been up at the Lantau Peak much earlier in the day and were ready to wind things down.

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