McKinney Gypsy Caravan

One part travel blog. One part nerdy history lesson.

Author: Erin McKinney (page 2 of 18)

Day 4 – Sintra, Portugal and up the coast

Wow, what a killer day for touring! The weather was just perfect. Bright, sunny and about 70-75 degrees…. couldn’t have asked for better. It was a great complement to the gorgeous palaces and castles of Sintra. We started our day by parking at the Sintra train station and getting an Uber to the Pena Palace-a national landmark of Portugal. The Palace is built on the site of an old monastery from the 1100s. It was mostly destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755….but soon to be King Ferdinard II really loved this site… so in the 1830s, he purchased this old monastery and the nearby Castle of the Moors and soon would build a palace. He became King when his wife, Queen Maria II (remember the 7 year old girl that was given the crown by her father? same girl, now age 18) and he had their first child. Together, both Ferdinand and Maria designed the various pieces of the palace, including Arab and Moorish influences

It has the most amazing views from the top of the highest hills. In fact, it is so high and distinct in position, on a clear day you can see this from Lisbon in the distance.

If you look closely to the view, you can see the Castle of the Moors, a medieval castle built in the 900s by the Arab Moors and taken back by Christian forces in the 1100s during the reconquest of Portugal. This ruined castle was also part of the land purchase King Ferdinand made and he committed lots of resources to restoring and preserving it.

This is by far the most toured and well-known site of Portugal I would bet… and it shows. Tour bus after tour bus was arriving as we were leaving. So many people. Kegan was about to his wits end with the people… so it was a perfect time to head to the next tourist site. ha

Back at the gift shop and main entrance, we hired a Tuk Tuk driver to take us to the Quinta da Regalaira. With all of the major hills and mountains, it would have taken all day to walk between these sites… but a motorized tuk tuk cart and 20 euro… you’re there in 15 minutes ๐Ÿ™‚

Norah made friends with a little french girl. This was after making friends with a little Italian boy at Pena Palace. ha

There isn’t a huge history to this estate… just how amazing it all is with grottos and waterfalls, stepping stone entrances, Tarot card and Free Mason initiation wells built into the ground, a super-Gothic style palace with 5 floors, lookout points, underground tunnels …. it was just amazing

There was a Sequoia tree planted in the middle of the estate! The Pena Palace has this sort of odd trees/plants thing, too- over 400 plants and trees brought from all over the world.

I was here for these super strange “Initiation wells”. 88 ft deep and never actually used as a well for water, No one really knows the true purpose, but they have a lot of symbolism with Tarot mysticism and its thought they were part of some secret ceremony. The guy who owned and built these was a well known Free Mason and was into secret codes of the Knights Templar and alchemy.

There are 9 landings, representing the 9 levels of Hell in Dante’s inferno. The steps between each containing 27 steps, which is dictated by Masonic principles (according to websites anyway…I couldn’t find any actual info on this as much as I tried…all the websites just seemed to be copying each other.)

We walked around and found this cave/tunnel that emptied out in to a pool with stepping stones to cross to the other side.

We walked on down the property to the palace where we toured the inside…

After seeing the palace, it was time to walk back down the hill 15 minutes or so into the town of Sintra. I had read about pastries that just could not be missed from a bakery that had been baking for the King and Queen since the palace was built in the 1800s.

We ended up with a Pastais de Nata (egg custard), an orange cake (I don’t know the name), a Queijada pastry- sort of a cheesecake like pastry… and a Travesseiro – an almond creme filled “pillow” covered in sugar that is unique to the Sintra area. All in all, they were OK… but nothing I’d say is “cant miss”.

We ate our pastries in the car and headed north along the coast. We came to a point with an old fortress and a beautiful rocky coastline.

We next drove the town of ร’bidos, which I had planned on walking around… but honestly, the idea of parking at the bottom of this hill outside the city walls, leaving the car and walking all the way to the top wasn’t really appealing… and we were a little behind schedule anyway.

We did stop off in their local supermarket though to grab some shelf-stable items we could keep in the car for the next few days.

We found gazpacho…something both Kegan and I could drink every day. The fresh tomatoes, peppers, onion… mmmmhhh. Cant get enough of it.

Kegan found me some Cape Gooseberries- my favorite fruit- that were local to Portugal. So good.

Also picked up some random other items. Cherry tomatoes, oranges, chocolate, wine, bread….

I wish we had a big cooler or fridge though because the most impressive thing was their seafood counter!

I want to live somewhere where my local seafood counter looks this good. Holy cow! I think if we come back to Portugal, I would plan 2-3 days around the beach in summer and AirBnb a place with a kitchen and cook ALL the seafoods. ๐Ÿ™‚

We drove on to the town of Caldas do Rainha where our hotel was for the night and we then walked across town to a small restaurant called Tibino Casa de Petiscos. Such a good choice.

Our starters included a bread basket and olives and we ordered some small plates

Razor Clams

Salmon Ceviche

Fried Cuddlefish

Kegan’s main course was wood fire grilled octopus and we both agreed it was the best we had ever had…and up until now, we had given that honor to Monterey Fish House in central California…but now the honor will be bestowed here.

I had ordered the Portuguese steak because I thought it was something different, basically. haha It was OK.. but nothing great.

They were so cute and brought us a hand-written dessert menu in English.

They had a photo on Google that I was trying to order…and the only thing that maybe matched up was the almond tart on the menu… turns out, it wasn’t what I was trying to order. haha but it was ok.

It seems like a good time to mention just how amazingly open and nice everyone in Portugal is. Everywhere we go people cant wait to tell us about all the fun things around that we should see and do in their town… and are always so eager to speak in English with us when they see us majorly struggling with Portuguese. I didn’t expect that, I never expect anyone to speak MY language when I don’t speak their’s… but they seem genuinely shocked when Norah says “Obigrada” (thank you) and “ola” (hello), like they think it’s the cutest thing. ha

Tomorrow is another day hopping between towns seeing sites and old buildings ๐Ÿ™‚ See ya then!

Day 3 – Lisbon, Portugal

We had a big day and a LOT of walking for all of our poor little legs. (even Kegan.. so you know it was rough. ha) Our hotel is a couple miles from the downtown section we wanted to start out in, so we grabbed an Uber to a famous lookout point over Lisbon where we could see everything we would be seeing today. At the far upper left you can see the Castle of St Jorge.. which is where we headed from here.

At the castle, there was another great vantage point to view the city.

There were quite a few peacocks on the grounds. Very pretty, but very loud!

Norah wanted to climb to the top of one of the lookout points.

If you look closely… you’ll see a very happy child. ha

So many old buildings along all of the streets are covered in old tiles and azulejo tile pictures.

Even the new buildings get a tile exterior it seems. This teal one with black metal accents was my favorite.

Portugal is famous for its vintage yellow tram cars that take you around the city. In all honesty, I should have researched riding the tram more, but we just took pictures. No rides.

We walked along to the Lisbon Cathedral.

The inside was impressive. It was built more like a fortress than a church… and it turns out, there may be a reason. It was built by Christian crusaders in the 1100s when they defeated the Arabs in this area. So, the knocked down a very important Mosque and began construction of this church. Christians looked a lot different back in the crusades. The army wasn’t much more than a bunch of drunks and thieves… who “liberated” the city from the Arabs… and then promptly pilfered it themselves. But… as warriors of a sort, turns out they knew how to construct a building. It has survived multiple earthquakes and has been standing for 900 years. So here’s to Jesus’s bandits and thieves!

Our next stop was to the Conserveira de Lisboa, a family run tinned fish shop that has been open and selling canned fish like sardines and mackerel for over 80 years. They are one of the few shops left and their goal is maintain the tradition of how the majority of the people of Lisbon ate their fish for many many years. I read an article on a UK website about it and just loved the idea and wanted to patronize the business while in town. Plus, I love sardines, smoked oysters, mackerel, tuna… basically anything that comes in a can with oil is my jam… so I am excited to see what these traditional and special Portuguese fish taste like.

I had to keep it under control though… and only purchased 4 items: 2 types of mackerel, a tuna mousse and sardines in a tomato sauce.

Poor Kegan had to be superman and carry Norah to our next destination. She couldn’t hack it anymore.

We passed through the Arc de Rua Augusta, an arch that was constructed to celebrate the rebuilding of the city after a massive Earthquake in 1755

After climbing some steep hills back up away from the coast, we had a view of the rear of the Santa Luzia lift- a famous elevator for helping to navigate the steep climbs. You can ride it up from the bottom and avoid quite a bit of huffing and puffing. But we didn’t ha

We got a glimpse of the Carmo Convent.. but I was too tired to even want to pay to go in, sadly. They had construction barricades up everywhere and I get that they need to rehab things that are old… but maybe don’t charge people in the interim when they cant even see half of it? I have a ethical issue with charging for churches anyway… so that’s likely just a personality flaw of mine… haha but we didn’t go in.

We walked down some steps along some businesses to Rossio Square. There is a monument to Pedro IV, the “soldier king”. He conquered Brazil and was the first king there. He seemed to be well liked and just. I like him because he was crowned king of Portugal during his time in Brazil, but he abdicated his throne in favor of his firstborn child- a GIRL. He sent her back to Portugal to rule (at 7 years old- I would have to assume under direct supervision) and when she was overthrown by a King Miguel… Pedro IV abdicated the Brazilian throne to his son, set off to Portugal and went to war to win it back for her. The war lasted years and in the end, he died days after the last battle, but saw his 16 year old daughter be coronated at Queen Maria II. That’s a feel good story in my book!

You can see the gorgeous Portuguese mosaic tile floors. A lot of the sidewalks were made like this, too. Such an art form.

Something local here around the square are these old Ginjinha houses. Basically little walk-up tasting bars where you can order a shot of sour cherry liqueur. We decided this Ginja needed to be tasted. So we tested three.

The third was our favorite. Maybe because we were already two shots deep… but this is where we decided to buy a bottle to bring home. It’s sort of like a cherry brandy/port wine taste. Very strong alcohol. but very good.

Our next stop was Time Out Market. A foodie paradise. The inside of the building is just lined with small stalls of all the best Lisbon has to offer! Famous chefs have stalls here, all the famous Portuguese pastries- here. I had previously researched what we could not miss and we started down the list.

Asian Beef Tartar and Tuna Tartar from Tartar-la

Pork Belly Confit from chef Alexandre Silva

Sardine and Cod Nigiri from Sea Me

Traditional portuguese croquettes from Oh My Cod

Duck croquette with orange glaze

and some sweet potato chips for Norah.

With happy bellies, it was time to Uber down to Belem to see a few last sites for the day. The first was the Jeronimos Monastery. They were closing up the ticket lines for the monastery, but we were able to pop into the cathedral.

This is the burial place of Vasco da Gama, the first navigator to find a sea route to India. In the late 1400s, getting to India via the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula was dangerous business. So much so that most of Europe didn’t even try. The fact that he was able to identify a way for Portugal to get pepper and cinnamon, among other new spices…. gave portugal great wealth for decades before other European countries found their own route to India via the sea.

I can’t ever leave well enough alone with those rose-colored glasses, now can I? There is a very interesting history associated with Da Gama…. he is remembered a heroic figure, but that first voyage had 3 ships and returned with 2, half manned because over half his crew died and the rest mostly had scurvy. His brother died, one ship crashed…and he made enemies with the leader in India..when the Zamorin (his title) wouldn’t agree to a trade treaty and told Da Gama he needed to pay tax like every other trader, he got mad and stole a bunch of citizens of India by force and took them with him back home. I’m sure they died along the way… but can you imagine having the mindset that to piss off a king, you’d just steal some average people and fisherman you saw along your way back to your boat and just tote them home back to Portugal? Can you imagine BEING one of those stolen people? It’s an incredible thought that these things happened. Da Gama kind of sounds like an arrogant jerk.. he caused the King to fight with the church because Da Gama wanted land the church didn’t want to give up.. and basically pushed the king to defend his claim because of how valuable he was to the country. He wanted to be crowned Admiral of the Seas for Portugal because Spain gave Christopher Columbus that title. ha Oh..men and their egos. Anyway, I couldn’t resist ruining a good historical figure’s reputation. You’re welcome.

Just down the street is the famous Pasteis de Belem, the most famous egg custard tart around. Usually there is a line around the block, but we hit right at the end of the day so only a few people in front of us.

A short walk away was the Padrรฃo Dos Descobrimentos, a monument in honor of Portugal’s explorer past with stone carvings of various people associated with exploration in that age. Vasco Da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan -the first person to circumnavigate the globe- and others including kings who supported the exploration, priests who served as missionaries, etc

I thought it was a very well done monument and I love it facing West out over the water.

Our last attraction was the famous Tower of Belem. Built in the early 1500s as a way to protect the mouth of the Tagus river from invaders, it still stands today. We made it right about sunset time, which made for some great photos.

After that, it was an Uber back to the hotel and room service because we couldn’t motivate ourselves to shower, change clothes and taxi out again for dinner. So showers, a burger, club sandwich, and caesar salad had to do. ๐Ÿ™‚ Tomorrow is Sintra, the old royal stomping grounds not too far away from Lisbon with some majorly cool palaces and views. and hills. always more hills. ha

Day 2-Merida, Spain and Evora, Portugal

What a difference 8 hours of sleep makes! Feeling much better today and that was good because we had a lot of ground to cover and a lot of walking to do.
We packed up our stuff and walked the 10 minutes back to our car in the city garage (since the tiny old town had no parking for visitors.) I even got yelled at a little in Spanish by a delivery driver this morning when we came back to load up suitcases for being in his way. haha Meh. whatever. It’s hard to get offended when you only understand half of what they say. I got the jist… you can’t park here. this is for deliveries only. ha I said “solo para dos minutos” -two minutes- and he rolled his eyes and walked away haha He wasn’t wrong… I just didn’t have another option! If you want tourist money, sometimes you have deal with tourist crap. ha

We drove towards Merida, Spain- a very important and strategic old Roman city….and by now, you know how I feel about anything Roman! So it was a good day ๐Ÿ™‚

Along the way, we stopped at Los Barruecos- giant megalithic stones with engravings alongside this beautiful lake. It really was a neat protected area with tons of storks. It was a nice little detour off the interstate.

As we came into town we passed alongside the Acueducto de los Milagros (Miracle Aqueduct) that is AMAZINGly preserved….but it was hard to get a non-blurry photo- so here’s a Wikipedia one…just because it’s hard to explain how cool this aqueduct is.

We made a quick stop at the playground because #norah.

Our first site on foot was the Temple of Diana.

It has a Visigoth House built in the middle of it. Long story short, some important guy a long time ago thought he needed to construct his house on the temple foundation and it still stands there! ha
The town trees are all budding and look really cool right now. Other areas are lined with Orange trees. I want to pick and eat one so bad.

Streets lined with orange trees

We walked to another Roman excavation site, what appeared to be a theater, but I didn’t have good notes on it.

My own little Roman soldier.

Our last major stop in Merida was the site of the Roman amphitheater and the theater. Such well-preserved/reconstructed remains! The theater really was amazing.

After walking around these grounds for a while, we started back across town. It really was a pretty town.

Our last site before getting back to the car was the Roman bridge. The longest Roman bridge- in fact, the longest bridge known in the entire ancient world…. with something like 60 arches. Quite impressive. You can see in the photo that it continues on WAY past the trees on the right side. It used to run into the gate of the Alcazaba- an Arab fortress that was built when the city was conquered by the Arabs in the 800s.

On to the city of Evora we went. There were more Roman ruins there… but we were short on time and parking was an issue. We ended up in a lot outside the city walls at the Aqueduct of Evora

I tried to keep it fun for the girly because we had to wake her up from a nap to walk this city. Zombie. Baby. for sure. ha

We were headed to the Chapel of Bones. The story of this chapel is kind of neat. Basically, in the 1500s… there were over 40 cemeteries around Evora.. and that was valuable land needed to expand the city. So, the monks dug up the bodies and brought them here for relocation. However, instead of hiding them in a mass grave, they lined the walls of this chapel with over 5000 bodies and turned it into a point of solemn reflection where one could come and reflect in the face of death… ponder where their own soul was headed when their bones rested here with the rest. An inscription above the door reads: โ€œNรณs ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,โ€ or: โ€œWe bones, are here, waiting for yours.โ€
I have to say, I like where their heads were at. If there is one thing humans don’t think enough about, it’s just how finite our own existence is on this Earth… and if people though more about their numbered days, they would live a little bit more in each of them instead of on the auto-pilot mode we so often find ourselves. One day, sooner than we would like, our bones join all the others that came before us….Hey, maybe that Chapel did have a reflective property on me ๐Ÿ™‚ High five to Franciscan Monks!

After that, it was a trek back to our car through town.

“Look, I’m a nun.” – Norah

It was time to head to Lisbon. We broke up the drive by stopping at the Almendras Standing stones. Sort of Portugal’s crappy stonehenge. But then again Stonehenge is a crappy stonehenge.,… don’t get me started. (I wasn’t impressed ha)

This area was full of tons of cork trees, most of which had been harvested. Apparently, you can harvest cork and it doesnt kill the tree… who knew?

We continued on to downtown Lisbon where we will stay the next 2 nights. I had read about this amazing “casual-dress seafood mecca” so after parking the car and getting checked in at the Lisbon Marriott (thank you hotel points from last summer’s work travel!) we headed out to the Marques de Palma on a 15 minute walk to see how great it was. It did not disappoint!

First things first, our waiter was so, so good. He saw how terrible our Portuguese was and said “may we converse in English?” OMG of course we can! haha and then explained everything to us in his perfect English. He explained that at this restaurant they bring things to the table automatically for starters….but you only pay for what you eat. If you don’t eat it or want it, you just tell them and they take it away. Clever… and I’m sure that it has gotten them in some trouble with unknowing tourists, because I wouldn’t have known! He brought a sweet crab dip with toasts, Iberico ham and aged sheep cheese along with a bread basket to our table. Of course, we consumed all of it. I think Norah ate the entire bread basket. I looked over at one point she had her eyes closed licking the olive oil off a piece of bread. (Did I mention we’ve turned our sweet child into a zombie this week? ha I hope it gets better)

We asked if they had a seafood platter or any kind of sampler… and our fantastic waiter just said “I will make something up for you” and that was that… ordered without ordering haha Then it arrived. The mother boatload of all fresh seafood. A whole lobster, 2 kinds of prawns, crab legs, barnacles, clams, some sort of conch that I swear the waiter called “bussom” but have no idea what it really was… just an amazing spread.

He also recommended a Vino Verde (green wine)- it’s a Portugal specialty. young fresh Albarino grapes with some fizz…. I drank basically the entire bottle. It was so good.

We sat next to Bonga. Apparently, he’s a folk and semba singer from Angola. We only know this because he had his CD on the table discussing with the guy he was eating with and we saw his face on the cover and Kegan made notes to stalk him later. ha

We were so full but Norah wanted dessert and Kegan actually was disappointed I wasn’t ordering dessert because he kind of wanted some… so we decided to get a menu. The waiter says “do you like chocolate?” -of course I do…so he says “we have the best chocolate cake in the world….See…it says it right there.” (and printed in the menu was “best in the world” beside it.) Now…I sort of have this thing with “best in the world”, “best coffee in town”, “world’s greatest flea market”…. like, if it was the best in the world… you wouldn’t need to advertise it, mmmkay? So, honestly… full bottle of wine Erin said “sure… let’s have that” so that I could have a giggle at the “world’s best chocolate cake”.

Let me tell you. It might have been the world’s best chocolate cake! hahaha It was flourless.. but it had a couple crunchy layers made from very thin meringue. It had a light chocolate mousse. It had ganache… wowza. I’m going to dream about that cake. Kegan tried it and ended up eating half of it because he got dessert envy after tasting it. Norah got a Paw Patrol ice cream cup…and the waiter went and dug her out a pink Skye cup because she said she REALLY wanted Skye. haha It was just overall a fantastic experience. I could not recommend this restaurant more and it was one of my top 10 meals ever.

Tomorrow we explore Lisbon on foot with a very full day….let’s see if we can get it all in!

Day 1 – Toledo and Caceres, Spain

Hello! It’s been a while! About the longest we’ve went between trips in years. Almost a full year since we went to Poland and Czech Republic. This trip is mostly Portugal with a little bit of Spain thrown in because the tickets Chicago to Madrid were sooo much cheaper than Indy to Lisbon.

Flying into Madrid was nice because there was one city we wanted to see on our last trip to Spain but couldn’t squeeze it in: Toledo. So, this gave us a perfect first day. We figured since our flight was 6pm-1am our “home time”… we’d likely be wrecked because we wouldn’t sleep on the plane… and we were right. Norah slept some… laid out across us. ha

We arrived and got our car with little fanfare…and we were off on the hour drive to Toledo. When we arrived, the parking lot I had picked and 2 others we passed were totally full… so that was annoying. We did find a garage which ended up being better anyway, but my whole planned out walking tour was wrecked. ha We grabbed a quick 45 minute nap in the parking garage and then drug our zombie child through the city. ha

We ended up parking near this amazing escalator that the city installed a few years ago. Since Toledo is an old fortified wall city, it was naturally built on top of the highest point around protected by a river on two sides as well. Great for protection, not so great for moving around in modern life from the rest of the world below. This multi level escalator took us from right outside our parking garage, right up to the old city…. and with all of the hills that were still part of the walk, we were very thankful!

The first stop we made was the Convento de Santo Domingo El Antiguo.

We were a little early, so had to wait around 10 minutes for the nuns to open the door. The big “to see” here is the first painting in Spain of El Greco, a famous painter from the Spanish Renaissance. He painted and sculpted many famous works that are all around Spain. But this “Resurrection” painting was his first and his lead tomb under the floor could be seen through a cracked glass viewing window in the floor. The very stern nun was giving me side-eye…so I tried to take quick no-flash photos, but they didn’t turn out. ha Very blurry. Here’s an internet photo.

He’s known for really long and drawn out figures, white pale skin… and my personal favorite piece of trivia about El Greco is that when he saw Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel- he said something along the lines of “I met Michaelangelo. He was a good guy. But the guy can’t paint.” hahaha

We walked around the winding streets of Toledo taking in the architecture and very VERY old buildings. Some of these buildings have been standing since the 1100s. Toledo is known as the city of 3 cultures because unlike most of the word where Arabs, Christians and Jews have battled each of other for total dominance of a city, Toledo is a rare find in that there were Arabs, Jews and Christians all living together in different sectors of the city.

One awesome example of architecture that remains in is the Siragoga de Santa Maria La Blanca. Built in 1180-it’s the oldest synagogue in Europe. It was by Islamic architects, for Jewish use, sanctioned to be built in a Christian kingdom. Now, all of that warm fuzzy feeling to then ruin it.. In the late 1300s, a priest incited a massacre of the Jews in the city of Toledo killing almost all of them, stole the synagogue and called it a church and the Catholic Church today still owns it, much to Jewish displeasure…

We also saw the Cathedral, the Capilla de San Pedro

We walked through Plaza Zocodorer.. which disappointingly these days was just concrete blocks and a Burger King and McDonalds logo highlighted on one end. Theis plaza used to be the meat market. Animals were brought through ere for auction, slaughter,etc and it has a long history as a market. Also, they burned a few people here in the Inquisition. Today, it’s just tour guide companies and chain food. Sort of sad. Bring back the burning!

Just off the plaza we did find a statue of my friend Cervantes- the author of Don Quixote.

For lunch we ate at Taberna El Botero..which was FANTASTIC… but for the record, a poor decision to sit down to a quiet warm slow paced lunch on zero sleep. Norah basically fell asleep in her plate of food and we were both struggling to keep our eyes open by the end. We shared the croquettes- each one was different. One was squid ink, another salted codfish, another tomato… all were fantastic. Also, we had a blood sausage samosa starter and a plate of steak slices (which I forgot to photograph. #foodieprobs)

We napped a quick nap in the parking garage again and headed out for the 2.5 hour drive to our hotel for the evening. We stopped just outside of town to get a great panoramic view of the city of Toledo.

We stayed in Old Town Caceres, Spain at a nice little boutique hotel. Next door was the restaurant Jose Marquez, which had Galician Beef- a specialty of dry aged beef- usually of an older cow-sometimes even 10 year old cows! grilled with salt only, served rare with french fries and and grilled blistered hot peppers. Also, my favorite thing in Spain is gazpacho… and so we both got a glass of gazpacho along with sharing the Galician steak. Norah ordered Calamari…and then proceeded to eat 1 ring.

Girlie was sleepy. haha she was being very good so we had said she could get ice cream for dessert….but she even agreed to just eat ice cream tomorrow if she could go to sleep a little quicker. haha

All in all, a bit of a short day…but knocked another city off of our to-see list. Tomorrow we’ll see the old Roman ruin towns of Merida and Evora and end in Lisbon..so lots of walking, lots of driving to get over to the coast!

Days 5 and 6: Prague and Final Day 7 sights

To start of day, our brewery hotel had a cute little breakfast plate for us and a fancy espresso machine with fresh made cloudy apple juice.

We drove the couple of hours to Prague and first headed to the outskirts to see an art installation called The London Booster. It is a 1958 Double Decker London Bus that has been turned into a beefy athlete complete with a nice round rear end. ha He does pushups every day at 3pm… but when we were there, the engineer was inside crawling around, so I’m not sure if he’s still doing pushups or not.

It was designed by artist Cerny for the 2012 London Olympics but after the Olympics, it has lived here in an industrial office park.ย  It was just weird enough, I had to see it.ย 

Both of my children played on the playground next to the Booster. ha until the sprinklers came on… then we booked it out of there.

We made our way downtown to the old town to meet the people with our apartment key because they had asked if we could meet them earlier than we had agreed.

We got to the apartment an hour before the meeting time and then the girl ended up running late, so we were parked near this old boat ramp to the river and Norah wanted to go chase bubbles that this gypsy man was peddling. Having no real idea of the Czech conversion rate at the time.. Kegan handed me some coins so Norah could drop them in his cup… turns out I paid the guy like $6 for his bubbles. haha Hey, she enjoyed herself. He even let her use the sticks and make the bubbles… it was cute.

Our apartment we rented was better than expected. Furnished with Ikea- as to be expected in a rental in Europe… but it had a prime location, lots of light, comfy beds and pillows, a full kitchen (which we didnt touch)…for less than $200 a night..so not CHEAP…but for what it was and WHERE it was… I would highly recommend this place.

It even had a private courtyard that you could pull your car into. So we parked our car here and didn’t touch it until we left Prague. It was perfect.

The view of the Charles Bridge from the boat ramp at our apartment. Built in the 1300s, its a very old stone bridge. It’s mostly new parts these days- mutliple floods over the centuries have caused it to be washed away. Since the 1960’s it’s been a pedestrian bridge only, with lots of renaissance style statues decorating it along the way.

We started out on a walk for the afternoon. We were staying just next door to the Franz Kafka museum, so we headed that way to see the art installation in the courtyard.

Here we have 2 men micturating on the Czech Republic. Affectionately titled “Piss”, you can text a message to a certain telephone number and the men will write out the message with their streams.ย  Again, art is weird.

We didn’t go into the museum because honestly- neither of us know that much about Franz Kafka. I have never read Metamorphosis- his most famous book… and seeing a bunch of manuscripts, poems and first editions of books I know nothing about wasn’t a super interesting proposition. ha If you’ve read Kafka, or can give me some insight- please do!

Right next door is the narrowest street in Prague. Definitely a little tourist spot, everytime we left or returned to the apartment, there were people standing and taking pictures. It’s not truly a street. we went down the little path and it just ends at a restaurant…

We continued on exploring and made it to the Lennon Wall; a graffiti wall dedicated to The Beatles. Since the 1990s, students and others have come here to write song lyrics, peaceful protest, etc… standing against Comunist oppression. The wall is actually owned by The Military Order of Malta – a Catholic knight order-that allows the graffiti to continue. When we were there, there were some college kids playing and singing ‘Imagine’ and a couple people putting some fresh art up.

Prague was a gorgeous city… amazing architecture and style on every street. Most of the buildings are 4 or 5 stories tall… very clean and well kept. I really enjoyed this city. It felt like what Paris is supposed to feel like… only Paris just smelled like pee and was covered in litter in most places.

We were hungry and we saw a cart serving the traditional Czech dessert Trdelnik. Sort of like an elephant ear that is baked around a rotating cone. It was very good. Eating it plain is traditional.. most places serve it warm with soft serve ice cream and chocolate sauce on it.

We continued on towards a park at the base of Petrin Hill to see the Memorial to the Victims of Communism.

A metal strip runs through the center of the memorial… displaying statistics on the number of people affected by Communism.

  • 205,486 arrested
  • 170,938 forced into exile
  • 4,500 died in prison
  • 327 shot trying to escape
  • 248 executed

This is also the site of The Hunger Wall- a medieval defensive wall built to guard the Prague Castle from attack. The construction occurred during a famine in 1361, so it is said that the project was more to keep the poor of the city with work and food during a hard year… and it’s also said that the Emperor Charles IV worked on the wall himself for hours a day to help with its construction. A king who can get his hands dirty. You don’t hear that much throughout history.

Next we visited St. Nicholas Church. It’s a fantastic Baroque cathedral built in the 1700s. A prominent Count donated his entire estate for the construction of the church.

During the Communist years, the State Security used the top of this tower because they could keep an eye on the American Embassy from here.

I must have missed getting a photo of the organ, but it has over 4000 pipes and was played by Mozart himself!

From there we started up the hill to the castle.

Looking back from a bend was a really great representation of old town Prague. It really was a gorgeous city.

We arrived at the castle, but it was too late in the afternoon to go inside and tour. We were just able to walk around the outside.

There are guards out front that do a changing of the guard ceremony every day…but not while we were there.

You can see the Petrin lookout tower on the hill. It’s a similar look to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was inspired by some Czech tourists who visited Paris for the World’s Fair in the late 1800s and came back and raised money for the construction of their own tower.

Views for days.

Shows just how large of a city Prague is. Look out in the distance at the newer part of the city with skyscaper buildings.

Dinner was across the street from our apartment in a beer garden. Norah quickly started in on the pretzels that were on each table.

I had duck liver pate for my starter

Kegan ordered the beer cheese plate. Which I assumed was a cheese made with beer… but came out with a shot of beer and some FUNKY cheese. When in Czechia I guess. ha

I had traditional dumplings with smoked meat, saukerkraut and a pickled purple cabbage.

Kegan got the pork knee, a local traditional food they are known for here. and it was great. It was just something we should have shared. Huge amount of meat.

I ran over to a little gingerbread shop across from the restaurant and grabbed some dessert. I think Norah was a tad excited. haha

We waddled back across the street to our apartment and called it a night.

We woke up Day 2 in Prague and stepped outside our courtyard door to see this huge hustle and bustle of old US Army jeeps and men in American WWII uniforms. We were very confused! ha

Kegan did some Googling… and they were in town to celebrate the anniversary of the liberation of the Czech Republic, which happened on April 27th, 1945. It just happened to be April 27th! ๐Ÿ™‚ Apparently, this was where they were assembling before driving through the downtown streets to re-enact the liberation of 1945.

We found a little bakery and coffee shop called BAKESHOP. Kegan had a cornish pasty- Beef, potatoes, parsnip or rutabaga in a pastry crust with a marinara type sauce. Kegan read that traditionally they had this edge of pastry, because the mine workers would eat these for lunch, made by their wives, but their hands would be so nasty, they would hold it by the edge, eat the whole thing and throw away the crust. Who knew!? Great idea. Basically, a bread handle.

I had a walnut and blue cheese quiche with a salad. Salad for breakfast is weird for me as an American. ha There is nothing like real quiche in Europe though. I get it every time I see it. Once we get our chickens established and I have more eggs than I know what do with, I’m going to start experimenting with making a real quiche.

We wandered through the Vojan Gardens across the street from our apartment. It’s said to be the oldest park or green space in Prague. It was originally a monastery garden, then a fruit orchard… it wasn’t opened to the public until the 1950s. We had heard they had peacocks.. and they did! Including a white female.

We walked across the Charles Bridge checking out all of the statues along the way.

At the end of the Charles Bridge, stands the Old Town Bridge Tower- one of the only remaining Gothic towers in Europe- built in the 1300s. The Bohemian kings used to cross the Charles Bridge, through this tower arch and on to St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle as part of their coronation ceremony. I ALSO did this same walk. and it was tough. ha Even the kings were in better shape than me apparently. But, as you saw the views over Prague I have above from Prague Castle, you’ll see the kind of elevation that trek is!

This cherub was having the Monday-est of Mondays.

Something you’ll only see in Europe- naked men and women adorning the front of your downtown office building. ha

We paid to walk through the Old Jewish Quarter of Prague. I feel like we must have missed some things though, because our walk was very short. The men are encouraged to wear a head covering in the cemetery, so Kegan sported his yamaka. He was none too happy about it though.

The cemetery is the biggest Jewish cemetery in Europe- in terms of number of Jewish people buried here anyway. They say 100,000 people are buried in this small cemetery. Most of the headstones mark bodies that are stacked over 12 deep. The cemetery was used from the 1500s to the late 1700s when the king put a stop to burials within the town for hygienic reasons (this was plague time).

They couldn’t buy land to expand the cemetery, so they kept bringing more soil in and layering it on top.. eventually some areas being 12 bodies deep. The cemetery is surrounded by retaining walls, holding the dirt in that makes this area so much higher than the surrounding land.

Outside of the Jewish quarter were lots of street vendors. One of them really loved Norah and showed her a marionette that was locally made. (We had already planned to let her pick out a puppet…so it was really perfect.)

Norah picked out “Czech Norah”- a little girl with blonde hair (the only one-the rest were black haired) that was dressed in a traditional Czech outfit.

Now… it was time for the main event. The biggest attraction in Prague. The Astronomical Clock!!

Yeah. It was CLOSED. Like CLOSED closed. Boarded up, covered. Bleh. They printed a picture of it on the canvas they covered it with though. That makes it all better (sarcasm.)

So, I was disappointed….because this clock looks soooo amazing. It has statues that chime the hours, apostles that show through windows above the face, moon, sun, star charts… ugggh. Legend has it that the town leaders had the clockmaker blinded so he couldn’t make another clock as beautiful in another city! Things sure were different in the 1400s.

Guess I have a reason to go to Prague again… it’s supposed to open back up in July 2018. (I’ll never convince Kegan to go back to Prague so I can look at a clock. haha)

You can see the spires of the 14th century Church of Our Lady before Tyn from the square.

I loved this very Art Nouveau house in the square.

In the middle of this gorgeous square is the Prague Meridian. From the 1600s to 1918, there was a large column that stood in the square. At exactly noon, the shadow of the Marian Column fell where this strip of metal now sits- so they installed this “meridian” to keep the time in Prague. A sundial of sorts. A group of rioters tore the column down in 1918… but the meridian line still stands.

These hotels looked very cool. Maybe when we go back to visit my clock. ha ๐Ÿ™‚

Inside another close building, we found another Cerny art project. King Wenceslas Riding on an Upside Down Dead Horse. Your guess is as good as mine on what it means, but most people think it’s a political statue… but he doesnt comment on his work. Art-weird. seeing a trend in Prague? ha

Next up was the Franz Kafka head- a rotating modern fixture that was Norah’s favorite part of Prague. ha

We finished our tour by strolling by this figure of Sigmund Freud hanging from a pole outside a window. This is also by the artist Cerny. Freud suffered from tons of phobia during his life, but one was the fear of his own death. Cerny dipicts him in this perpetual struggle in a work titled “Man Hanging Out”. Turns out a lot of tourists have seen this and thought this to be an ACTUAL person and a real suicide attempt- prompting many called to emergency services. ha

A unique offering in Prague. The Sex Machines Museum. I would have honestly liked to see it… but maybe with a super analytical 5 year old isn’t the best time…. We’ll add this one to the ‘clock return trip’ that will never happen…

Since we had basically covered my entire list and it was only 3pm… I suggested we maybe go to the Prague Beer Museum which seemed to have a large collection of Czech beers on tap as well as some decent looking food.

We sat down at a table and looked over the beer menu. They had a few different 5 and 10 beer flights listed but at the bottom it said “TRY ALL 30!” We discussed briefly our ability to tag team 30 beers in an afternoon while still being able to be responsible for our child in a foreign city…. and ultimately decided that since it was only the equivalent of 7 Irish pints, as long as I drank 1/3 of each beer, we would be good. So it was decided. ha I think the waitress was equal parts impressed and concerned by the time she was bringing out the 3rd flight of ten. I told her Norah drank most of them, so we were fine. ha

All in all, a lot of Czech beers are pilsners… so not really my thing. Better than American light beer, but nothing I’d ever order again. They had a cherry beer that tasted exactly like Robitussin….and overall I really liked about 3 of them.

Kegan got some pretzels with mustard. Norah got a big basket of french fries and I ordered some pickled sausage. Pickled bologna looks so much fancier in Europe. lol

 

We went back to the apartment for a quick nap because 30 beers is way too much during daylight hours…

We went out to grab dinner around 8:30pm. Went to the closest place to the apartment with a traditional Czech menu. It was greasier and saltier than I would have liked, but I didnt leave much on my plate. ha The first night’s restaurant was definitely our favorite.

Kegan had a 3 meat sampler with sausage, pork, beef and potato pancake with bread.

I had a traditional steak with potato pancake and pickles.

We headed out of Prague on Saturday morning, bound for Berlin to catch our Sunday flight. We took a long way around that routed us slightly into Poland instead of straight up through Germany so we could see a couple of other sites that we could make happen on our way.

This one wasn’t planned- but cool none the less. Someone created a bar/restaurant out of an old airplane alongside the interstate! ha

We drove through the town of Most- with this ENORMOUS coal power plant. There is a huge lignite coal mine here and has been operating since 1904. During WWII times, they demolished the entire town of Most and relocated all the residents to expand the mine. I’m sure “relocated” is a very nice word for what actually happened…

This particular area is known as The Black Triangle. Up until the 1990s, pollution in this area was so bad, area residents were seeing health effects. Acid rain was killing forests. There is even a documentary about this little 60 km area of land- sort of like a little panhandle of Southwest Poland..ย The Black Triangle: The Foothills of the Ore Mountain

We were headed to another WWII sight.. but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Europe’s own Big Butter Jesus. (King of Kings Statue. Touchdown Jesus. Lebanon, Ohio. I75?… google it- it burned down a few years ago haha)

Poland’s ridiculous Jesus statue is the tallest statue of Jesus in the world- standing 33 meters tall- the age Jesus was thought to be at his death. I say ridiculous because this thing was over 1.5 million dollars to build. Can you imagine the actual help you could give people for that? sigh. Anyway- it was really a neat statue… and you could see it for miles… I just find something odd about this level of showy Christianity….doesn’t seem to fit the doctrine. Maybe someone could enlighten me with a different point of view.

Our last stop of the trip was the Miedzyrzecz Fortified Region – an area that used to be part of Germany, but is part of present day Poland. Before WWII, Hitler knew he was gearing up for war and began fortifying key areas around Germany’s borders.ย  This was similar to the famous Maginot Line on the French border that the French built to defend themselves from an attack from Germany. (Fat lot of good that did, though…. )

This Miedzyrzecz Region was fortified because it was the easiest path for the Soviets to attack Berlin, between two rivers, so the Nazis created HUGE underground chambers, ammo stores, lookouts, anti-tank lines… massive scale fortification in preparation of what was to come.

These little pillbox areas look so tiny on the landscape…but underneath them are tunnels, rooms and other defensive weapons as far as 150 feet down.

After a short look around here, it was time to call it an evening and get to Berlin. I booked a hotel I wouldn’t normally book. It was downtown, no parking and old. haha But it had so much character I am so glad I picked it. We had no problem finding parking and the rooms were beautiful.

The hotel was built on 6 floors, with just a few rooms each. When you got off the elevator, you have to enter into this foyer, then on to one of the rooms.

The elevator was an old style Berlin Elevator with the metal gated doors and counterweight, all open between the floors. It was the highlight of the hotel for sure. The girl at the front desk was quick to point out that they ‘had the best one in Berlin’.

From here we headed to the airport to get back home to be with family since we had learned Kegan’s grandmother had passed.

We hope to get back to Europe in July this year but no idea where yet. Thanks for following our adventures ๐Ÿ™‚

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