Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Rome Italy

This Trip: FROM 2014.05.24 TO 2014.05.26

Being the hub of ancient empire and home to numerous significant prehistoric and historic archaeological remains, no doubt the beautiful Rome is among the top ten on travellers’ list of must-see. Overall experience of the trip, however, was just fair, due to the fact that we could not get used to the traditional Italian culture such as queue-jumping and dangerous driving. Transportation network of Rome is not advanced enough compared to those in Paris, London, and Madrid, but better than the one in Lisbon. Worst of all, a few Italians whom we came across were dishonest and unpleasant. For example, someone from the hotel told me that there was no public transportation available at late night from FCO airport to the city and I would also have difficulty finding a taxi and so he would be happy to arrange a transfer service for us at EUR70. I am glad I did not believe a word he said. There is a bus departing at 00:30 at EUR6 per person, another at 01:15 at EUR7, and there are taxis available around the airport at a fixed rate of EUR48. What’s more, an unfriendly staff member in Basilique St Pierre directed us 1km east for Sistine Chapel, which actually is in the north right next to the Basilique.


The very first stop of this beautiful Saturday was Vatican City, where we were able to take some really good shots of the crowded Piazza S. Pietro under the azure sky, before going on a huge queue for entrance to the Basilique. With lots of people queue-jumping, of course, we finally arrived at the entrance only to be told I needed to cover the little part of my shoulders not covered by my sleeveless dress. I would have been fine with that and happy to respect the rules of a religious monument, only if the others of white skin in low-cut dresses were asked to do the same. I was truly sad, but then got ready and excited to go all the way up to the panoramic viewpoint. We made a great decision to pay EUR2 more to go up by elevator, because we still had to walk a lot up after getting off the elevator. That was exhausting, but worthwhile. We continued to sightsee Rome by walking after lunch. Attractions included Castel Sant’ Angelo, Piazza Novona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Spagna, Pincio, Piazza del Popolo, and Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen. It was super-crowded at Trevi Fountain. We could hardly move in the crowd. I liked the panoramic viewpoint at Pincio but it was also where we got attacked by a little kid, who intentionally threw us a bunch of little rocks. I would have been hurt if he had the strength of an 8-year-old. We did spend a good day though, sightseeing this pretty city and enjoying delicious Italian pizzas and gelato.


We started the day by visiting the Colosseum, our most favorite attraction in Rome. Time for queuing, and witnessing queue-jumping, again. This impressive archaeological site is almost 2000 years old. Quite a big part has fallen and replaced by contemporary construction. Some Italian tourists stepped on those dying pieces in the site just to take pictures but got scolded by security guards. How sad. People should be aware that it is important to protect prehistoric and historic archaeological remains. Next, we visited the Roman Forums, a rectangular plaza surrounded by ruins of several important ancient government buildings and for centuries the center of Roman public life. It was already 14:30 and we were so tired and hungry. Luckily we were able to had a yummy lasagna lunch nearby, before heading to other attractions including Milizie, Piazza Venezia, Terrazza delle Quadrighe, and Capitol Hill. Dinner was pasta, another must-try Italian cuisine, and then we were energetic again to take a walk to see a part of Rome at night. Got some nice shots at Castel Sant’ Angelo and the Vatican.


We were so thankful we had all three days under sunshine. First, we walked from the hotel to The Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Again it is a bascilica with grand exterior and interior. I would call Rome “the city of bascilicas”. We then took the tram to reach Porta Maggiore which is by far the best urban site to visit for an understanding and view of the ancient aqueducts. Grasped our last opportunity to enjoy some more pizzas and heavenly gelato at lunch time. The rest of the day we travelled by metro and on foot to Basilica of St. John Lateran, Roseto di Roma Capitale (The Rose Garden), Mouth of Truth, Giardino degli Aranci, etc. People were queuing to put their hands into the Mouth of Truth for a shot. Instead of queuing, we just took a picture from outside the gate. It was just too time-consuming to queue at all times. We planned to take the train from Termini station to FCO airport. It was so chaotic at Termini. There was not even one staff member around available for answering queries. To ask one question we needed to go on that huge queue. No way! We did not bother, but take a taxi. Never risk missing the plane!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Lisbon Portugal

This Trip: FROM 2014.05.03 TO 2014.05.05

The trip to Madrid in Spain and this one to Lisbon in Portugal should have been equally good, but the overall experience of the latter was exceptional because of perfect weather, the very beautiful castles and palaces in Sintra, and a personal preference for Portuguese food such as salads, seafood and various choices of baked goods. Sunshine and blue sky really count. We were also impressed by the Portuguese’s ability to speak English, compared to those in Spain and France, for example, who were almost illiterate in English. Unlike Madrid, unfortunately, concern for safety travelling around Lisbon must have been significant among tourists. There were drug dealers all along Rua Augusta and all over Praca do Comercio selling drugs to everyone including diners in open restaurants overtly as if they were selling candies. We encountered more than five on the first day, and then we just lost count. Hard sell of a variety of goods in the same area to tourists and diners was also commonplace. Moreover, there was a con at Rossio train station that targeted tourists.

DAY 1 - Belem District

It was convenient, fast and cheap enough to travel by metro from the airport to downtown Lisbon where we dropped our luggage off at the hotel near Baixa Chiado station. However, we made a good decision to take a taxi to get to the historical Belem as the tiny tram was arriving in 25 minutes to pick up the big crowd in the queue. It costed around EUR9 which we found acceptable when we wanted to make the most of our 3-day weekend to sightsee Lisbon. We visited Belem Tower, Discoveries Monument, and Jeronimos Monastery but not the National Coach Museum, which would have been a nice stop if we had enough time. In the evening we walked along the seaside towards Santo Amaro Docks for a romantic dinner full of delicious Portuguese specialities and seafood together with a spectacular night view of the 25 de Abril Bridge just above the docks.

DAY 2 - Sintra

It was an easy task to go to and from Sintra by train because both Rossio and Sintra are final stops on the line, but it can be tricky to go around Sintra. First, do not even think about walking uphill to Castle of the Moors and National Palace of Pena. Those are just not places you should go on foot. Second, you can take either the Sintra Tourist Bus 434 or Hop-on-Hop-off Tourist Bus. The former costs EUR5 and it runs every 40 minutes, i.e. you need to go in the very long queue and wait for long again after visiting each attraction. Third, you can take a taxi to go up, but very likely you will not find any taxi waiting outside the attraction to pick you up when you are done. Right after stepping out of Sintra train station, there were some guys carrying a board selling tours by private van to those castles and palaces. We made a deal with one of them, who drove us to Castle of the Moors, National Palace of Pena, and Quinta da Regaleira. He was waiting for us outside each attraction while we were enjoying a visit, and brought us to the next stop once we were done with one. As a local or some kind of tour guide, he was able to help us cut the queue at ticket offices. At the end of the day we paid him a total of EUR15 per person. It seems nobody talks about these private van tours in Sintra in online tourist information. Also, most tourists were not attracted to those boards showing only some pictures and the term “private tours” without any price indicated. It was such a poor marketing strategy. For the attractions, Pena and Regaleira are must-enter. From both you can have nice views of the Moors.

DAY 3 - Downtown Lisbon

We did a full-day sightseeing in the area of Baixa all on foot. Here’s our route: Rua Augusta -> Triumphal Arch -> Praca do Comercio -> Casa Dos Bicos-> Lisbon Cathedral -> Miradouro (viewpoint) das Portas Do Sol -> Miradouro da Graca -> Miradouro da Senhora do Monte -> Castle of S. Jorge.

Little Tips about Eating:

There can be quite a difference in price between restaurants providing same kind of food in the same area. Check the menu first!

You would really like to have lots of fruits and try different fruits juice in Portugal. Most restaurants provide a variety of fruits juice, but very often only orange juice is freshly squeezed. I ordered strawberry juice twice throughout the trip. The first one was obviously syrup-added and I doubted if it was freshly made. The second one was 100% strawberry juice with no sugar added. You really have to ask before you sit down. Waiters in tourists areas were nice and happy to help according to our experience.

We were looking for a very late lunch on the last day at around 16:00. A waiter from one of the restaurants was showing us a variety of expensive traditional Portuguese dishes available on his menu and he added that all restaurants were closing so soon and his would also be closing later. Glad that I did not believe him and we walked away. No restaurants close at that time, not around that area (Rua Augusta)! People lie! As tourists we can just be more careful.