Thursday, December 4, 2014


After staying with us and visiting Bordeaux for a few days my friends and I headed to Lisbon for their last weekend in Europe.  I was pretty excited about their choice of Lisbon for their final weekend because, of all the options I had given them, it was the only city I hadn't been to yet.  I like it when I get to travel somewhere new!

We got to the Bordeaux airport only to discover that our flight had been delayed 3 hours but surprisingly Easyjet was being very accommodating and handing out vouchers for free drinks to all their passengers.  Much more than I ever expected from a budget airline!  Unfortunately, the 3-hour delay meant that our first half-day in Lisbon was shot as we would be getting in much later than expected and just in time for dinner.  Wouldn't have been too big of a deal except we only had 2.5 days in Lisbon so we were counting on having that afternoon to do some exploring.  Instead, we had to cram everything into 2 days and we definitely kept ourselves busy!

When we got to Lisbon we hopped a bus from the airport straight to Rossio Square where our hotel was located.  We could have also taken the metro but my friend's suitcase broke over the course of the trip and she didn't feel like lugging a broken bag into and out of the underground metro when the bus was waiting for us only steps away.

Once we got into the city we stopped to check in at our hotel, which was only about 50 meters off of Rossio Square, then headed up into the Bairro Alto to explore a bit at night and then grab dinner.  Now, this also happened to be Halloween, and we were surprised to find out that they do celebrate Halloween in Lisbon.  If we had known in advance we certainly would have brought costumes!  Nonetheless, after dinner we hit up a few nearby bars that were all decorated for Halloween and then strolled along some of the narrow streets of Bairro Alto along with tons of revelers in costumes with drinks in hand.  A much nicer Halloween atmosphere than anything I have ever seen in France!

grabbing some Halloween drinks

 bar in Lisbon decorated for Halloween!

The next morning we got up early and grabbed the train from Rossio out to Sintra to visit some of the palaces.  We opted to visit only the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace and we were definitely happy with our choices.  When we got to Sintra train station we got on a tourist buses which took us straight up to the Moorish Castle.  I had originally been toying with the idea of hiking up, but seeing as we had lost our half day on Friday we decided the bus would save us time so that we could get back to Lisbon a little earlier for some more exploring.

When we got up to the Moorish Castle some crazy fog started rolling in from the sea obscuring our views of not only the walls of the Moorish Castle but also the Pena Palace and the entire region.  We were a little disappointed at first but in the end the foggy creepiness provided some really interesting photos and felt oddly appropriate in the ruins of an old castle right around Halloween.  Anyway, we walked the walls of the Moorish Castle and waited on one of the towers for the fog to clear a bit so we could get a few views of Pena Palace in the distance.  It was worth the wait!  Then we grabbed a sandwich at the cafeteria and walked the short distance between the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.

visiting the Moorish Castle

view of the Moorish Castle obscured in fog

view of Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle as the fog started to roll out

taking the time to enjoy the view

the walls of the Moorish Castle

Pena Palace was incredible!  I have never seen anything like it and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Lisbon.  It felt like it could have come straight from a Disney story with its bright colors and turrets.  We spent much longer than we imagined visiting the palace, the courtyards and the patios but it was well worth it.  Plus, the fog finally started to clear out so we were able to enjoy the views over the Moorish Castle and the surrounding countryside.  Once we had finished visiting the castle we decided to hike the grounds a bit and headed off toward Cruz Alta, the highest location on the grounds and from which we were promised an incredible view of Pena Palace.  And that was not a lie.  The view was amazing and we enjoyed hiking around, visiting some of the other sites on the grounds and walking through what felt like an enchanted forest.  Once we finished at Cruz Alta we headed back down to the entrance to catch the bus back to Sintra train station and then the train back into Lisbon.

exploring the many courtyards and patios of Pena Palace

view of the Moorish Castle from Pena Palace

a courtyard in the palace

 hiking through the grounds

a close up of Pena Palace from Cruz Alta

enjoying the incredible view from Cruz Alta 

Since we took the bus we were able to get back to Lisbon early enough to go up the Elevador de Santa Justa  and walk around the Chiado before grabbing dinner again in the Bairro Alto.  After dinner we still had some energy left so we walked back down to Rossio Square and Praca Figueira then strolled through Baixa to the Praca do Comercio before deciding to call it a night.  Not too bad for our first full day in Lisbon!

Bairro Alto

view from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa

view over the city from Bairro Alto

 a typical Lisbon tram

For our final day in Lisbon we spent the morning in Belem to see the Jeronimos monastery, the Discovery Monument and the Belem Tower.  We once again walked down to the Praca do Comercio where we caught the tram to Belem.  We planned to visit the monastery first and since it was the first Sunday of the month entry was free which meant there was quite a line!  But we waited and boy was it worth it.  The church was beautiful and the cloisters were incredible.  Afterwards we walked through a little market and over to the Discovery Monument before continuing on to Belem Tower.

Jeronimos monastery

the cloisters

Belem Tower

After Belem we took the tram back into Praca do Comercio and then headed off to spend the rest of our day exploring the Alfama area.  We knew we wanted to hit the cathedral and the castle but other than that we planned to spend our time getting lost in the narrow, steep and winding streets of the Alfama.  After wandering for a bit we made it to the cathedral and from there continued uphill in a meandering fashion until we got to the castle.  We took the time to really enjoy the views of the city from the castle grounds and when we saw a man selling wine from a cart we figured, why not?  I think he's got the right's called Wine With a View and he sells wine by the glass or the bottle to people visiting the castle.  Included in the price is a souvenir wine glass and then you can take your wine and enjoy it from anywhere in the castle grounds.  So we bought a bottle, sat along the walls, enjoyed the views and toasted a successful trip and my friends' last day in Europe.

Praca do Comercio

enjoying the view from the castle grounds

an incredible view over the city

Wine With a View!

visiting the walls and towers of the Castelo Sao Jorge

 wandering through the Alfama in the evening

Afterwards we finished up our visit of the castle and the nearby archeological site then headed back into the Alfama and slowly made our way back down towards Rossio Square.  We grabbed dinner at a little place right around the corner from our hotel then headed back to pack and get some sleep before my friends had to head to the airport for their 6 a.m. flight back to the US.  I left a few hours later for Bordeaux, impressed with Lisbon and sad about my friends' departure.  But I'm thrilled that they finally made it out to visit and that we had such a great time!  Can't wait till they decide to come again!  I also hope to return to Lisbon soon - I was surprised by how much I liked the city, much more than I expected.  I would love to have the opportunity to explore it more!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bordeaux tourism - la visite de mes copines and my own personal rants

After our crazy weekend in Paris my friends and I hopped the train down to Bordeaux.  They had more sightseeing on their schedule and I planned on working for a few days before our trip to Lisbon.  So I had Lionel escort them around and we kept them quite busy over the course of their 3 days in Bordeaux.

The first day they drove all the way out to la Dordogne and visited Beynac-et-Cazenac, the Chateau de Castelnaud, the Chateau et jardins suspendus de Marqueyssac, La Roque Gageac and Sarlat-la-Caneda.  Even though it was a long drive they had enough time to fit everything in and the girls absolutely loved having the chance to see some of the French countryside.

The second day they spent the morning in Arcachon visiting the Dune de Pyla and enjoying oysters in one of the ports along the bassin.  Then they headed off to St. Emilion for the afternoon to visit the medieval town and do a wine tasting and a visit of the cellars of the Clos des Menuts. 

On their third and final day we gave Lionel a break and the girls went into Bordeaux on their own to spend the morning walking around the city to see some of the sights.  I provided them with a basic walking tour drawn out on a map.  After grabbing lunch they headed to the tourist office to meet up for a wine tour they had booked visiting some chateaux in the Médoc.  I met up with them in the evening and we grabbed drinks and did dinner out in the city before heading back to my place to get ready for our trip to Lisbon.

 visiting Bordeaux - the Pont de Pierre

 at the Porte de Bourgogne

Overall I think they really liked Bordeaux and the surrounding areas.  They were charmed by some of the small towns they visited and the overall scenery in the southwest of France.  And of course they loved the food and wine!

I, however, have some gripes about tourism in the Bordeaux area, based off of my research trying to plan stuff for my friends' visit as well as my parents' upcoming visit.  And this also ties into a link I saw on Facebook today.  Apparently Bordeaux was just selected for the listing of the "11 exceptional tourist destinations in France" and while I will agree that Bordeaux is a pretty city and that the Bordeaux region is nice, I am a little surprised.  Surprised that Bordeaux would want or even try to obtain such a distinction and surprised that it would be awarded considering the, in my opinion, overall lack of any attempt on behalf of the city of Bordeaux and nearby area to accommodate tourists or encourage tourism.  Why would I feel that way, you might ask?  Well, here is my reasoning:
  1. The inability of the fools running this city to come up with any sort of convenient mode of public transportation to get from the airport into the city center and vice versa.  Talk about not encouraging tourists right from the get go.  The tram A gets pretty close, why not just extend it the extra little difference and make tourists and residents lives a little simpler?
  2. The refusal to encourage, promote or even make available any sort of tourism outside of the wine industry.  Don't get me wrong.  I get it.  People come to Bordeaux for the wine.  But if you want them to stay for longer than a day you might want to advertise and open up some other options.  There is only so many times a sane person can listen to an explanation of the same wine making process in a short period before they inevitably can't take it any more.
  3. The apparently poor assumption that all tourism only occurs in the warmer months.  If you want to be a major tourist destination then your tourist attractions need to be open and available to visit at all times of the year.  It's not unheard of for a person to go on a winter city break after all.  Examples that I've stumbled across lately and that are really starting to frustrate me: 
    •  Did you know that, beyond wine chateaux, there are tons of historic chateaux in the area (within an 45 min-1 hour drive of the city center) and though most of them are open to the public, they are pretty much all closed from Oct/Nov-March/April?  Examples of this include, but are not limited to, the Chateau de Cazeneuve, Chateau de la Brède, Chateau de Vayres, etc and the few that are actually open at this time of year are only open weekends or for one visit one day a week, obviously in French.  That sure doesn't encourage tourism!
    • Did you know that it is possible to book boat cruises on the Garonne to admire Bordeaux from the river, to visit nearby sights including an island near Blaye, to go to wine tastings and for meals?  Well, unfortunately, the only ones available during the winter are a few dinner cruises.  Strange considering other places, including Paris, are able to maintain schedules for sightseeing cruises even in the winter.  Pretty sure the Garonne doesn't freeze over.  Just another example of not trying to encourage tourism.  
    • Did you know that there are the ruins of a Roman arena in Bordeaux?  Neither did I until recently and that is the kind of thing my brother loves.  I thought it would be perfect to include in their visits of Bordeaux...until I went to the website and discovered that even the ruins are closed in the winter.  Well, I thought, there are certainly other Roman ruins in the general Bordeaux area.  And yes there are.  But all closed in the winter.  
    • After extensive research into the subject it seems the options for touristic activities in the Bordeaux region in the winter are limited to walking around the city, a few guided tours of the city (including one in an open air bus...who wants to do that of all things in the cold!?!), the occasional more specialized guided tour (in French) though these seem to only be offered one or two days throughout the season so you have to be here at the right time and wine tours.  You can drive yourself out to the Dune de Pyla but the city doesn't provide guided tours out to visit the dune and the bassin in the winter (though in my personal opinion a visit of the bassin including Arcachon and the ville d'hiver would be entirely appropriate).  But who cares because there are tons and tons and tons of wine tours.  Because, clearly, that is all that Bordeaux seems to think is worthwhile in the area.  Sure makes things rough for me though, especially since my family are not big wine drinkers.  And like I said, certainly doesn't encourage tourists to stay longer in the area or promote anything more than oenological tourism.  I guess Bordeaux can't appeal to anyone who doesn't want to taste wine, or at least that seems to be the message the city is sending.   However, if anyone has any suggestions or knows of anything open during the week at this time of the year, please let me know!  I'm getting desperate!
 Anyway, all this to say that Bordeaux as a "tourist destination" is really starting to frustrate me and I don't agree that this city makes any effort to encourage any sort of tourism beyond wine tourism.  And I think that is a shame because the city and the surrounding area have a lot more to offer than just wine tastings.  I personally travel a lot during the winter months as flights and hotels are often much cheaper than during the high tourist season in the summer.  This is the first time I've encountered such difficulty in finding things open to the public at this time of the year, in any country.  Perhaps I have just gotten lucky, or perhaps this is another particularity of Bordeaux.

But, as it is, for my family's upcoming visit I am mostly having Lionel take them on day trips to other nearby areas of France, much as we did with my friends.  Already planning on them going to Le Pays Basque (especially Saint Jean de Luz), La Rochelle, perhaps Bergerac, we are planning a 3-day trip to La Dordogne, we are planning a 2-day trip to Toulouse and Carcassonne, and we will certainly take them out to the bassin at some point (though they have already been) as well as a some time in Bordeaux.  A lot of those places might be more of a drive than the immediate area around Bordeaux but at least there will be something to do and tourist sights are actually open in the winter.  And thankfully the holidays will also keep us busy.