My Lisbon Getaway – Day 3

The first stage of my recent trip to Portugal was primarily spent in its magnificent capital, exploring neighborhoods old and modern. Day 3 marked the first of my excursions outside Lisboa. My guide Isabel took me to the fairytale town of Sintra, a popular day-trip destination for tourists coming from the big city. Like many visitors to Sintra, I wanted to see its Moorish castle as well as its many palaces and mansions, former possessions of the late Portuguese royals and nobles. Isabel told me how they would stay there, or anywhere else outside Lisbon, to avoid the immense poverty and disease of the time. From what I had seen on television and social media, the palaces and mansions looked quite majestic. I was excited to finally see them up close.

Isabel and I got to Sintra by taking the train directly from the Rossio Station in central Lisbon (the Baixa). It took us some time to get there, approximately 40 minutes, but we arrived in one piece. The two of us then hopped on the shuttle bus that takes visitors to the town’s main attractions. It was a very useful way to get around, especially as many of the sites are spread throughout the hills of the Sintra Mountains. Otherwise, it would have been nearly impossible to hike up the craggy roads. The bus ride itself was truly rough climbing those hills and squeezing through narrow hairpin turns. With every seat taken, we stood up most of the time. Luckily, we did not fall down and got to our first stop, the Castelo dos Mouros safe and sound.

Castelo dos Mouros:

Like Lisbon, Sintra has a Moorish castle. It sits upon a 450 meter high cliff, overlooking the town and its extensive forests. When the Moors controlled the Iberian Peninsula in the early Middle Ages, the castle was a means of defense against invaders. It fell to the second Christian Crusade in 1147. It was abandoned and lay in ruins until the nineteenth century when the reigning king ordered its restoration. Ferdinand II was keenly interested in all things Medieval. Thus the Castelo dos Mouros was returned to its former glory. It is now a good place to get a healthy dose of Sintra’s early history.

During our time at the castle, Isabel needed to make an important phone call, so I explored a little on my own. It was still morning and the expected large crowds of tourists had yet to materialize. I freely traversed the castle walls and towers, more or less alone. The footing there was more rugged than at the Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon. There was a moment when I had to sit after walking up and down various steep staircases.

The view of Sintra from the castle is extraordinary. I consider it far more impressive than the view of Lisbon from Castelo de São Jorge. The fortress is, after all, set much higher above the town. Everything looked so quaint and picturesque down below, with rolling hills beyond. The castle also had a great view of the colorful and mega-popular Pena Palace, which was the next stop.

Palácio Nacional da Pena:

I had anxiously looked forward to seeing this attraction – perhaps most of all. I was drawn to its unusual yet glorious blend of east and west. Perched atop a hill, the multicolored palace had been the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family for most of the nineteenth century. The exterior architectural features are marked by onion-shaped domes and arches reminiscent of Islamic buildings. There are immaculate floors of azulejo tile-work, statues of ferocious gargoyles, and numerous terraces overlooking Sintra, the Castelo dos Mouros and its endless greenscape. Mesmerized by its grandeur, I took countless photos.

To my surprise, the rooms were smaller than I thought they would be. This was a palace, so I had expected them to be more spacious. Nevertheless, they were very ornate with vividly-carved vaulted ceilings, dining tables with the finest china, and canopy beds covered by shimmering fabrics. The palace also had a beautiful courtyard decorated in azulejos with views of its red clock tower above. One could definitely tell royalty once resided there.

Overall, Pena Palace was a wonderful place to visit. I enjoyed walking through its many passageways and gawking at its flamboyant architecture. I could totally see why Pena is so popular with tourists. There is no palace quite like it!

Lunch at Villa Craft Beer and Bread:

After Pena Palace, it was time for Isabel and I to have lunch. We rode a bus all the way down to the center of town, to a restaurant she and her boyfriend once went to. It was a brewery called Villa Craft Beer and Bread, serving sandwiches made with homemade bread and beers of every type. To eat, we ordered two kinds of sandwiches: one with chopped chouriço (spicy Portuguese sausage) and melted cheese, and another with savory shredded pork. To drink, I tried a blond ale and an IPA. Everything we ordered was delicious. The service was swift, attentive, and helpful, particularly when it came to advice on which beers to order. Isabel definitely picked the right place for lunch.

Walking through Sintra:

The next stop was Quinta da Regaleira, a 19th century villa renowned for its extravagant gardens. My aunt went there during her trip in Portugal and enjoyed it very much. Isabel and I walked to the quinta (villa) directly from our lunch spot, not terribly far away. This gave me the opportunity to see more of the town center.

We passed several colorful shops, restaurants and manors, with a variety of architectural styles. The colors ranged from blue to white to yellow to pink. Some of the mansions were adorned with vivid azulejos, either detailing images of saints or the town’s early history. One of them, the Sintra Palace, had cone-shaped chimneys – odd but fascinating. Sintra is a very, very photogenic place.

Quinta da Regaleira:

The first thing I did at Quinta da Regaleira was explore its vast gardens. They were extremely lush with trees, plants and flowers of all shapes and sizes. I came upon Birds of Paradise, dense ferns and swaying palms. It almost felt as if I were back on the Azorean island of São Miguel, famous for its diverse vegetation. I strolled past lavish fountains and outstanding vista points. One fountain was emblazoned with many different kinds of seashells, while another was covered by radiant mosaics. I saw a cat drinking water from one of them. Funny and adorable, I thought.

The vista points presented superb views of both the Castelo dos Mouros and the town center. I saw the castle’s towers and Sintra’s glowing, elegant architecture with the rolling hills in the distance. I could have stayed and gazed at the charming scenery for hours, but there was much more to see at the site.

I was eager to see the Poço Iniciático (Initiation Well). Among its intriguing features is a long spiral staircase through the grounds, leading to cave-like passageways known as Gruta do Oriente. It almost felt like walking into a fantasy novel, strange and scary. The original owner of Quinta da Regaleira was said to be fascinated by secret religious cults, influencing him to build the well. I was awestruck by how deep it was, at least 27 meters (88 feet). It seemed a bit spooky as the stairway turned darker near the end. Thankfully, I did not notice anything weird on the way. The cave passageways, on the other hand, were well-lit by electric lights. I was able to see their unique rock formations quite clearly. One of them even led to a quaint grotto outside with a waterfall. It was a marvelous spectacle, especially as the sun shone down on it.

The quinta itself was delightful. Its Neo-Gothic façade held intricately sculpted stonework. including saints and angels from its chapel, and knotted ropes (perhaps a nod to Portugal’s nautical heritage). The interior was equally opulent with glowing frescoes and dynamically-carved wooden ceilings. Its former residents certainly kept a grand lifestyle.

I was also glad that the villa had a cafe. I needed to relax and have a cold drink after walking around the site and its grounds. I drank a refreshing Sumol soda, and also had a popsicle made with Azorean pineapple. It made me feel nostalgic – just as sweet and refreshing as I remembered.

Queijadas and One Last Stroll in Sintra:

After leaving Quinta da Regaleira, Isabel wanted us to do one more thing before returning to Lisbon: trying Sintra’s famous queijadas (milk tarts). People love them for their amazingly sweet taste. We bought some at a little café in the town center, and they were fabulously scrumptious with a strong hint of cinnamon. I enjoyed them so much that I purchased two packs of queijadas to take back to the guest house. They were definitely the perfect snack.

As we walked back to the train station, I got to experience the town’s scenic charm one last time. As before, we passed its vibrantly colored buildings, the outstanding cone shaped chimneys of Sintra Palace, and azulejos commemorating its past. We passed the city hall which resembles a Neo-Gothic cathedral. It had a tall tower painted with images of the Portuguese Coat of Arms and Cross, and a little cloistered hallway as part of its entrance. It was stunning, and showed Sintra as a place worth visiting for its impressive architecture.

Pastéis de Bacalhau at Pastelaria Casulo:

After returning to Lisboa, Isabel and I stopped by at a snack-bar across from the Rossio Station. Isabel wanted to get a sandwich for her dinner. Since I had made dinner plans for that night, I snacked on some pastéis de bacalhau (salted codfish fritters), and washed them down with a glass of Sagres beer. Isabel mentioned it is customary for folks in Portugal to have a small bite to eat in the late afternoon before having their supper later in the evening, typically after 7:30 pm. This is usually done at their local snack-bars: small eateries where they can order sweet and savory treats, sandwiches, coffee, beer and wine. I was happy to share in this Portuguese tradition. My pastéis de bacalhau were exquisite with their salty and garlicky flavors, finished off perfectly by my ice-cold beer. Despite all the carbs, my stomach still had room for more food.

Dinner at Boteco Dona Luzia:

I was planning to dine at a local Brazilian restaurant named Boteco Dona Luzia. Lisbon has a thriving Brazilian community, which shares many of their culinary traditions at different eateries. When I went to the Oceanarium on Day 1, I enjoyed a Brazilian-style hot dog at the cafeteria. It came topped with ketchup, mayonnaise, and potato sticks. Two days later at a café near my guest house, I had a coxinha (triangular fried croquette filled with shredded chicken and cream cheese) for a morning snack. It is a popular party food in Brazil. Both dishes were yummy, even the hot dog with ketchup and mayo (I normally eat one with yellow mustard), and it inspired me to dine at a traditional Brazilian restaurant in the Portuguese Capital, and Boteco Dona Luzia was just the place.

The restaurant had an array of foods, and a live band performing pagode music that night. To start, I ordered pão de queijo, tiny bread rolls flavored with cheese. They were warm, chewy, and had a bold cheesy taste – a perfect start to my meal. For my main entree, I ordered feijoada completa, a big black bean stew flavored with various cuts of pork meat, and served with plenty of side dishes like rice, orange slices, farofa (yucca flour), pork cracklings, and fried sweet plantains. Most Portuguese-speaking countries have their own version of feijoada, but Brazil’s is perhaps the most famous. It is the country’s national dish, and is usually served in extravagant portions. Similar to the feijoadas I ate at Brazilian restaurants back home, it had an awesome salty and smoky taste from the pork meat. It tasted so good that I consumed the entire plate in one sitting. Of course, I still had room for dessert. I ordered pudim (flan), which was covered in sweet, succulent caramel sauce. It was fabulously appetizing, and a great dish to finish off a spectacular dinner.

The live pagode band was pleasant to listen to. I sat outside and was unable to see them perform, but I could hear their lovely melodies and upbeat tempo loud and clear. Pagode is a subgenre of Samba music, and is normally sung with romantic and cheerful lyrics, and played during parties and dinners. It is the perfect music to play at a restaurant. I almost felt like dancing, but was tired from sightseeing all day. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the music. It was a clever way to entertain the customers, and another perfect example of Lisboa’s multicultural side.

My Lisbon Getaway – Day 2

My second day in the Portuguese capital mainly involved exploring its historic sites. My guide Isabel showed me Lisbon ‘s oldest neighborhoods, as well as imposing landmarks like Praça do Comércio and Castelo de São Jorge. The day also included fun activities like shopping for souvenirs, sampling different foods, and watching talented busking musicians. I had a spectacular time exploring more of the city. 

Breakfast at A Padaria Portuguesa and Walking Down Avenida da Liberdade:

Isabel and I began our day with breakfast at A Padaria Portuguesa (“The Portuguese Bakery”), a local cafe chain. At the counter there were many sweet and savory goods to choose from. I ordered Bola de Berlim, the Portuguese take on a German Berliner doughnut. It was quite large and filled with sweet creamy custard – very finger-licking good! 

Prior to ordering breakfast, Isabel provided a digital guide on how to order in Portugal. It showed images of all the beverages and their names in Portuguese, which was quite helpful. Since I usually drink coffee with lots of milk, I chose the galão, the Portuguese version of café au lait, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Although similar to café au lait, galão is traditionally served in a tall glass – very pretty to look at. The coffee itself was pretty strong, making me energized for a big day of touring Old Lisbon! 

The first stops were the neighborhoods of Bairro Alto and Largo do Carmo. We walked along Avenida da Liberdade (“Avenue of Freedom”). It was a magnificent tree-lined street with lush gardens, mosaic pavements and statues of famous people. We passed high-end boutiques like Emporio Armani and Prada, and the immaculately designed Spanish Consulate. While it is a broad avenue, it was rather quiet that morning with few vehicles, locals or tourists out and about. This was certainly a nice, peaceful start to the day.

Bairro Alto and Largo do Carmo:

Another way we took to get to Bairro Alto was by riding the Elevador da Glória, a 19th century funicular connecting the Baixa district (known as the ‘heart of Lisbon’ or city-center) with Bairro Alto over a steep hill. We were packed like sardines in the crowded cable car, but it was definitely better than hiking to the top. We saw no need to exhaust ourselves early. We had plenty of walking ahead of us.

Like any of Lisbon’s old quarters, Bairro Alto and Largo do Carmo offer spectacular views of the city, mostly from the Jardim de São Pedro de Alcântara (Saint Peter of Alcântara Garden) and Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa Elevator). One can see the city’s countless stucco-roofs, cathedrals, mosaic pavements and monuments. The Tejo River and Castelo de São Jorge are also quite prominent. I was awestruck by how much of old Lisbon I could see from those vantage points. I took an endless series of photos. Reviewing those shots later, I felt they could be on postcards for their well-detailed scenery.

Isabel and I walked through the district’s narrow, curvy and lofty streets. I was astonished to see both vehicles and trolleys easily run through them, sometimes in both directions. It looked challenging, even dangerous. I was impressed by how it all seemed to flow. These old roads were certainly not meant for modern forms of transportation. 

We also stumbled upon the ruined Gothic-era Igreja e Convento do Carmo (Carmo Church and Convent). Isabel told me that it had been destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1755, and still had not been restored to its original state, which surprised me. Much of the church and convent grounds are still strewn with rubble. Roofs and towers had long since collapsed. It surely helps people realize how devastating the earthquake was.

Shopping in Baixa Chiado (Lower Chiado):

As we entered the lowered part of the Chiado, Isabel and I happened upon its many different shops. Some belonged to global brands like Swarovski, H&M and Sephora. Others were old-time local businesses. Many specialized in particular kinds of merchandise (jewelry, gloves, books). Isabel told me that these local shops actually benefit from a city organization with a special mission. It protects them from the adverse effects of competing against mega-chains with greater resources and larger customer bases. I was glad to hear that. These businesses have each played an integral role in the community for generations. It would be a shame to see them close for good.

One thing I wanted to do during my vacation was purchase some books in Portuguese. I have always felt reading them would be a great aid in my study of the language. I mentioned this to Isabel and she immediately took me to the neighborhood’s beloved bookstore, Livraria Bertrand. This shop has been in business since 1732, making it the oldest continuously run bookstore in the world. Inside, it was spacious with books in both Portuguese and English. There was also a cafe. 

Because my Portuguese is somewhat elementary, I thought it wise to buy some children’s books. Isabel recommended short novels by the late Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen. She was a famous Portuguese poet and children’s book author, and her work has always been taught in elementary schools throughout the country. I was so intrigued by her story and legacy, I bought two of her books. When I returned from Portugal, I read one of them, A Menina do Mar (“The Girl from the Ocean”). It is a tale of a girl who lives in the ocean and befriends a boy who lives on land. The vocabulary and phrases used were not too complicated, making the story easy for me to understand. I am definitely pleased with myself for reading a book from start to finish in a different language.

Rossio Square:

Near Baixa-Chiado is Praça de Dom Pedro IV (King Pedro IV Plaza), better known as Rossio Square. It is a majestic place covered with mosaic surfaces resembling ocean waves. There is an eye-catching monument dedicated to King Dom Pedro IV who briefly ruled Portugal in the early 19th century. Glorious Baroque-era fountains overlook landmarks like the Dona Maria II National Theater, Igreja e Convento do Carmo, and Café Nicola. 

Isabel told me the wave mosaics literally represent the tsunami that came during the Great Earthquake. I was very surprised to hear this dark fact, given that these wave mosaics are common in other Lusophone cities like Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and Macau, China. They are truly mesmerizing. The ‘waves’ almost seemed like they were moving.

Trying Ginjinha, Lunch at Praça da Figueira, and More Shopping:

One delicacy I wanted to try was the sour cherry liqueur, ginjinha. Cherries are soaked in aguardente, a spirit distilled from wine residues. Seasoned with lots of sugar, and sometimes cinnamon and cloves, ginjinha is traditionally served in a shot glass. I learned of it from watching the late Anthony Bourdain’s travel show, No Reservations. In his Lisbon episode, he went to one of the city’s old ginjinha bars and enjoyed the beloved drink. Then and there, I knew I had to try it. 

Rossio Square is near two of Lisbon’s better known ginjinha bars. One of them, A Ginjinha (“The Ginjinha”) had a long line out the door that day. So Isabel took me to the other one close by. Ginjinha Sem Rival (“Ginjinha Without Rival”) was opened in 1890. Its founders so named the bar to avoid competition with A Ginjinha, the more established business. It is a rather small place where you order a shot at the counter and drink it outside while standing up. The beverage has a very strong sweet flavor. I could certainly taste the combination of cherries, alcohol, sugar and spices. I liked it, and the cold serving kept me cool as the day grew hotter. 

Later, we took time for lunch. Coincidentally, there was a big food festival going on nearby at Praça da Figueira. Many vendors prepared and served an immense array of Portuguese dishes. I ordered a sandwich filled with mouthwatering shredded pork and washed it down with a cup of cold Sagres beer. I particularly liked the pork’s eclectic seasoning of garlic, wine and herbs. The Sagres provided another dose of relief from the day’s heat. It was a necessary meal, to say the least. 

Across from the festival was a store selling Portuguese football (soccer) merchandise called Força Portugal. They sold jerseys, jackets, footballs, scarves, etc. Most of the inventory was associated with the Portuguese National Team as well as Lisbon’s two biggest football clubs (and rivals), Benfica and Sporting. I was keen to get a new Portuguese football jersey and quickly went inside. I also bought a National Team jacket and a scarf bearing the phrase, “Força Portugal.” Força, meaning strength, is commonly shouted whenever Portugal scores a goal. This year the World Cup will be played in Qatar, and Portugal should have one of the stronger sides. It would be nice if they win. 

Praça do Comércio:

Lisbon has many photogenic plazas. But the one usually considered the best is Praça do Comércio (Plaza of Commerce). In the days of the Portuguese Empire, this was where the city’s merchants did their trading. It is an extraordinarily expansive space with all-encompassing views of the surrounding late 18th century yellow buildings. The luxuriously designed Arco da Rua Augusta (August Street Arch) marks the entrance to this popular shopping street. Right in the middle stands the statue of King Joseph I. Further off, you can see the Tejo River, the massive 25th of April Bridge and the breathtaking Christo do Rei statue in neighboring Almada.

The plaza was undoubtedly a fun place to explore and take pictures. I was amazed by its enormity, and its refined yet cheerfully-colored architecture. No wonder it draws so many different visitors, even boisterous lads attending a bachelor party. It was absolutely the place to be!

Castelo de São Jorge:

After spending a good amount of time in Baixa, Isabel and I resumed our uphill journey to the older parts of Lisbon. This time we walked east of the city center. Next stop was Castelo de São Jorge (Saint George Castle). It was a Moorish-era fortress famous for withstanding many sieges during the Middle Ages. Finally falling to Portuguese crusaders, the castle would be key to the thwarting of an attempted invasion by Spain in 1373. It became a place of residence for the Portuguese Monarchy and would later serve as a prison. Today, it is a place where people can get in touch with Portugal’s medieval past. As the castle is positioned atop a high bluff, it is also an ideal place for panoramic views of Lisbon. 

Isabel and I had a difficult time getting there. We hiked up several lofty streets, used an elevator and walked up some more hills just to reach the entrance. My ticket to the castle was included in the tour, so I avoided the big queue at the ticket booth and entered the site straight away. Isabel had an important phone call, and could not accompany me. I enjoyed myself nevertheless. 

Mainly, I walked the castle grounds, mounted its walls, and climbed its towers. It was tricky getting around because of the site’s rugged levels and craggy staircases. I made sure to watch my step. Those who lived in the castle years ago must have had very strong legs and feet. As expected, I took in the superb views of Lisbon: the magnificent landmarks from the Praça do Comércio to the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora; the stucco roofs dotting the cityscape with the broad Tejo River in the distance. Experiencing Castelo de São Jorge was definitely worth the trek!

To my surprise, I saw a number of peacocks roaming freely through the castle’s garden. I have mostly seen them only in zoos, and always secured behind some barrier. These graceful, brightly-colored birds ambled along unperturbed. I was glad of that since peacocks can get very defensive when bothered by people.

Alfama:

After Isabel and I reunited outside the castle walls, we headed over to Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Tourists have long gone there to experience its history, walk its cobblestone streets, and see its colorfully terraced homes. Visitors also enjoy the view east of Old Lisbon from marvelous vistas like Jardim Júlio de Castilho (Júlio de Castilho Garden). This was actually where we first stopped in Alfama. It was lovely seeing the area’s aged multicolored architecture with the river in the background. It was almost like a painting. The garden itself was charming, with trimmed hedges everywhere, azulejos detailing the city’s history, and live bossa nova music playing. While it would have been nice to relax there, Isabel and I still had more exploring to do.

We later walked through the district’s residential parts, which was like a step back in time. We walked up and down narrow streets with homes hanging laundry from the windows. Some of them had azulejos showing scenes of blacksmiths working hard and fado musicians performing together. 

We also stopped by the 12th century Sé Cathedral, another important Lisbon landmark. Through the centuries, it hosted baptisms, weddings and funerals for the former Portuguese aristocracy. Though it is still an active place of worship, visitors flock to see its well-preserved Gothic architecture. I was impressed by how polished everything looked inside and outside, with no visible decrepitude. The stained glass windows bore elegantly rendered images of saints and biblical figures.  It was genuinely gratifying to see how well Alfama has maintained its historic appearance in modern-day Lisboa.

Mouraria:

Soon afterwards, my guide and I arrived in another old quarter: Mouraria. It was similar to Alfama because of the cramped, sloping cobblestone streets, and more houses with laundry hanging from balconies. What sets Mouraria apart is its vivid street art. Much of it displays dazzling images of Fado legends like Maria Severa and Amalia Rodrigues. 

I also noticed photographs plastered on some of the buildings. These shots were taken of some of the area’s longtime residents. Isabel told me this was an outdoor exhibit by local photographer Camilla Watson. It was created to memorialize people who, after living in Mouraria for generations, were bullied by real-estate developers into moving out so their apartments could be converted to Airbnb’s for tourists. Fortunately, activists have been working hard to prevent this forced displacement. Someday, I hope, more effective regulation will be initiated regarding Airbnb proliferation in Lisbon.

Isabel and I took time to relax at Café O Corvo, enjoying cool lemonade and cocktails. This was absolutely necessary, as we had done so much walking. It felt so good to finally sit down, and the drinks were a refreshing relief from the heat. The cafe also played smooth bossa nova and our table faced buildings embellished with elaborate azulejo tile-work. It was certainly the right place for us to unwind.

Trolley#28 and Praça Luis de Camões:

With evening approaching, Isabel gave me some free time. I had returned to Baixa where there was a variety of things to see and do. I considered riding an old yellow Lisbon trolley. These iconic trolleys run through all the city’s historic areas, which usually means they are packed with tourists. 

I hopped on the very popular Trolley#28 and rode it through the upper part of Chiado. It was crowded inside and I was obliged to stand. The ride was a little rickety as it shuddered along the rough curvy streets. Happily, I did not fall. It was not long before the trolley arrived at a place I had been eager to see: Praça Luis de Camões.

It is a busy plaza, striking in appearance, with cafes, restaurants, churches and  several statues. There were mosaics of sailing ships and mermaids, and colorful buildings of varying shades of blue and yellow. Other trolleys came and went. All in all, Praça Luis de Camões was incredibly photogenic. In fact, it is a part of Lisbon that I kept coming back to. Stay tuned for more information!

Dinner at Cantinho do Aziz:

I also spent my free time having dinner at one of the city’s more renowned restaurants, Cantinho do Aziz. Located in Mouraria, the eatery specializes in traditional meals from Mozambique, one of Portugal’s former colonies in southeastern Africa. As someone who loves trying foods from all over the globe, I was looking forward to eating Mozambican cuisine for the first time. Lisbon has large communities of people hailing from various parts of the old empire (Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Sao Tome e Principe, Guinea Bissau). As such, there are plenty of restaurants serving their delicacies. Cantinho do Aziz seemed like a great choice. It has received much acclaim from publications like Saveur Magazine and the Daily Mail. I knew I was in good hands. 

What I had for dinner was incredible. To start, I ordered chammusas, fried savory pastries similar to Indian samosas, filled with well-spiced minced meat or vegetables. They were very tasty, and the accompanying ultra-spicy piri-piri sauce gave them an amazing kick. My main entree was just as wonderful: juicy lamb ribs served in a yummy spicy sauce with basmati rice. The flavors were almost overwhelming – I did not want to finish my plate. For a drink, I downed a bottle of 2M Beer – also from Mozambique. It had a rejuvenating taste and went perfectly with my spicy dinner.

At the restaurant, I also took the opportunity to practice my Portuguese when ordering the food. I feel that I did the best I could when using the appropriate phrases and vocabulary: eu gostaria do/a… (“I would like the…”), obrigado (“thank you”), por favor (“please”), etc. There were a few moments when I stumbled but the waitress still understood what I meant. Though my Portuguese is not yet proficient, I was proud of myself for trying. 

As the trip went on, I continued to practice ordering in the vernacular. I would always begin the conversation by saying “eu falo um pouco português” (“I speak a little Portuguese”) and would proceed with my request. The shopkeepers were always patient and for the most part, we understood each other. Sometimes I struggled and Isabel would help with the translation. Ultimately, it felt great being able to use my Portuguese on this trip.

Sunset Stroll:

After dinner, Isabel and I met in the city-center and went for a small sunset stroll around the area before returning to the guest house. It looked gorgeous as the sun gazed down on the old architecture, like that of Praça do Comércio. The rays accentuated the yellow of its buildings. We also noticed buskers performing at Praça do Município. The band played lively Brazilian samba music, which drew a crowd of folks dancing, smiling and singing along. I would have danced, but I was too tired after walking all day. It was a lovely surprise and a great end to a day of traversing Old Lisboa. With Isabel’s help, I was having a great time in the city. I was becoming more and more excited about what lay ahead on the tour.

My Lisbon Getaway – Day 1

Introduction:

Last month, I embarked on my second trip to Portugal. I stayed in its magnificent, colorful and historic capital of Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese). I was also taken to see other places in central Portugal: Sintra, Costa da Caparica, Almada, Óbidos, Cascais and Estoril. It was all part of a private, custom-made and fully guided tour courtesy of Be Local Explorers. They specialize in conducting sustainable small-group excursions throughout Europe, Africa and Latin America. Some of its core beliefs include encouraging the use of public transportation, supporting local cultures and small businesses, and preventing overcrowding at various attractions and locations.

Be Local Explorers was founded by Ricardo Cazorla-Harisiadis (my tour guide during my trip to Spain) and his brother David. Touring Spain in April 2019, I was so impressed by how well Ricardo officiated the trip that I was keen to go on one of his company’s adventures. I was supposed to go on its tour of Prague in May 2020. Sadly, it was canceled due to the COVID pandemic. It was truly difficult for me not to travel overseas that year.

One year later, after I and millions of others were fully vaccinated, numerous countries reopened their borders to international travelers. I took the opportunity to revisit Iceland last September. It was sheer bliss for me to travel overseas again. I visited new areas of the country. More importantly, I did not catch COVID; neither there nor in transit. My successful Icelandic trip definitely inspired me to visit other countries again.

I had numerous destinations in mind, like France and Italy. But Portugal won hands down. I have always had a strong interest in Portugal and its culture. I have been learning how to speak Portuguese for two years. Also, the country is vibrant with its imposing and embellished architecture, mouthwatering cuisine and evocative music. My interest grew to include other Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) nations like Brazil and Cape Verde. My home state of Massachusetts has many historic Lusophone communities with fabulous eateries and festivals. Visiting them truly inspired me to visit Portugal and learn its language.

My first time in Portuguese territory was a trip to the Azorean island of São Miguel in May of 2016. The Azores are a group of nine volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Back then, I had a keen interest in the archipelago and its distinctive natural beauty, gastronomy and architecture. It was a pleasant and relaxing destination for our family trip. We loved driving over its lush and rolling hills, touring its pristine churches, and savoring its exquisite cuisine. Since then I have been most eager to visit the Portuguese Mainland and its major cities Lisbon and Porto. Once 2022 came around, I was committed to fulfilling that dream.

Planning the Trip:

For this vacation, I decided on a custom-made tour with Be Local Explorers. They offered adventures throughout Portugal. After canceling the Prague trip, I really wanted to support Ricardo’s company. I thought it would be a great idea to travel with a personal guide who could provide useful information on what to see and do. I might also get a little help with my Portuguese. I had initially wanted to do an excursion in both Lisbon and Porto, but it was out of my price range. I chose instead to base the trip in Lisbon and the towns nearby.

Ricardo was a great help in the planning process. Both he and his team created a practical itinerary for visiting the Portuguese capital and the surrounding area. He included places and activities I requested: exploring Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods; dining on traditional foods; going to the beach; seeing a fado performance. Ricardo introduced me to Isabel via email, who was to be my guide. We eventually spoke via Zoom, getting to know each other, and discussing details of the tour. She kept notes on what I wanted to do, and gave advice on traveling in Portugal.

One thing Isabel emphasized was for me to practice speaking European Portuguese. While I had been studying the language for some time, I was more familiar with the Brazilian dialect. It is quite different in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. It is notable that Brazilian Portuguese is more commonly taught at language learning centers and on computer apps because of Brazil’s seemingly greater influence on global society. Thankfully, Isabel recommended practiceportuguese.com, a website specializing in teaching the European dialect. It was a challenge at first. But the more I practiced, the more I improved.

One important thing I needed to do was take a COVID test within 72 hours of departure, a requirement for Americans traveling to Portugal. I took the RT-PCR test two days before my flight, and fortunately, the result was negative. Thus, I was ready to commence my highly anticipated Lisbon Getaway.

Arriving in Lisbon:

I flew to Lisbon from Boston on TAP Air Portugal, the national flag carrier. The flight time was approximately six hours, and I occupied myself by watching movies on the onboard entertainment system. As it was an overnight flight, I tried to catch a few winks. But my seat was not very comfortable, making sleep difficult and even hurting my tailbone. At least there was ample leg room.

One thing I liked about the flight was how the plane flew right over Lisbon as it descended towards Humberto Delgado International Airport. From my window seat, I could see landmarks like Ponte (Bridge) Vasco da Gama, Ponte 25 de Abril (April), and the Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue; all looking spectacular in their grandeur. It was absolutely exciting!

Getting through the airport was a breeze. At passport control, there were no long queues, and at baggage claim my suitcase was the first to appear on the conveyor belt. My vacation was undoubtedly off to a good start. I was sure to get some coffee before leaving the airport. I had barely slept on the plane, so my cappuccino restored my energy. I began to feel better as I headed toward the city center on the Lisbon Metro.

Arriving in the early morning, I was not yet able to check into my guesthouse, nor could I leave my luggage there with anyone at that time. Ricardo had suggested I book a reservation with luggagehero.com, a service that could help store my suitcase. It referred me to a grocery store (Supermercado Sarkar) near my lodgings that offered to look after it.

The ride into town on the metro had been a long one, and I had to change lines once or twice. Still, it ran smoothly and on schedule. I was impressed by the artistic design of the various stations we passed. Most displayed painted tilework portraying famous Portuguese people and biblical characters. One station had factory pipes in place of columns. I was reminded of the Montréal Métro with its decorative stations and smooth-running trains. Both systems currently have four lines; straightforward and easy to use. It was interesting to see how two vastly different cities could have similar metros.

Santo António, Praça do Marquês de Pombal, and Parque Eduardo VII:

I got off the metro at the Marquês de Pombal station, which is located in a busy roundabout and praça (plaza) of the same name. The walk to Supermercado Sarkar proved to be quite strenuous. On the map, it looked like it was close to the metro. But I had not counted on the hills along the way. I had to walk up and down and up again to get to the grocery store. Isabel had been careful to warn me how hilly Lisbon can be, but it was still challenging, especially with a heavy suitcase in tow. There were moments when I needed to stop and catch my breath.

It gave me the chance, however, to check out the neighborhood of my guesthouse: Santo António. I walked through quiet streets surrounded by terraced flats of bright multicolored tiles. People drank their morning coffee at the cafes and snack-bars, my first dose of Lisbon life. I managed to find the supermarket and left my suitcase with the shopkeeper. Now I could start traversing the city.

I returned to the plaza and stopped by a monument dedicated to the Marquês de Pombal (Marquis of Pombal). Lisbon’s governor during the mid-18th century, he played a crucial role in rebuilding the city after it was devastated by the Great Earthquake and Tsunami of 1755. He was plainly a very important historical figure to Lisboetas (citizens of Lisbon). The landmark is rather grand, including a statue of the marquis standing next to a lion (representing strength and wealth) atop a column with various other carvings at its base, one bearing the Portuguese Coat of Arms. The surrounding pavement featured mosaics of ships at sea, a nod to Portugal’s maritime past. It was a sightseeing stop worthy of many camera shots, as was another photogenic attraction across the street, Parque (Park) Eduardo VII.

The park was expansive, plentiful in pathways and picturesque city views. The paths were steep, making my stroll tiring, but not preventing me from enjoying its charm. I walked on mosaics with stylized patterns, neatly lined by lush trees leading to marvelous vistas. From there, I had awesome views of Lisbon, the Tejo (Tagus) River, and the park’s trimmed maze-like hedges; a cityscape like no other!

I stumbled upon the Pavilhão (Pavilion) Carlos Lopes, a majestic events hall from the 1930s. Not only did I love its bright, cheerful yellow exterior, I was amazed by its azulejos: blue and white tilework typical of Portuguese architecture. They were very detailed with images of soldiers fighting battles and angels guiding sailors on a night-time voyage. They were truly mind-blowing works of art.

Parque das Nações:

After strolling around Parque Eduardo VII, I still had a few hours to kill before check-in time. With many options to choose from, I took the metro to a neighborhood not included in my tour’s itinerary: Parque das Nações (Nations). Located along the Tejo River, it is a district on the eastern side of the city that was once redeveloped for the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition. As such, the architecture there is more modern than what is usually found in the rest of the city. There is a tri-level shopping mall (Centro do Vasco de Gama), a skyscraper (Torre Vasco da Gama), a 20,000-seat arena (Altice), and a 30 meter-high cable car (Telecabine). There were lots of folks out for the day, the majority being families with small children.

I noticed there was a marathon taking place in the park. Moving around became difficult with certain pathways blocked off for runners. Sooner than later, I was able to escape the hubbub taking detours through different walkways.

One attraction I was eager to visit was the Oceanário de Lisboa (Lisbon Oceanarium). It is Europe’s second largest aquarium and has received great reviews since its founding in 1998. Unsurprisingly, there was a long line at the ticket booth. But I spotted a QR code on the wall for purchasing tickets online, which I did right away. Otherwise, I would not have been a happy camper in the waiting line.

The Oceanarium comprises two separate buildings connected by a footbridge over a marina. The first building houses the main entrance, cafeteria and temporary exhibit halls, whereas the second houses all the sea creatures. The aquarium reminded me of the one in Boston because of its set-up. I walked around the gigantic vertical water tank from the bottom to the top, and saw a wide variety of aquatic life. Manta rays and sharks seemed to dominate. There were fascinating exhibits of other species, such as penguins, puffins, starfish and otters. I was especially glad to see a puffin as it was my first time seeing one in the flesh. I was surprised by how tiny it was.

My ticket to the Lisbon Oceanarium also included a ride on the cable car. It was a short trip, going from one part of Parque das Nações to another. It was still a pleasant ride, offering splendid views of the district’s compelling modern architecture and the extensive Tejo River. It would have been nice if the ride was longer, but there was more to see in the park on foot.

Next, I saw a tower and bridge both named after the famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. The tower is actually the city’s tallest structure, standing 476 feet (145 meters). It is shaped like a swollen sail, representing the ships that once departed from and returned to Lisbon during the Age of Exploration. The skyscraper is even attached to the 5-star Myriad Hotel. It must be a wonderful place to stay because it presents breathtaking views of the river and the Vasco da Gama Bridge, currently the longest span in Europe. From my view in the park, it seemed endless. The bridge is most convenient for it connects the city to the suburbs south of the Tejo River. It must have made a world of difference to people living in the Lisbon area after its completion in 1998.

Checking into GoodTime Marquês Suites:

As the late afternoon approached, it was time to head to the guesthouse, GoodTime Marquês Suites. I took the metro back to Marquês de Pombal and retrieved my luggage at Supermercado Sarkar. The way to GTMS was indeed tiring as I trudged through the hilly streets again under the hot sun. I made sure to catch my breath every few minutes and thankfully, I did not faint.

I used the Maps app to assist with getting to my place of accommodation, but once I arrived at the address, I did not notice any sign marking it. All I saw was a big old building with a cafe, a convenience store, and other small businesses. I became concerned and mentioned this to Isabel via text. She was on her way to meet me, and offered to help find the place once she arrived. In the meantime I sat on my suitcase, and rested after walking for hours. Once Isabel came, she found that GTMS was actually inside the old building. I immediately felt relieved. Isabel called the receptionist to let her know we arrived, and we then went upstairs to check in.

My first impression of GoodTime Marquês Suites was that it was a modest yet cozy facility. It did not have a ton of rooms, but there was a kitchen for guests and tenants to share, and the main reception area had couches for folks to lounge on. While my room was very small, it came with two twin beds. I used one for sleeping and the other for placing my suitcase. My room also had an air conditioner/heater and a well-equipped bathroom with a shower, toilet, faucet, and blow dryer. Overall, I was impressed with the guest house’s amenities.

Once Isabel and I were inside our rooms, we both took the time to rest before our welcome dinner. Isabel had just finished conducting another tour and needed to relax. I did so much throughout the day that I had to shower, cool off, and take a nap. It felt awesome to finally sleep.

Dinner at Lá em Casa:

Later in the evening, Isabel and I had dinner at a local traditional Portuguese restaurant called Lá em Casa (“There at Home”). The dinner was included in the tour’s quoted price, so I picked as many dishes as I wanted. I ordered octopus salad, steak served with egg on horseback, rice and fries, Bacalhau à Brás (shredded salted cod baked with onions, fried potatoes and scrambled eggs), and pudim (flan). Though each dish was delicious, my favorite was the octopus salad for its flavorful, acidic dressing and tender texture.

Over dinner, Isabel and I got to know each other, and discussed the sights we were going to see. One of the places she raved about was Óbidos because of its well-preserved medieval charm. It sounded exciting to me, due to my passion for world history. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that she likes watching home improvement and interior decorating shows from American and Canadian television. I enjoy watching them on HGTV with my mother. All in all, this tour was clearly off to a good start.

A Day in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Another day-trip I took in Iceland was to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Located in the country’s western region, it is packed with unique and dramatic scenery: intricate rock formations, various beaches, rugged mountains, cliffs, and high waterfalls. There is also the unforgettable glacier-capped volcano, Snæfellsjökull.

“Iceland in miniature” as the peninsula is commonly known, is a subregion rich in typical Icelandic natural wonders. Planning my vacation, I knew a tour there would afford me the opportunity to visit western Iceland for the first time. Like my time on the southern shore, it turned out to be a memorable journey.

Ytri-Tunga:

The tour’s first stop was a beach known for its seal population. Unlike most Icelandic beaches, Ytri-Tunga has golden sand but is heavily covered in seaweed, rocks and boulders. I had to be cautious when walking around, especially while straining to see the seals so far out on the sea rocks. Unfortunately, I slipped on a wet seaweed-covered boulder and hurt my left arm pretty badly. Thankfully, it was not broken. I was more cautious thereafter getting around the beach.

I was soon able to see the seals from a safe distance, taking several decent camera shots. While they seemed merely to be lounging on the sea rocks, it was still interesting to witness them in their natural habitat.

Arnarstapi:

This destination is quite scenic, though less rugged. Arnarstapi is an old fishing village overlooking picturesque vistas of moss-covered sea cliffs, stony sea arches, and the colossal Snæfellsjökull. Our tour guide told us it actually inspired Jules Verne to write his famous novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

It is a soothing place to go for a stroll, take in the distinctive natural beauty, and enjoy the lovely fresh air. I was also glad that Arnarstapi had places to eat. I treated myself to a juicy cheeseburger with hot, crispy fries; a satisfying meal on a long day of touring. It definitely kept my stomach full for hours.

Djúpalónssandur:

This attraction is also one of Iceland’s famed black sand beaches. Like Reynisfjara, it has pebbly black sand, powerful surf, and cliffs formed by lava. Unlike Reynisfjara, Djúpalónssandur is not as massive, and shaped more like an arch. I was glad to visit another Icelandic black sand beach. They truly make the country an exceptional place.

Of course, I made sure to steer clear of the aggressively pounding waves. The last thing I needed on my trip was a cold dousing. It could have been as bad as my tumble at Ytri Tunga.

Bæjarfoss:

Sometime after our group left the beach, we paid a short visit to a waterfall in the tiny fishing town of Ólafsvík. Bæjarfoss is very high with water cascading over the gorge and then streaming down a rocky, mossy hill. It also faced beautiful views of the town, sea and mountains. Our guide mentioned the legend of a troll living behind the waterfall. He mirthfully suggested we try looking for it. It was an interesting tale of course, as trolls and elves play significant roles in Icelandic folklore.

Kirkjufell:

Later, we came upon the most photographed mountain in Iceland: Kirkjufell. It is widely known for its noticeable pyramid shape. I had known about it for years and was most eager to see it for myself. Kirkjufell is most imposing with its enormous size and peculiar shape. It commands dazzling views of pristine waterfalls and the nearby seaside village of Grundarfjörđur. It was indeed an unforgettable visual moment.

Vatnaleiđ:

We finished our time in Snæfellsnes at Vatnaleiđ, a mountain pass running between the northern and southern coasts of the peninsula. Like anywhere in the region, it is plentiful in natural phenomena: waterfalls, lakes, mountains, cliffs and lava fields. Though I could have walked behind the waterfall there, I decided not to. The pain in my left arm made me worry about slipping again. But this did not prevent me from having a lovely time. I thoroughly enjoyed the views at Vatnaleiđ. The site encapsulated the magnificent topography of Snæfellsnes, making it a perfect place to conclude our tour.

In conclusion…

Exploring the Snæfellsnes Peninsula was a wonderful opportunity to visit western Iceland. It was packed with superb natural sites worth trekking to. I heartily thanked our tour guide for taking us on an awesome and informative expedition, and for playing Björk and Sigur Rós on the bus. I feel the trip would not have been as fun without him. I will always regard it as one of the highlights of my Icelandic holiday.

Horseback Riding in Iceland

One activity I looked forward to during my 2021 Iceland trip was horseback riding. It was a hobby I enjoyed in my youth. Riding and taking care of horses was a fun, meaningful, and soothing experience, especially a member of the Autistic community. It taught me how to build connection and responsibility while handling my then horse, Wally. Unfortunately, there were no chances to ride during my first visit to the Land of Fire and Ice in 2005. It has remained atop my must-do list for years. So I booked a tour courtesy of Íshestar, a reputable equine tourism company outside Reykjavík. Needless to say, I was most excited to get this scratched off the list!

As the riding center was close to the capital, a staff member picked me up at the city’s main bus terminal. Upon arrival I was greeted with open arms and offered refreshments; an ideal start to what would prove to be a rigorous tour.

My fellow tour members and I were shown a brief video demonstrating the do’s and don’ts of riding a horse, much of this I remembered from my riding days. It had been many years since I was last in the saddle, so it was good to have a refresher. We were also provided with thick, orange rain suits because the weather had turned cold and rainy. I felt a bit leery about riding a horse in such conditions, but decided to go with the flow.

I was given a brown steed named Stjörnin. Like any horse in his native country, he was short in height with a stocky body frame and a long, thick mane. He was quite different from the tall, statuesque horses of Europe and the Americas. I wondered how he would handle a tall person like me. Luckily, Stjörnin had no trouble bearing me the whole time. He was kind, and showed no sign of unruliness. At first, it was a challenge controlling him, particularly keeping him still. I got the hang of it when I remembered to gently pull his reins.

The tour mainly involved riding through ancient lava fields along a choice of trails. One was for beginners while the other was for more experienced riders. I chose the latter. It was a longer trail too, and I was glad to take advantage. Thrilling though it was, I was not quite prepared for such a bumpy journey! For example, our guides gave us the opportunity to trot through the trail, which made me feel uncomfortable. I was a tall person riding quickly on a short horse through rocky paths, worried about falling. By good graces, that did not occur.

It was difficult trekking through the cold rain. I was glad for the waterproof suit, but had no waterproof gloves. I should have been better prepared, given how unpredictable Iceland’s climate is. I did my best to cover my hands with my sleeves, but they were still frigid. Regardless, this did not prevent me from having a fascinating escapade. It was a true delight riding Stjörnin through the dramatic lava fields. The landscapes were barren but peaceful. They go on for miles and miles with little to no buildings in sight. It was certainly a picture postcard moment.

Riding in Iceland is a worthwhile activity which I heartily recommend. I thank Íshestar for giving us a wonderful and educational experience. It was thoroughly enjoyable relearning how to handle a horse, and to finally do it in the incredibly scenic Icelandic wilderness.

Touring the Icelandic South Shore

For my second trip to Iceland, I wanted to see regions that I had not visited before. I wanted a tour of the South Shore, an area known for waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and black-sand beaches. I booked with Reykjavík Excursions, the same company my family used during our 2005 trip. We had enjoyed our informative trek along the popular and stunning Golden Circle Route. I was glad to go on one of their other tours. Their ‘South Shore Adventure’ was indeed thrilling; getting close to humongous waterfalls, seeing glaciers and black-sand beaches for the first time, and going inside an ancient man-made cave. I also made friends with another group member, an Italian-Swiss tourist also named Daniel. It was an experience I would highly recommend to anyone traversing the Land of Fire and Ice.

Skógafoss:

The first stop on the ‘South Shore Adventure’ is one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls, nearly 197 feet. I was captivated by its crashing waters and rising mist. I was awestruck by the full arch of its rainbow, and by how up-close everything seemed. Unsurprisingly, it drew a large crowd of tourists that day.

Like me, they wanted to observe the ferocious waterfall and its immaculate rainbow. I tried getting close to it, but the rapid falling water drew me away. Even so, I did not feel bummed as I would get much closer to another waterfall on the tour. More on that later…

Sólheimajökull:

Next stop was Sólheimajökull, a glacier not far from Iceland’s infamous volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. Due to the proximity, parts of it are heavily coated in volcanic ash. Yet, it is still worth exploring. Walking on the ash-covered glacier, my group discovered we were quite safe from slipping. It felt surreal passing through the enormous and incredibly thick walls of ice.

Sadly, our guide Albert informed us that Sólheimajökull has been shrinking due to rising temperatures brought on by climate change. I certainly noticed it. There is an adjacent wide lake with remnants of the glacier floating around. In the future, I hope there will be greater effort to combat the risks of climate change worldwide. It would be tragic to see the majestic Sólheimajökull gradually disappear.

Vík, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and Dyrhólaey Lighthouse:

Soon after it was time for our lunch break. Albert drove us to a shopping center in the picturesque oceanside village of Vík. It included restaurants, a supermarket and a gift shop. For lunch, I ordered a sandwich with a coke, which kept me energized after the long hours on the road. It also prepared me for the next attraction, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach.

The beach is one of Iceland’s most photographed sites. Tourists flock to walk on its distinctive black sand, and to gawk at its unique cliff formations. The rock forms high columns resembling organ pipes. There were even pillar-shaped stones standing tall in the water.

Though it is fascinating to explore Reynisfara, it can also be quite hazardous. The weather that day was extremely windy, causing the coarse sand to fly into my face. It became difficult to see where I was going. Also, I chose not to walk too close to the surf. The waves were very aggressive and the water temperature was dangerously cold. Thankfully, I did not get hurt and was able to take more than enough great photos of this miraculous beach.

Close to Reynisfjara is Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, which offers breathtaking 360° views. It was not included on the original itinerary, but our guide wanted to take us there just the same. It was certainly a treat. The small, quaint beacon is positioned atop a super-high cliff, overlooking vast beaches, a gargantuan sea arch, and the dominating Mýrdalsjökull glacier. The weather continued to be very windy and I had to be careful not to fall off the cliff. Still, I was able to stay safe while enjoying the amazing views.

Rútshellir Caves:

This site is quite different from the tour’s other stops, as it is more historical than geological. Historians claim the Rútshellir Caves were the first Viking residence in Iceland. They were man-made with plenty of living space. I wondered how the original settlers were able to construct such adequate shelters in an age when excavation tools were quite primitive. I was impressed by how much space they provided. Like the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavík, it is an ideal site for learning about the country’s Viking heritage.

Seljalandsfoss:

Our journey along the South Shore ended at another waterfall, Seljalandsfoss. Like Skógafoss, it attracts many visitors and is very, very tall. One big difference is that people can walk behind it through a rocky passageway. While I was eager to walk behind the waterfall, I tried very hard not to slip on the very slippery path. The vista behind Seljalandsfoss was stupendous. I could see extensive plains, lakes with mountains and the sunset beyond as the water fell swiftly in front of me. It is truly worth the long hike, and is truly one of Iceland’s top attractions.

In conclusion…

Going on the “South Shore Adventure” was a great opportunity. It was fun exploring and learning more about the island’s astounding natural beauty. I thank Reykjavík Excursions and Albert for organizing such an enjoyable tour. It will always be a favorite memory of my return to Iceland.

The Sky Lagoon: Iceland’s Newest Hot Spot

A popular thing to do in Iceland is to relax by a hot spring. With the country’s widespread use of abundant geothermal energy there are many, both natural and man-made. These can be the ideal escape from the chilly and often rainy climate.

In 2005, I had the pleasure of visiting Iceland’s most famous hot spring, the Blue Lagoon. While the weather was rather cold, it felt incredibly soothing to be in the steaming, nearly scalding water. This was my first time at a hot spring, and it was an unforgettable experience.

When I returned this year, I was most keen to see a hot spring again; someplace different if possible. Luckily, a new one had opened just outside Reykjavík. It was called the Sky Lagoon and it was receiving wide acclaim on social media. I knew I had to check it out!

Built along the country’s rugged Atlantic Coast, its geothermal waters reflect the sky (hence its name). Overlooking the vast ocean, it is ringed by moss-covered cliffs, typical of Icelandic topography. The lagoon has a small waterfall where bathers can safely dunk their head under the cool, rushing water. The attraction also includes a bar and the option to use its cold pool, sauna, steam room, etc. It is a calming yet mind-blowing place to be.

I arrived after getting little sleep. It felt great to unwind, especially with a pint of crisp Gull beer. I also made sure to take many pictures of the hot spring. It was all I could do to keep from dropping my iPhone into the roiling water. I secured several good shots for my Instagram.

I had purchased the attraction’s “Pure Pass,” which granted me access to its other amenities as part of what is called the Seven-Step Sky Ritual. This is a process used to cleanse peoples’ well-being through various natural elements. The first step is to go inside the hot spring, which I enjoyed, followed by a brief dip in a small pool of freezing water. This is supposed to enrich your blood flow and close your skin pores. Once I emerged from the frigid depths, I was immediately ready for the third step: the sauna.

Once inside my skin felt liberated by the intense heat. The chamber even presented picturesque oceanic views. Afterwards, I walked next door to a small room flowing with a cool mist. It was the quick transition from the heat of the previous room that made my whole body feel utterly refreshed.

I wanted to stay there a little longer, but it was time for the next round. After rubbing on a fair amount of the lagoon’s Sky Body Scrub, it was time to enter the steam room. It was not long before my skin pores felt incredibly moisturized. Last came a soft shower to wipe off the body. My skin felt absolutely mellowed, and I was even more relaxed than before.

I loved every minute of my time at the Sky Lagoon. It is the perfect place to release physical tension, and to witness lovely scenery. I also consider it a great alternative to the Blue Lagoon because it is closer to Reykjavik but offers the same therapeutic benefits. I wish the absolute best for Iceland’s newest hot spot.