Sunday, October 25, 2015

48 Hours Lisbon. Day Two



With only 2 full days in Lisbon we set out to do a lot, but it didn't feel rushed or hectic. After packing, checking out, and breakfast in the hotel we went shopping at the Conserveira de Lisboa. We had tried to go twice before but as we were there the weekend of Easter it (and many other stores) were closed. But on this day the adorable shop selling tins of all sorts of fish, which ha been in business since 1930, was open! As we could tell from the line around the block! No worries, it moved fast and soon we were loading up on an assortment of fantastic treats to take home. All personally labeled by this elderly woman who had her own desk in the corner.

We then hopped on the tram which took us out to the Belem area where we would spend the day.

First up the National Coach Museum. Now this might sound a bit hokey but we all loved it! A whole history of the country's use of carriages in a spectacular hall. The detail work, style, and progression of comfort were really interesting. And beautiful. If you are out in Belem I highly recommend a visit!

Time for lunch!! We found a recommendation, from Rick Steves of all sites, online for Os Jeronimos. The description said something like "it looks like shit but it is fantastic". We went into the divey looking restaurant, got seats at the counter, and had an absolutely stand out lunch! Fresh grilled fish, clams, a saucy rice dish with sausage, and some real characters who owned the place!


An easy walk from lunch took us to the Monument of the Discoveries which has two profile sides featuring 33 famous explorers. You can walk up to the top of this impressive stone tower for more amazing views (we even caught a glimpse of the five masts on our Windstar ship in the distance!).
The square below has a stunning map of the world all done in tile. It's cool from ground level but from above it is just gorgeous.

We then rushed over to the Tower of Belem but sadly did not make the last entry. Next time.
One thing we noticed all over Lisbon (and later in southern Spain) were beggars with tiny Chihuahuas trained to hold the coin bucket. Cute and sad.
We were suppose to board our ship by 10:00pm so we grabbed the tram back to town, had another round of gintonics at Taberna Moderna (while watching some absolutely wacky couple doing some kind of hide-and-seek performance art. We think.), and then headed to the very popular Cervejaria Ramirez. The line was already crazy long at 7pm so a taxi driver took us to a random place (his cousin probably owned it) which ended up being very good.

A quick stop to pick up our bags and we headed to our ship at the port. It seemed really quiet. Like deserted. We actually had to walk with our bags all the way down the pier to our ship as no one was working. Weird.

Turned out we were suppose to be on board by 5:30pm or something and that we were the last ones to arrive and they were waiting on us to pull up anchor and leave! LOL!!

I have to say that I absolutely loved Lisbon. There is so much to do and see, or you can do nothing at all except take in the views, wander up and down staircases, drink gintonics, and eat amazing seafood. And the pretty tile, don't even get me started on the tile! I hope to get back!

But we had a whole other adventure waiting for us, and we were excited to set sail!
All Lisbon photos here.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

48 Hours Lisbon. Day One

Before boarding our Windstar ship for a cruise of the south of Spain last spring, we spent 2 fantastic nights in Lisbon, Portugal, the departure spot for our ship.

We flew in with our friends Matt & Jen via Amsterdam, giving us all just enough time in Schiphol to check out the museum, buy some duty free gin, Gouda, stroopwaffle, as well as have breakfast of sushi & champers. Just your typical layover...

It was our first time to Portugal, our first time to Lisbon, and Matt's first time in Europe! We found the city to be beautiful, interesting, and filled with exceptionally friendly people.

We arrived in Lisbon, bought the Lisboa Card and paid 2Euro for a bus into the city, which just happened to drop us off right at our hotel, the Avenida Palace.

Gorgeous right? And a perfect location to stay at, centrally located and easy to get verywhere.

The weather was lovely so we set out to do a little exploring, window shopping, sit outside with beers and snacks, and stretch our legs after a day spent flying.

Lisbon is almost as enthusiastic as southern Spain when it comes to gin and gintonics. We found a great place called Taberna Moderna which had a fabulous menu of gins - some known to us and many not - with recommended tonic choices - some known to us and many not - and created beautiful fishbowl-sized gintonics which we sipped outside enjoying the lovely evening. We'd return to this bar again in our short two 1/2 days here.
Just a few doors down we had a casual dinner of simply grilled seafood and fish at O Cofre. Nightcaps back at our fantastic hotel bar completed our evening.

Well rested and ready to see Lisbon we headed out after breakfast (included with our room rate) and grabbed the 28 Trolly which goes all around town, including up to the Castell Sao Jorge. The trolly is *the* way to get around Lisbon and with the Lisboa Card it is free.

We got off before the castle and walked around the Alfama area, views from the hillside were spectacular! Then we headed into the castle and explored the grounds, walking on the walls, and enjoyed more amazing views of the city.


We explored the area a bit more after leaving the castle, looking for someplace for lunch that wasn't overly touristy but finally decided to leave and walk to the nearby Graça area. We stopped at a random restaurant and had an excellent lunch of octopus salad and grilled fish.
Back on the trolly we headed to the Sé cathedral, then on to the gorgeous square on the waterfront, the Praça do Comercio. A quick stop to enjoy a glass of port and finally to the Santa Justa Lift. As Lisbon is so hilly there is an elevator that was originally built to help residents get from the lower area of the Baixa up to the Upper and Largo do Carmo. I think some still use it but it's mostly a tourist attraction now.

Up at the top we walked around the posh Chiado area and then down a steep set of stairs towards our hotel. The views were so pretty we just had to stop of a glass of wine on the terrace of the aptly named Panoramico O Sol and enjoy.

That night we had an absolutely fantastic dinner at the 1 starred Michelin restaurant Bel Canto (its now received its 2nd!).

~Wave breaking, bivalves, coastal prawn, "seawater" and seaweed "sand"
~Smoked mackerel belly, marinated vegetable puré and confetti
~The garden of goose that laid the golden eggs, egg, crunchy bread and mushrooms
~Red mullet, "Lisbon's sidewalk stones" and a liver sauce
~Milk-fed lamb twice cooked with a pea and "fairnheira" stew
~Mandarin


I highly recommend having dinner here if you find yourself in Lisbon!

We finished our very full, and very fun day with nightcaps at our hotel bar as we had another full day tomorrow!

All Lisbon photos here.
Day two post is here.


Monday, October 19, 2015

A Cabin in the Woods of Lapland

After hanging out with Santa in his 'hood for the day we headed back to the train station, retrieved our luggage, and caught the bus to Äkäslompolo, in Lapland Finland. It was a 2 1/2 drive north in the dark (even though it was only 3pm if I remember). We had the bus drop us off at the tiny airport and from there grabbed a cab which took us the rest of the way to the village itself. It was a dark and very foggy drive through the ski resorts. Some of the big pine trees flanking the road were beautifully lit up, creating a nice series of tree lampposts if you will.

As we entered the village our taxi had to slow down because reindeer were walking in the middle of the road in front of our car. We all started to "ooh" and "ahh" while our driver shrugged and proclaimed "ah, Lapland!"

We found our rental, the Aurora Cabin, and could not have been more charmed. A small log cabin, in a little subdivision, right on the edge of the forest. We had both a front porch, complete with plastic toboggans, as well as a back porch that looked out to the woods. Inside the upstairs had a big loft and bathroom, while downstairs had two bedrooms flanking the kitchen and living room. The living room had a sweet little fireplace and the cabin was stocked with small round, birch logs which smelled great when we burned them. And the bathroom had a sauna which seated 4!


The next morning Forest and I headed to the store to stock up for the upcoming five days. We realized as we saw others walking to the main area of town that people used their toboggans to transport their groceries. We hadn't brought ours but passed a sledding area with some semi-busted up ones that looked abandoned so we borrowed a couple.

We absolutely loved our cabin in the woods! We spent the days going on walks, playing in the snow, reading by the fire, sweating in our sauna, and playing games. Total relaxation.


Of course we had a very busy New Years Eve!

We booked a few other excursions as well. On our first full day, after our friends Matthieu and Violaine arrived, we went night snowshoeing through the national forest with a private guide. We all had hoped to see the Northern Lights but it was cloudy (our entire time in Lapland) and actively snowing that night. It was still a great hike though, about 2 1/2 hours total in really deep snow! We had a rest stop halfway at a little shelter that hikers use. There is a fire pit as well as kettles and pans that people are allowed to use, and expected to clean and leave for the next. Our guide made us coffee (which we spiked) and served us pulla, which are traditional Finnish sweet rolls. 

Another day we arranged for a trip out to a Husky Farm which was a big highlight for us all. Again each couple was given their own sled and dog team to drive. We headed 5k to the Ice Village and Hotel through lovely scenery- with dogs barking their heads off!!
We took about an hour and explored the Ice Hotel, including its chapel and bar (which sadly wasn't open yet). Then warmed up with some salmon soup before getting back to our dog team and heading home.

On our last day in the village we rented a traditional wood heated sauna in a private cabin that sat on the frozen lake.

For 60 Euro we had it to ourselves for an hour. The main room had a fireplace, a picnic table to eat and drink at, and hooks for our clothes. Once you stripped down (to swimsuits in our case) you could enter the huge and HOT sauna. This thing was heated to 194F. There was a hose that came in directly from the lake and filled a large barrel which you could douse yourself with to cool off a bit.

Or you could jump in the lake, which some did. I did not.


You just can't get more Finnish than all of that!

We had some tasty meals in Äkäslompolo also. There was a pizza place in town that served really interesting pies with ingredients like salmon, smoked reindeer, and bear. We went more than once over 5 days as the pizza was really good. And yes, I did try bear pizza!

One night we went to dinner at Poro Restaurant which was located pretty much directly behind our cabin and across a field. The building boasted Santa's Workshop upstairs and a chance to meet him, which we all did. As we went to leave for the dining room we were all informed that we owed 6 Euro each for the visit. Naughty Santa.

Although the service was quite slow our dinners were all very good downstairs. The menu was heavy on reindeer and the decor inside resembled a traditional lodge of sorts.
We also had dinner at the casual pub style place call Julli's  which was fun and and easy to walk to. For our last dinner in town we went to Rouhe which we took a cab to and from as it was a bit farther. Food, atmosphere, and service here were all excellent!

And a lot of time we just cooked in our little cabin in the woods.


Photos from Akaslompolo here

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Eat, Drink, See Helsinki

We had a few more days in Helsinki both after Christmas and after New Years. It's a fantastic city even in the winter when days are short and temperatures are low. Strangely when we were there the city had not seen snow yet, which we were disappointed about, it was rainy much like winter in Seattle.

Dining was interesting, in a good way! Did you know that Helsinki has a large Tibetan population? Forest did, so one night we ate at Mount Everest. Yep, another theme but also quite good Nepalese food.

Fratello Torrefazione was a good stop for mid-day espresso, glögi (mulled wine), and sandwiches.

One non themed dinner was at Restaurant Jurri which was absolutely wonderful. A small space offering mainly seasonal dishes with excellent service. Highly recommend!

And you'd be hard pressed to find a prettier place for lunch that at Kappeli right on the Esplanade. The restaurant and bar are in a gorgeous glass atrium and the food and service were elegant and fantastic.

Besides hitting the American Bar on our very first night in town, most places on my list to check out for cocktails were closed for the holidays. Good thing Forest and I mix such good martinis! But Bar Haven, inside the Hotel Haven where we stayed for a night before heading home had some very well made drinks in a super cool space.



We also had cocktails at the uber-popular Grotesk where craft cocktails rein supreme. It was a bit of a madhouse so I'd suggest going early and not on a weekend if you have your choice.

As far as sightseeing went we used the city's tram system to get us to most of places. It is easy to navigate and the stops are well marked and announced.

Helsinki has a church, Temppeliaukio, that is built entirely into a huge rock; unique and unusual to visit.

The  Kiasma Modern Art Museum is amazing and well worth more that a couple of hours. There were a lot of interactive pieces which is always fun. Also one of the exhibits was of clothing made entirely of plants, flowers, etc found in nature. The pieces were beautiful.


Near to that is the Silence Church, a beautiful oval shaped church with no denomination, meant to welcome everyone. Crazy concept right?


Market Hall (or Hakamiemi in Finnish) is a fun stop to explore both local food items on the ground floor, and crafts and vintage items for sale upstairs.


And of course I did a bit of shopping at the small Christmas Market outside of Stockmann's (which had amazing window displays). I'm sure prior to the holiday the market was much larger.


There was another market down near the harbor which was smaller and not holiday oriented. I think it runs year around but at the time there were a lot of wintery items like reindeer and fox pelts for sale.

We also went to the beautiful Winter Gardens at the Botanical Park.

Right in the center of town there was a skating rink, just next to the train station. We didn't partake  but skating rinks always bring a smile to my face!


All Helsinki photos here

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Christmas in Helsinki

Traveling at Christmas is equal parts beautiful and aggravating. Cities are decked out in twinkling lights, festive markets, and fantastic window displays. But many shops and restaurants that would otherwise be on the to-see/to-do list are closed. So you need a plan, and great friends, and a comfortable home-base. And I had all of those while in Helsinki at Christmas two years back.

After our ferry returned us from Estonia we took a quick cab to the Hotel Kamp, a gorgeous Starwood property located right on the beautiful Esplanade Park. We had a few rounds of very nice and very spendy cocktails and snacks in the hotel bar and then headed up to our connecting rooms for Trivial Pursuit and night caps.

The next morning was Christmas Eve, traditionally the day that most Europeans celebrate, so we had very limited options on what to do. You just need to do your research in advance and then also use your concierge for updated info.

We started with a breakfast at Stockmann's Department store which has a lovely cafe serving delicious pastries, egg dishes, espressos, etc. We then walked down to the harbor and caught a mainly pedestrian ferry (mainly as it can fit two cars at a time) to the island fortress of Suomenlinna.

The island is very interesting for strolling around. There are wooden buildings dating back to the habitation of the island, an amazing lighthouse, little villages with shops and cafes (closed for the holidays), and even a submarine!

It was cold and a bit drizzly so after our walk we headed back to the mainland and had a very good lunch at Sunn. By the time we finished the sun had set (after 3pm) and Senate Square, directly across the street, was lit up beautifully.

I had heard about a tradition that happens on Christmas Eve at the big main cemetery, with people lighting candles on all the gravestones, kind of like how we do the paper bag lanterns right? Only a bit more heartfelt and inspirational. We took a cab, it isn't terribly far but it isn't close either, and asked the driver to wait for us as it was raining and there aren't a lot of cabs queued up at cemeteries. There were stands selling candles and people lit them both for their own families but also for gravestones that had no-one to care for them anymore. It was quite moving to me; the serenity and beauty of the flickering candlelight, the solemness of the actions, the act of remembering and being remembered. I'd say that would always be a good Christmas present to receive.
as it was dark & rainy I couldn't capture how pretty it was
That evening we had dinner at the well known Kynsilaukka (which is the old Finnish word for garlic) Restaurant. Everything, and I mean everything, had garlic in it. Including my martini! Even though it all sounds a bit hokey but it was very good (all the food, not just my martini). Sadly I read it is now closed.

Back at the hotel we had our own Christmas celebration. Forest and Thibault handed out gifts as our official elves. We had drinks and played the very holiday-ish game of Cards Against Humanity. We had sweets of traditional Finnish candies that housekeeping had left for us. And to all a good night.

On Christmas morning we all had a special holiday breakfast at the hotel. They had a huge buffet, champagne, etc. and the guests were all dressed up for church (I assume). We headed back to our rooms after filling up and spent a decadent day all piled in one room watching movies.

On our way to dinner that night we decided to take the #3 tram which went around a part of town we hadn't been to. Trams are a lovely way to see the sights! We excited near Senate Square which was again beautifully decorated, and made our way to Savotta for dinner.

The restaurant is made to resemble a traditional logging village, again another hokey theme, but our food was absolutely excellent!

We wrapped up Christmas with martinis and Trivial Pursuit back at the Kamp Hotel.

What are you doing for Christmas?

Helsinki photos here