It blows my mind that Meteora isn’t a New World Wonder because it should be. Located in central Greece, this mystical place – a cluster of enormous rock formations topped by monasteries that appear to be suspended in the air almost 1500 feet above sea level – is a stunning masterpiece of nature that’s nothing short of a geological and architectural marvel.
Historians believe the rocks got their impressive shapes through drastic erosion during the Middle Ages, and its massive craters, caves, crevices and peaks offered protection to the locals from the raids of several conquerors. Over time, hermits sought refuge there as the remoteness, height and tranquility of the environment helped them feel more in tune with God and divinity. Eventually, they started building monasteries to live in, and 24 structures were completed and occupied by the late 14th century. Only six buildings are in operation today.
The monks practiced their faith with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, so their lives were simple. And without many material assets, their daily work was hard.
Imagine living a life of fasting and unceasing prayer and having to make that ascent or descent for supplies in baskets, with scaffolding supported on beams that were driven into the rocks! Thankfully, today we can drive on paved roads and walk up or down evenly-placed steps without too much hassle. Even if you have no strong religious leanings, this place is so spectacular and photo op worthy, it is a must-see.
How to get there
From Athens, you can take a train, car or bus. The travel times are approximately 5 hours by train, 4+ hours by car and 7-8 by bus. You can find details on routes and schedules here.
What you can see and do
You can visit the monasteries to see the chapels, frescoes and artifacts dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, as well as listen to captivating tales about the monks’ motivations, traditions, and way of life. Strict dress codes are enforced, which means no bare shoulders are allowed and women must wear skirts inside. Ladies, if you’re planning to pack only jeans or shorts, don’t worry. You can get a wrap-around skirt at the entrance and return it when you are leaving,
The more adventurous thrill seekers among us can get all James Bond while there and go rock climbing, exploring caves, mountain biking, rafting, and more. If you need a visual of one type of toe-curling action possible, you need look no further than the movies. Roger Moore actually filmed an action sequence in Meteora at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity for his 1981 Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”. I’ve included a YouTube clip below. Just don’t try it on your own.
Note: To break up the journey to or from Athens, you can stop at the foot of Mount Parnassos to visit the Delphi historic site, a former cultural and religious center which was the sanctuary of Apollo and the shrine of his oracle. It is 80 kilometers northwest of Athens.
(Hover to the middle right section of the below image and scroll right to see another picture and video)
I’d read that Mykonos was a party town. All the magazines, guidebooks and blogs I scoured for information prior to my trip described it as Greece’s glamour island; a powerful magnet for the rich and the rambunctious.
Oh, the stories were colorful! According to reports, in the busy summer season it is not uncommon to see global pop stars and A-list actors like Ariana Grande and Leonardo DiCaprio dancing barefoot in the sand at hip beach bars like Nammos. Nor is it out of the realm of possibility for guests staying in luxury villas to spot supermodels or internationally known DJs sipping fancy cocktails while lounging stylishly poolside and pretending they’re not looking to hook up. (Needless to say, their faces are usually hidden behind outrageously priced designer shades, of course.)
But apparently, Mykonos seduces us ‘non celebs’ too. Vacationers of all ages and from all walks of life flock to it. Even budget-friendly cruise ship passengers – sometimes as many as 10,000 a day – are drawn to its sandy beaches, chic boutiques, world-famous restaurants, and legendary parties. The island just has that special je ne sais quoi. I’d liken it to a hyperactive pulse rate; the result of an overdose of pleasure-inducing activities combined with bucket loads of charisma. And a reputation for non-stop partying, day and night.
By going during off-season, I missed all of that – deliberately. I was spared the cruise ship crowds, the 24-hour party atmosphere, as well as the bronzed, swimsuit-clad, and annoyingly blemish-free bodies basking leisurely in the sun. And yet, I loved it anyway. Largely because I had my pick of more affordable hotel rates, any seat I desired on the ferry to and from Athens, no sweltering summer temperatures, reservation-free dining, and all the time in the world to set up and take my photos.
These are some of my itinerary suggestions:
Lose yourself in the town of Hora
Hora, otherwise known as Mykonos Town, is a labyrinth of narrow streets with a meandering layout that unveils new discoveries around every other corner. Built like a maze to confuse pirates, it’s a modern day treasure trove of restaurants, bars, and upscale shops that sell a range of merchandise – anything from fashionable outfits to exquisite jewelry. The white-washed houses and vacation villas that are trimmed with either blue, red or green window shutters are utterly charming, and the vivid bougainvillea or geranium blooms that drape their balconies enhance their whimsical appeal.
Visit Little Venice
Named after the famous city in Italy, Little Venice is perched on the most western part of the town where the buildings cling precariously to the edge of the sea. [Fun fact: Customers sometimes pull their boats up to bar windows for service.] There, you also will find art galleries, cozy cafés and small museums that document the island’s history. Two options you can consider are the Archaeological and the Folklore museums.
Swim, dive or sunbathe on a few of the many beaches
Head south for the most popular beaches, some of which include Kalamopodi Beach (Paradise), Plintiri (Super Paradise), and Ornos. But there are several more to choose from. In fact, I heard there are about 25 beaches on the island.
If you also enjoy being below the water, there are interesting caves, walls and wrecks waiting to be explored by diving enthusiasts. Before you go, check to see which dive operators are currently based on Paradise, Lia, Kalafatis and Agia Anna beaches.
Go to see the windmills
The Myloi complex, a grouping of windmills that grace a gently sloping hill to the southwest of the island, is a must-see. Only seven of the original 10 are still standing, and although none of them generate power to grind grain any longer, they are a strong visual reminder of the region’s history, and form part of the iconic landscape for which this coastal village is known.
Take pictures of the Church of Paraportiani
I have no way of verifying it, but all the locals are convinced this is the most photographed church in the entire universe. [You would expect that to be the Vatican, right?] Technically, the structure is an amalgamation of five small churches that were built on top of and next to each other. That unconventional construction method resulted in an unexpected pyramid shape that, on a cloudy day, blends seamlessly into the skyline.
Sample the local food
No trip to this cosmopolitan isle is complete without a stop for fresh bread or sweet treats at Aptonoieio, a local bakery and pastry shop tucked away on one of the side streets next to Hotel Terra Maria. It’s where many of the locals gather to exchange greetings over their morning loaves and catch up on news. I was also encouraged to try kopanish (a spicy cheese), melopita (honey pie), and kremydopria (onion pie) – none of which actually happened, to be honest. However, among other things, I did have a traditional Greek salad! Restaurants along the waterfront that stay open in off-season include Allegro, Music Port and Raya.
Get front row seats to the spectacular sunsets
Watching the sun slip below the horizon over the shimmering Aegan Sea is almost like a rite of passage in Mykonos. Terraces and bars on the western side of the island provide the best vantage points, but the free pink, orange, and sometimes tinged with purple light show is visible from many locations. Exact sunset times vary depending upon the time of year and can occur anywhere between 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Recommendations include the waterfront area, 180 Sunset Bar and Cavo Tagoo.
And there you have it, my friends. Enjoy!
In case you’re wondering about accommodations, options vary from high-end hotels to budget-friendly hostels. I stayed at the Leto Hotel which is 3 minutes from the waterfront area, a comfortable walking distance from many of the main sites mentioned, and around the corner from a busy taxi stand. The rate includes daily continental breakfast and WiFi. Room layout is a bit unusual as the structure is built on an incline, but if you request a superior, sea view room, you should be fine. Tip: The beds could be a little more comfy, but they’ll do.:
It is near midnight when I step out of the cab that had just whisked me downtown from the airport. Tired but expectant, I emerge onto the sidewalk of a busy, vibrant street in the bustling metropolis that is Central Athens. With eyes darting alternately from left to right, and all five senses on full alert, I slowly begin to absorb the unique sounds and smells that engulf me. Gradually, my head turns upward and I get my first clear view of the Acropolis.
And suddenly there she is, an imposing sentinel aglow in honey-hued marble, presiding over her resilient subjects from a brilliantly lit citadel on a hill.
This is it, I think. This is when I finally get to time travel through the pages of vaguely remembered story books to see and feel the pulse of a place I’d been introduced to by myths and legends.
This is when I get to sample some of the rich tasting Mediterranean foods made popular through movie scenes showcasing platters piled high with olive oil infused delicacies, all being consumed by large, loud and lovefest-filled families.
And most importantly, this is when I finally get my chance to understand the secret behind Athens’ ability to hold and capture the attention of the world for so many decades.
Cloaked in robes that are a seamless tapestry of grit, gregariousness, graffiti, and old-world grandeur, the city does not disappoint. She quickly pulls you into her warm embrace and keeps you entranced until it’s time to say a reluctant good-bye.
THIS.This is Athens.
What to Do Visit the major archaeology sites
Much like other major cities around the globe, Athens has a very organized tourist hop on and hop off bus system that allows you to stop at some of the world’s most well-known and revered archaeological treasures, for at-your-leisure exploration and to take pictures. The 90 minute ‘Athens Line’ route of Gray Line Tours bus, which is yellow, hits all the major stops: The Acropolis Museum, Temple of Zeus, Benaki Museum, Panathaneic Stadium, The National Archeological Museum, Parliament and National Gardens, as well as Monasteraki, Syntagma and Katzia Squares. Audio tours are available in multiple languages, and you can opt for a 24-hour or 48-hour ticket. There are also red and blue buses operated by City Sightseeing and Sights of Athens.
Take a free walking tour of the city I heard about, but regretfully didn’t get to take, this two-hour free walking tour offered by a small group of local historians who love to share their passion for the country’s heritage with visitors. With their expert guidance, you can unravel the social texture and cultural nuances of Greek life that are impossible to really find in any guidebook. Plus, you get to discover hidden neighborhoods, art galleries and corner nooks the buses don’t reach. This is the only free option I’m aware of, and tips are welcomed, but a quick Google search will provide you with other market-priced alternatives.
Dine at one of the many restaurants or ‘tavernas’ Eating out is a national pastime in Athens, so restaurateurs have to cater to the gastronomical desires of both residents and citizens. Dining establishments range from informal, budget-friendly tavernas to upmarket Michelin-starred restaurants serving classic Greek dishes or the increasingly popular fusion cuisine. So it’s up to you to decide where you buy your seafood, grilled meat, feta and cheeses, dips, and Greek pies.
Immerse yourself in the nightlife Like New York, Athens is a city that never sleeps. It brims with youthful energy despite its age, and oozes life and unbridled pleasure from every pore. Whether it is enjoying a spontaneous drum circle and dancing in Monasteraki Square, sipping cocktails at sunset in stylish terrace bars, or going clubbing until daybreak, Athens has the power to enthrall you.
Tip: Try A for Athens’ rooftop bar, an insanely popular hangout for locals and visitors alike that offers stunning views of the Acropolis, Plaka and Monastiraki Square. Expect a queue for the elevator as it only fits about 6 people comfortably, or be prepared to take six flights of stairs.
Go on a day or overnight trip to see more of the outlying areas
Surrounded by impressive mountain ranges in the north and east and the soothing Saronic gulf in the south and west, Mainland Greece offers a plethora of vacation opportunities. Take it from me, you’d be doing yourself a serious disservice if you didn’t factor in one or two excursions outside of Central Athens while you’re there.
By driving less than 10 miles south of the city, you can get a more coastal experience on the Athens Riviera, a scenic stretch of road dotted with seaside cottages, sandy beaches and picturesque coves that connect the Glyfada to Cape Sounion and the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon on the Attica peninsula.
Head several more miles further north into Central Greece and you will find the Unesco Heritage Site of Delphi and the Oracle Apollo. A longer drive takes you into the region of Thessaly, a place defined by snow-capped mountains, traditional settlements and ski resorts. It is also the gateway to Meteora, a geological and architectural phenomenon that is one of the most photogenic spiritual sites in Greece.
Where to eat If you’re staying in Central Athens and are looking for budget-friendly fusion food that is fresh, tasty and healthy, try Misafir Restaurant on Ermou Street (near Minastraki Station) or Belpaese on Athanasiou Diakou Street (near Acropolis Station). Menu selections at Misafir add a Middle Eastern touch to the culinary medley available in the country’s capital, and Belapese is a cozy, Italian gem that blends New Greek and Spanish tastes into its dishes.
Persons who prefer a more formal, upscale dining experience with amazing city views should try Ioannis Restaurant, also on Athanasiou Diakou Street. It is a gourmet restaurant set amidst the roof garden of a five-star hotel. Their cuisine combines traditional Greek recipes with modern fare and the chef presents them both impeccably.
Want to skip the meal and dive straight into dessert? Head over to Little Kook on Karaiskaki Street in the Psiri area. It’s a quirky, fairytale-themed café full of sweet treats.
Where to stay
There are numerous types of accommodations to choose from in Athens, but if you want to be in the heart of the city, I’d recommend looking for rooms in the areas of Syntagma or Monasteraki Square, as well as Plaka or Akroplolis. That’s where the bulk of the action is, and there are convenient metro stops close by.
Tips: For a clean, pocket-friendly hotel option, try A for Athens which is a small, apartment-style boutique hotel that overlooks Monasteraki Square. It is within walking distance of the flea market, Acropolis, Agora, Plaka and Syntagma Square. Note: Due to its location and popular rooftop bar, some rooms can be noisy.
A more pricey and luxurious option is The Royal Olympic Hotel, a family-run property just across the street from the famous Temple of Zeus and National Garden, and about a 5-minute walk from the Acropolis.
How to move around the city via train The Athens Metro system has 3 lines (Green, Blue and Red) that make moving around the city easy. When combined, they give you easy access to many of the city’s landmarks through their underground network. Operating hours vary according to line/day/season, but generally they run between 5:30 a.m. – midnight. I also learned that on Friday and Saturday nights, some lines stay open until 2:30 a.m.
Here are a few things to note:
1. Know your intended street address and ask for directions from the closest metro station.
2. Purchase your tickets inside the station in one of two ways: either from a kiosk with instructions in Greek and English, or from an attendant at a ticket counter. Have cash (euros)ready.
3. Depending on the length of your visit, you can buy different types of tickets. Options range from a 90-minute ticket for all modes (including bus transfers) to a 3-day tourist ticket or a 5-day ticket. I used the 90-minute and each time it cost me a mere 1.40 euros.
4. Read the electronic signs that indicate the correct platform to stand on, and be sure to pay attention to the ones that show train arrival information. You may be on the correct platform, but that doesn’t mean you should hop on the first train you see there.
5. In order to get off at the right stop, listen keenly to the announcements on the train (which are in Greek and English), and also read the station signs that are prominently placed along the sides of the buildings.
6. Keep your ticket in a safe and easily accessible place at all times, because you will need to scan it when you are entering or leaving each metro station.
Note: It is also a relatively simple process to get from the airport to Central Athens and back via the train. The cost is 10 euros one way. Ask your hotel for its connection directions.
Come back soon to read my write-ups on my two-day trip to Delphi and Meteora, and my stay in Mykonos.
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Thanks to a Google ITA Matrix flight deal I found for my trip to Greece, I benefited from a US$400 cost savings on my ticket, plus I also got to engineer a 10-hour layover in a city and country I’d never visited before – Brussels, Belgium. With the city center being less than 30 minutes away from Brussels Zaventem Airport (BRU), and easily reachable by train, bus and taxi, of course I took the opportunity to venture out and explore!
[Details on where to store your luggage and how to get to the city center via metro are outlined at the bottom of this post]
1.Treat yourself to an authentic Belgian waffle…or two or three, if you so choose
In North America and the Caribbean, we’ve come to know Belgian waffles as quick and easy breakfast food made with a light batter, large squares and deep pockets that’s served with the ever predictable, yet taste dependable maple syrup. However, in Belgium, the true waffle experience is so much more. Menu selections range from savory to sweet, and a host of cafes and bistros abound to cater to every textural nuance invoked by the most discerning foodie palate. I tried a lightly sugared waffle with strawberry topping, and a tasty concoction called “campagnarde” with a bacon, cheese and tomato filling that belongs in the echelons of the gooey-goodness hall of fame.
2. Visit the Grand Place
The Grand Place is a rectangular-shaped square housing both government and private sector buildings in the heart of the city’s center. It is renowned as being an architectural jewel that showcases an eclectic blending of artistic styles, some of which date as far back as the late 17th century. I saw gold-trimmed and majestic-looking edifices, swoon-worthy entranceways, an impressive cathedral, and tons of bustling activity. The Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), accentuated by its lofty bell tower, was also noteworthy. It’s no wonder it is the square’s most famous landmark. But even if you miss it, almost every corner has a photo op.
3.Hunt for the best Belgian chocolate
While this activity may not appeal to persons who are blessed unfortunate enough to not have a sweet-tooth, for others like me who like to indulge in occasional chocolate decadence, it could be a joy. After a few hours sampling the delicacies in Brussels, you’ll promptly forget about Hershey’s and Godiva as your go-to brands just because they can be easily purchased at your local department store. The good news is, the city center is pretty compact and the streets are very walkable, so it’s likely you’ll burn off the extra calories during your own personal hunt for edible treasures. You can also opt to go on one of the many chocolate-tasting tours offered, or visit the Chocolate Museum.
4.Take a Horse-Drawn Carriage Tour
If you’re in the mood for a more leisurely pace to your sightseeing, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour through the cobble-stoned streets to view the historic parts of downtown Brussels. The route includes many of the city’s remarkable UNESCO heritage sites, and being able to view them a little higher from the ground gives you a different perspective. The carriages are covered, Victorian in design, quite roomy, and seat up to five people. So you can enjoy the scenery with family, a group of friends, or do it the romantic way as an intimate one-on-one with your special person. The cost is 39€ per ride (just under US$47), and the outing lasts approximately 30 minutes.
5.Up your Belgian history, language, and culture game by chatting with a few locals
Before my layover, I didn’t realize Belgium was tri-lingual, nor did I understand the extent of its multilayered identity that pulled on contrasting French, Dutch and German influences. But I got a few history and culture lessons from two locals! The citizens I met – one kind woman on the train and a charismatic worker at the airport – spoke great conversational English, and they were fluent in at least two other languages as well. They told me about some of the cultural norms and what they described as an ‘over inflated system of government’ that resulted in three ministers for everything, and a lack of ability to make decisions by the federal government. In actuality, the leadership of the country is divided among various partners, who independently exercise their authority within their regions.
Incidentally, all signage – from street names to metro station stops – have French and Dutch translations, so other than attempting to have a conversation in one of those two tongues, trying to navigate through town by reading signs is also a good way to brush up on those rusty language skills! Be warned: doing that may make you hungry again, though!. Since the area was originally a marketplace for traders, the streets immediately surrounding the square are named after foods. You may feel like you’re walking on butter down Rue au Beurre, smell the herbs from the eateries on Rue du Marché aux Herbes, or find yourself yelling cheesewhen you snap you a photo on Rue du Marché aux Fromages.
Seasonal Bonus: Visit the Winter Wonders events and the Christmas markets!
These events take place before and during the Christmas holidays at the Grand-Place in Brussels and around the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place Sainte-Catherine, and the Marché aux Poissons. The trinkets, food, music, and gifts available at the more than 200 traditional wooden chalets that line the streets offer a captivating window into the spirit of Christmases past, and provide the appropriate touch of sweet nostalgia for the Yuletide season. However, if browsing stalls, chomping on treats, and selecting souvenirs isn’t your thing, you can enjoy other activities like ice skating and carnival rides.
_ Instructions how to get to Central Brussels from the airport by metro
1. After you clear customs and immigration (which is the most laid-back border control system I’ve ever come across in all my travels), go to level minus one (-1) to buy your metro ticket for Central Brussels. Your stop is called Central Station, and the cost is 15 euros roundtrip.
2. Take the elevator back to level zero (o) of the airport to store your bags. When the doors open, exit and go outside towards the taxi and bus area, then turn left. You will see the luggage sign overhead to guide you.
3. Look for a locker with a green light that indicates it is open, then place your bags inside and keep the door shut until a red light comes on. As soon as that happens, you insert the required one euro coin into the slot provided to the right of the light. That initial payment is just to secure the space. You pay the full amount when you retrieve your bags, once the machine is able to calculate the total number of hours the locker was in use.
4. Wait for the machine to issue a ticket that will have an access code printed on it, as well as your locker number. Make sure not to lose it as you will need to type in that access code before being asked to pay your balance!
Note: The cost for 24 hour-storage (the minimum time you can buy) is 7.50 euros, and please note that the EXACT change is necessary. The machines do not give change for notes or larger coins, nor can you substitute two 20 cents and a 10 for the 50 cents coin. So please ask for a 50 cents coin as part of your change at the metro ticket counter.
5. Head back to level minus one (-1) to board the train. Please remember to hang on to your metro ticket even after you scan it at the validation point, because you will need it to exit the station as well.
Enjoy your layover, and be sure to return to the airport at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to leave!
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Local cuisine is such an important component of the overall travel experience! I don’t know what grabs your attention when you visit a new destination but in my case, I remember places, interactions, activities… and the food.
I’ll be the first to confess that I’m particular about flavor, presentation and freshness, so I don’t always have the rub-my-tummy-in-foodie-ecstasy experiences I’d like to. But sometimes, to my complete surprise and utter delight, I do. In a previous post, I already declared how much I enjoyed the food in Italy. Now I’ll let you in on another big secret: I was a goner for the food in Madrid too!
Of course, everyone has heard about the Spanish dish paella. Well, the full plate of this epicurean delicacy that I devoured while in Europe met and exceeded my gastric expectations. But you cannot leave Spain and not try one or more of these other dishes as well.
Tortilla de patatas (or tortilla española)
Forget what you know about the Mexican Tortilla because this is nothing like it. More potatoes than egg, the Spanish Tortilla is a version of an omelet that is several times more filling than its American counterpart. It is served warm, cool or at room temperature and is popular at all times of the day. You can order it for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Served in most bars and restaurants, croquetas are small, lightly breaded fried rolls that are popular appetizers or tapas. (Tapas is the all-encompassing Spanish term for snacks, canapés or finger foods). There are many different varieties but the ones with cod (fish), spinach, ham or chicken fillings are most common.
This is a combination of sunny-side up eggs spread over french fries or regular fried potatoes and ham. (Yes, the Spanish LOVE their eggs and potatoes). The secret to the recipe lies in getting the run of the yolk just right. I heard that THE place to try them is at a traditional restaurant frequented by the in-crowd (i.e. actors, bankers and bullfighters ) called Casa Lucio where it is the signature dish.
Believe me, there is ham… and then there is Spanish ham. There are several types served in various parts of the country but here is a little tip: ask for jamón ibérico, the five-star crème de la crème of hams. The equivalent of the Peking Duck to the Chinese, this specially cured variety has been a part of Spanish culture for centuries. What makes this ham so prized and tasty is the origin of the meat – the pigs that are raised solely on sweet acorns in Jabugo, a town in southwestern Spain.
Berenjenas con Miel
I am not a lover of eggplant but I included this option so that strict vegans would have something to look forward to as well. Non-diary and non-meat eaters can try fried eggplant drizzled with honey. It is a dish that originated in Málaga, the southeastern region of Spain
In case you haven’t realized this yet, I am a HUGE sucker for cheese. I went wild trying tons of Dutch cheese while in Holland and this sheep milk blend that I was introduced to in Madrid was mouthwateringly delicious with crackers. Hailing from the region of the famous Don Quixote, Manchego is to Spain what cheddar is to England – a popular staple in many households and dining establishments. Its taste is rooted in the unpasteurized process and in its aging that can last any time between 60 days and two years.
So there you have it. You’re now sufficiently prepared to order like a local when going out to eat in one of the many bustling terrazos (open air cafés) around town. You can accompany your meal with a Clara, a drink that tastes a bit like Shandy. If you are not familiar with than brand, it’s like a combination of a light beer and lemon. Or, if that kind of beverage does not appeal to you, there is always the refreshing and satisfying options of red or white sangria.
You may not believe this but I was able to try all of the above-mentioned dishes in one night. The secret to achieving that kind of feat is to order sampler plates that allow you to share the contents with your dining buddies and taste to your heart’s content.
Please note I used internet images to illustrate what the dishes looked like because this trip was some years ago – long before I started this travel blog – so back then I was more concerned with hanging out than snapping pictures. Nowadays, I know I must master the art of doing both.
If you ever go to Madrid, I recommend a day trip to La Granja. It was the favorite summer palace of Spanish Royals from 1766 to 1966 and according to the history buffs, Henry IV initially purchased the site in the fifteenth century to use it as a hunting lodge. After that, it was a farm and hostel run by monks. The land continued to change hands throughout the years but it eventually went back to the Crown via Charles III in the mid to late 1700’s.
In its hey day, many royal weddings and burials, state treaties and political events took place at La Granja. As you walk around the grounds, it is easy to see why.
The palace is gorgeous. Its imposing architecture and furnishings were clearly designed with prestige and decadence in mind. Everything about it, including the frescoes started by Giambattidta Tieplo and completed by Francesco Bayeu, is A – M – A – Z- I – N – G.
I also was blown away at the private art collection and statue gallery. Unfortunately, I can’t show you what they looked like because we were not allowed to take pictures inside.
But when you think the sensory experience can’t get any better, it does. The most striking takeaway from your visit will be your memory of the immaculately landscaped gardens that stretch across 1,500 acres and the compound’s 25 sculpted fountains. Designed to represent themes from classical mythology, they are stunning. The water features were built from lead to minimize corrosion and either painted over to give the appearance of a bronze finish or coated to imitate marble.
Today, the foutains are not active on a daily basis. I heard that twice a year, on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis, all of them kick into full operation to provide a grand show. Surely, that will be the best time of year to visit.
Take a good camera!
If you don’t have a car, don’t worry. For a little over 20 euros, you can take the train to get to Segovia (the nearest town) from Chamartin Station, which is north of Madrid. The ride lasts about 30 minutes.
When you get there, you can opt for audio guides or a guided tour.
October to March: weekdays, weekends and holidays – 10:00am to 6:00pm.
April to September: weekdays, weekends and holidays – 10:00 to 8:00pm.
Closed on Mondays
Royal Palace (€9.00), Tapestry Museum (€5.00). Free entry for children under five.
When you plan to travel, please check for the most recent costs.
Despite being touted as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, I didn’t have a clue what to expect when I arrived in Edinburgh. To be honest, I secretly wondered if it would be as cold and as wet as London, all the while crossing my fingers and fervently hoping that the people weren’t as “proper” and the architecture wasn’t as pompous. Thankfully, my wishes came through. Cloaked in the royal garb of a castle – an imposing structure perched high on top of a hill – the city is nothing short of magnificent.
Like a vibrant woman with a megawatt personality and a deep-rooted sense of self, Edinburgh is statuesque and regal, and resplendent with poise and grace. Clearly, she’s lived a colorful life and has aged gracefully, yet she remains a delightful reservoir of new discoveries. I absolutely loved the three days I spent in her warm embrace.
Below is a list of things you should try to do while there.
Stroll through the Georgian New Town where people watching and window shopping on the ultra-chic Princes Street will come naturally. Make time to pop into a local coffee shop, take your picture with a kilt-wearing bagpipe player or simply admire the surrounding architecture that is neoclassical and Georgian in design.
Try traditional Scottish meals. Two popular dishes are mince and tatties (ground beef and mashed potatoes) and haggis. The latter has a pudding-iike consistency and is made up of sheep’s entrails (heart, liver and lungs) mixed with spices, oatmeal and stock. Be warned: it is not for the faint of heart!
Discover snippets of Scottish history amidst the cobblestone streets of medieval Old Town. With the Royal Mile at its center, this section of town has several narrow alleys and concealed courtyards that beckon with whispers about the days of old. Not only are the short flashes of time-travel captivating, but the fine craftsmanship and detail on many of the Reformation-era former tenement buildings will leave you standing in awe. The most prominent structure in the area will be the 800-year-old St. Giles Cathedral; both its exterior and interior are exquisite.
If you have even the slightest hint of Scottish ancestry, visit the Tartan Weave Exhibition where you can search for your clan ancestry and crest. I found my family’s tartan ( a checkered cloth pattern) on my maternal side. Afterwards, slip into the Museum on the Mound where you will see, among other things, its million dollar exhibit. That’s the closest I think I’ll ever get to the real thing.
Have lunch at Maison Bleue, an intimate retro-style bistro that is tucked away on Victoria Street, just off the Royal Mile. Its menu is inspired by French, North African and Scottish influences and you can get a delectable three-course meal for a reasonable price.
Check to see what’s playing at the Festival and King’s City Theatres. Their shows range from dramatic plays to concerts and dance performances designed to please all audiences. When I was there, I saw a dance recital featuring a touring troupe from the Netherlands and the show was fantastic.
Book a day excursion that gets you out of the city and into the gorgeous Highlands. I went on an eye-popping ride through the industrial heartland into Glasgow and then across the Firth of Clyde to see Loch Lomond, Britain’s largest expanse of fresh water and the reputed home of the Loch Ness Monster. From there, a whimsical adventure began. The rounded lilt of our driver/tour guide acted as musical score and the visuals that emerged all around us served as the main scenes in what looked like a period-piece movie set. The imagery was so surreal, I was very nearly convinced I was driving through a big-budget Hollywood sound stage. But it was the real deal.
As the bus meandered deeper and deeper into the refreshingly unspoiled countryside, our view alternated between nonchalantly grazing cows and sheep; stretches of blessedly noise- and pollutant-free open spaces; and riotous untended patches of wild thistle, heather and bluebells that sometimes stretched as far as the eye could see. (Bluebells are flowers that actually look purple and they only bloom once per year. They are stunning.)
Take a scenic ride to see Stirling Castle in the Trossachs, nestled in the foothills of the Highlands. The former home of the Stewart kings and queens of Scotland, it later served as a military garrison and training facility, Today, it is a tourist attraction. If you go, a visit to the Tapestry Studio is a must. At the time I visited, I was fascinated to watch two women who were trying to recreate the tapestry in the King’s and Queen’s rooms. We were told they had been bent over one design for three years already when I saw them, That little tidbit certainly highlighted the level of detail involved in the process.
Set aside some time to enter the hallowed halls of the National Art Gallery of Scotland in order to capture the spirit of the Renaissance era and others leading up to the 20th century via their displays of fine art.
And the icing on the cake is this: you absolutely MUST take a hike up to Carlton Hill to stand on tip-toe and try to kiss the sky. The view, that feeling of weightlessness and the crisp freshness of the air, are incomparable!
You may have noticed I didn’t list one pub or whiskey bar, right? They are there but they are just not my thing, (smile)
At some point in our travels we all have fallen prey to a tourist trap or two. You know, those popular attractions that are mentioned in every destination guide and where crowds and long queues to enter are common. If the experience is worth it, I don’t mind the hassle but if I walk away underwhelmed, I mind it – a lot.
With that in mind, I put together a short list for those of you headed to London. Be warned: All the attractions listed will be swarming with tourists but I think they live up to the hype.
Changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace
According to the Washington Post there are 26 monarchies in the world forming “a fascinating network of kings, queens, sultans, emperors and emirs who rule or reign over 43 countries in all”. However, none is as prominent as Britain’s Royal Family so no trip to London is complete without a visit to see Buckingham Palace.
If you are in London, schedule your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guards ceremony. Between May and July, it takes place at 11:30 a.m. daily and happens every other day for the rest of the year, weather permitting. It’s a dignified exhibition of British pomp and pageantry while guards exchange duty posts.
And, it is free to watch.
Tower of London
The Tower of London, also known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, was built by William the Conqueror after his invasion of England in 1066 and over the years was used as a zoo, an armoury, and a place of torture and death. Today, it showcases much of London’s history.
Ceremonial guardians of the Tower, who are called Beefeaters, take you on guided walking tours where they regale you with bloody tales as you traverse the torture rooms and see horrifying tools used on former prisoners. The graffiti they left behind on the walls tells its own story. Additionally, there is a room that houses the impressive yet ostentatious Crown Jewels and there are displays from the Royal Armouries’ collection in the White Tower. Please note, the dramatic re-enactments of bravery and tragedy by actors in period costumes are not to be missed. They are colorful and animated spectacles.
Admission starts at £22.00 | US$35.per ticket.
The London Eye
If you appreciate stunning views and are not afraid of heights, add the London Eye to your list of must-dos. This attraction is the city’s 135 meter-high equivalent to a giant ferris wheel (the Brits call it an observation wheel) that gives 360-degree views of many iconic landmarks.
You sit or stand in one of its 32 high-tech glass capsules as they rotate slowly above the Thames River. The ride lasts for 30 minutes and during that time you see gradually changing vistas of London. Within each capsule, you can listen to interactive guides in several languages.
Admission is £20.70 | US$ 33 per ticket. Children aged four and under are free.
While Madame Tussauds wax museums are not unique to London (there are 19 branches worldwide) I think the one in London is worth visiting because it was the city where the concept started. As their website says, it is the ‘ultimate celebrity day out’ and it provides the perfect selfie stick photo op next to the wax version of the famous person you always hoped to meet.
There are more than 300 life-sized replicas of many of the world’s favorite actors, sports icons, television personalities, politicians and musicians. Kids will go ‘bananas’ over the Marvel Superheros section and die-hard fans of Star Wars will go ‘bonkers’ over the newly added franchise characters. I hung out with Tyra Banks, Will Smith, President Barak Obama, Brad Pitt and more. In addition to numerous ‘celebrity sightings’, you also can opt for a look behind-the-scenes to see how the sculptors create their works of art.
Admission starts at £31.00 | US$48 per ticket.
In my opinion, one attraction that definitely did not live up to the hype when I visited a few years ago was the London Dungeon. The marketing material made promises of ‘a thrill-filled journey through London’s murky past’ where ‘you get 90 minutes of laughs, scares, theatre, shocks, rides, special effects, characters, jokes, mazes and storytelling’. Delicately put, that is complete hogwash. Unless things have radically changed and you have kids under ten who are terrified of their own shadow, I say skip it and use your money for something else that offers more value.
Note: Prices quoted are as at June 2015 and are subject to change.
The first time I visited Paris, I was a wide-eyed student on spring break. I had never been to Europe before and in my capacity as self-appointed president of the ‘Budget Travel Association’, I travelled via Eurorail and bus.
On my second trip to the city, my travel IQ was a bit higher and my finances were more liquid, so I flew into Charles de Gaulle and hailed a cab at the airport.
Paris is a bustling city. Sophisticated and stylish, its monuments, bridges and parks seep that old-world charm and air of decadence that will quickly have you thinking of the usual connotations like gentry and indulgence. And, it would be a major faux pas not to mention the food, the fashion and the inevitable female fawning over the sexy male French accent. Two words: très fantastique!
This famous metropolis offers light-hearted moments too. One of the first things I noticed on the ride to the hotel was that almost every shop, restaurant, guesthouse or bed and breakfast within a 30-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower had the word “Eiffel” in its name. Try finding your bearings without a map! Plus, although I did not see it myself, I was warned it is not unusual to see well-dressed tourists dodging dog poop while navigating chic sidewalks in some neighborhoods. Let that visual sink in for a minute…
For my first outing (the second time around), my friends and I took a leisurely walk down the famous fashion street, L’Avenue Montaigne – I call it Designer Row. Every designer who is anybody has a store on that strip. Whether your vice is shoes, clothing, handbags or accessories, you can indulge it there. Are you yearning for Chanel, Valentino, Louis Vitton, Jimmy Choo, Christian Dior or Prada? Don’t worry, you WILL find a store with your heartstrings gift-wrapped all over it.
If you have a short time in the city, I think the best way to see it – other than by private car, of course – is on an open tour bus. You can get on and off as often as you wish. Tour check-list essentials such as the Museé de Louvre, Notre Dame, Place de la Concorde, Champs Elysées, Charles De Gaulle-Etoile, Tour Eiffel, Bastille Opera, Gare de Lyon, Arc de Triomphe, Esplanade des Invalides are only a stop or photo snap away.
I also recommend a visit to Ladurée, a famous tea room and restaurant in an 18th-century mansion on the Champs Elysées. The menu includes light fare like club sandwiches but we went solely for dessert; namely, macarons and chocolate.
Macarons are small, round pastries that are crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. The flavors vary with each season and you could go buck-wild trying them all. When I was there, the options ranged from hazelnut praline, rose petal, raspberry, lemon, salted butter caramel, icy mint, liquorice and more – all capable of spiking your blood sugar with a hearty dose of warm, gooey, happiness after one bite.
We visited the Eiffel Tower on the final day and since nobody talks much about the queues, I will share that little detail with you now. Expect a wait. It took us at least 90 minutes to get from the road to the first elevator. We eventually ascended some 320 meters to the third floor then took another elevator to the top. I was fit to be tied by that point.
My best friend is terrified afraid of heights and her nervous, shaking hands held mine in what could only be described as a death clamp. To make things worse, space in the lift was so cramped I didn’t have to inhale too deeply to guess what some of the other passengers had for lunch.
But when I got to the top and looked out, my agitation vanished like mist on a dew-filled morning. The 360° view of the city was breathtaking.
Did you know that the Statue of Liberty, that iconic New York landmark that initially served as a beacon of hope and opportunity for immigrants seeking a better life in America, is not the only one that exists? There are at least seven replicas in France and others in Austria, Germany, Kosovo, Norway, Spain, United Kingdom, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and China.
I ran across a small one in the Jardin du Luxembourg during my second trip to Paris. It was moved in 2012 to the entrance of the Musée d’Orsay and now there is a bronze one in its place. You can find it on the northeast corner of the park near the Rue Guynemer entrance.
It’s a great photo op if you are looking for something a little different to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower!
For a complete list of statue locations around the world, click here.