Istanbul, Turkey (Day One)

Istanbul is now one of my favourite cities in the world – I absolutely fell in love with the place during my two day stay. There is something about the city that makes it somehow magical – the architecture, the atmosphere, the little cobblestone streets, the food, the people, I don’t know, but there is just something special about Istanbul. And even thought I was unwell and the weather was terrible, I still managed to fall in love with the place. I was also lucky enough to have one of my close friends and her fiancé in Istanbul during the same two days I was there, so it was great to explore the city together.

I wasn’t well at all on this first day in Istanbul, so I only managed to see the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), and squeeze in a bit of lunch is a cute little restaurant in Sultanahmet. I was absolutely awe-struct by the architecture and design of the two buildings – they definitely have that wow factor. Both buildings are so enormous and so spectacularly decorated, there really isn’t much like it in the world.

I would have liked to wander around Istanbul, particularly the little streets around Sultanahmet, a bit more on this first day, but the rain increased and I wasn’t well enough, so I spent the afternoon in my hostel having a good old chat with my fellow roommates.
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I stayed at Cheers Lighthouse Hostel. I newly opened hostel, located in Sultanahmet, only a short walk from the Blue Mosque. The rooms were immaculately clean and the staff incredible friendly and helpful – they even made me a cup of lemon tea whenever I was in the common room, to help me get better.

There are a plethora of restaurants and take-away food options in Istanbul – the locals, and the tourist, obviously like their food. In Sultanahmet there are plenty of restaurants, and the competition is high, so I’m sure you’ll find that most places offer good food at a reasonable price. for something sweet, head to the Spice Markets for an enormous selection of pastries, turkish delight and other goodies.

Getting There:
Istanbul has great connections via air throughout Turkey and the rest of the world. From the airport, most hotels and hostel can arrange shuttle services, or take a taxi or a bus into the centre. Everything in Sultanahmet is within easy walking distance, but if you want to go a little further afield, such as Taksim, there is a good light rail/metro network, or as we did on day two, spend the day wandering through the streets to make the journey a little more interesting.

Central Spain: Madrid, Segovia & Toledo

I have to admit, going to Central Spain was never part of the plan. I had a few days between Portugal and my tour of Morocco, found an extremely cheap flight from Porto to Madrid (only 20 euros, plus 20 euros for luggage), so I thought why not. I had three days to spare, so I decided to spend one in Madrid, one in Segovia and one in Toledo (I thought I’d better take the opportunity to see as much as I could).

I was very impressed with the Spanish capital, I liked it much better than Barcelona. The Palacio Real (the royal palace, so magnificently restored after the Spanish civil war), The Prado Museum (great for all those art lovers), Plaza Mayor (the main piazza in Madrid attracts hundreds of tourists, and just as many pickpocketers), Parque del Buen Retiro (a beautiful park in the centre of the city), shopping on Le Gran Via (the main shopping street in Madrid), Estacion de Atocha (an amazing place which is half train station, half rainforest), San Miguel Markets (the best place to shop for fresh produce and food in Madrid), not to mention the array of fantastic restaurants and bars. I could have spent more than a day or so in Madrid…

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Whilst in Madrid, I also visited the towns of Segovia and Toledo. Whenever I visit Europe, I enjoy taking some time out of the big cities and visiting towns in the countryside. Being only about one hour’s bus ride out of Madrid, Segovia and Toledo were the perfect little out-of-city get aways.

The main attraction in Segovia is of course its famous castle, which could have inspired fairytale writers many centuries ago. It is the quintessential fairytale castle in every respect – the moat, the peaked towers, the drawbridge, etc.  Aside from this attraction, the old town of Segovia, as well as that of Toledo, are the perfect places to spend a day meandering through the narrow streets, enjoying a beautiful ‘alfresco’ lunch and wandering through the many little interesting stores.
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Getting there:
Madrid is well connected with many European cities via air, and most Spanish centres via bus and train (but these days, flying may be the cheaper option). Ryanair flies from Porto to Madrid, for as little as 20 euros. Buses to Segovia leave regularly from Chamartin Station and return tickets are approximately 15 euros. To get to Toledo, take a bus from Puerta de Atoche Station, which also leave regularly and cost about the same price.

I stayed at The Way Hostel, c/Relatores 17. Centrally located and right next to a metro station, this hostel had clean and tidy rooms, and was in a side street, so noise wasn’t an issue. The had a fantastic communal room, organise sangria nights and dinners, to create a great atmosphere and made it extremely easy to get to know fellow travellers.

There are so many fantastic places to eat and drink, I don’t know where to start. For lunch or snacks, definitely visit San Miguel Markets. I ended up one night in some fantastic bar, not far from the hostel. I’m not sure what is was called, but I do remember some great tunes being played and peanut shells all over the floor.

Porto, Portugal

If you loved Lisbon, you’ll be mad about Porto. Porto, or Oporto in Portuguese, is everything you love about Lisbon, but better. More culture, more history, more scenic views, more funky cafes and restaurants, and more beautiful historical architecture. Unlike Lisbon which was decimated in the 1755 earthquake (thus there are hardly any buildings in the city which date prior to this time), Porto did not have such misfortune and many of its streets and buildings have remained intact for centuries. You get this authentic, history and culture rich feeling about Porto, which is somewhat lacking in Lisbon. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Lisbon, but Porto has something more, something special.

Porto is also the place where port wine originated. The vineyards of the Douro Valley are world renown for their exquisite wines, and are connected to Porto via the Douro River. In the past, and even today, the Douro River was an extremely important trading route, taking the wines from the valley to Porto and beyond. Today there are many cellar doors on the southern side of the river, where you can taste and purchase authentic port wine.

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Getting There:
There is a frequent train and bus services connecting Lisbon and Coimbra to Porto. Ryanair offers cheap flights to and from London, making Porto a desired travel destination for Londoners in recent years. After Porto, I travelled to Madrid and initially considered taking the bus. However, I found a cheap flight with Ryanair, for 20 euros, to Madrid, so always check the flight connections, before enduring a long and tiresome bus trip.

I stayed at an amazing hostel, The Gallery Hostel, located on Rua de Miguel Bombarda, in the arts district of Porto. The hostel was newly and tastefully decorated, spotlessly clean and they even organised an amazing tapas and wine tasting dinner for 15 euros while I was there. The hostel also doubles as an art gallery, exhibiting the works of local artists.

Cafe Majestic: A beautiful, old world cafe located in the centre of Porto. Very ‘belle epoque’, you’ll feel like you are dining at The Ritz. A great place to grab a coffee and a croissant or a pasteis de nata (you are in Portugal of course) and watch the world go by.
Favorita: A cute little restaurant on Rua de Miguel Bombarda, serving a set lunch menu at a great price.
Casa de Pasto Palmeira: Located beside the river, this little restaurant serves traditional Portuguese tapas. Definitely worth a visit.

A Vida Portuguesa: By far my favourite store. Selling traditional Portuguese handcrafts and products, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The building in which the store is situated in on Galeria de Paris, in the beautiful Clerigos neighbourhood, is exquisite, with timber floors, vaulted ceilings and an elegant staircase to the store (The Fernandes Mattos store is located on the ground floor of the building).
Aguas Furtadas Design: A fell in love with this store. Located in a small shopping arcade on Rua Miguel Bombarda, it is one of a handful of art/design stores in the complex. Selling handcrafted items made by local designers and artists, this store supports local crafts in the hope that they do not disappear. I had a great chat to the saleswomen about Portuguese arts and crafts. I purchased a number of items, including a beautiful Portuguese porcelain cabbage plate. If you don’t get the chance to get to Porto, they sell online and ship internationally. Visit their Facebook page for details.
Livraria Lello: I’m mad about books, so my visit to Porto wouldn’t be complete without a visit to this ‘institution’. Open since 1906, there is little wonder why it continues to attract customers. The Art Nouveau facade, the stained glass ceiling and the impressive grand staircase. Not to mention is amazing collection of books! Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed in the store, so I don’t have any images.

Seville, Spain

Before I start, one thing I have to say about Seville is that I recommend, if at all possible, not to visit in the hight of summer. Although such a beautiful city, rich in culture and history, it becomes unbearably hot in July and August. We visited towards the end of August, and apparently we just missed a two week long heatwave. We missed it, meaning that the 35 degree celsius days we were experiencing were cooler than those the previous week. So, if you’re not a fan of hot weather, try visiting Seville in the spring or autumn months.

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Ok, so Seville, known as Sevilla by the Spanish, is the capital of Andalusia. The city was founded in Roman times, during which is was known as Hispalis. It was conquered by the Moors in 712 and became the capital for the kings of the Umayyad Caliphate. In 1248 it was conquered by the Christian King Ferdinand III and continued to developed under the Christian influences.
Today, Seville is a major tourist attraction for visitors of southern Spain and Europe in general. There is a plethora of places to stay, fantastic restaurants to eat in and a myriad of places to visit and explore.

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Places to visit:

The Cathedral of St Mary: This Christian cathedral was built on the foundations of the original Islamic mosque which was located on this site. Containing both Christian and Islamic design and motifs (the Giralda, which was originally a minaret and later converted to a bell tower, is a clear example of the converting and blending of the original Islamic building to a Christian church).

The Alcazar: The former Moorish Palace. A blending of Moorish, Renaissance and English traditions, the rooms and gardens of this palace are impressive and worth the visit.

Plaza de Espana: Set in Maria Luisa Park, this enormous and impressive building was built by the architect Aníbal González for the 1929 Exposicion Ibero-Americana. Today it is full of people enjoying the sunshine, admiring the building and exploring the adjacent park.

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Getting There:
There are regular bus and train services between Seville and other major towns in Andalusia, such as Cordoba and Seville. There are less frequent services to smaller towns and villages, as well as inter-city and international services to and from destinations such as Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon.

We stayed at the Oasis Palace Hostel. Like others of this chain of hostels, it offers everything you want and more from a hostel – good location, clean rooms, organised activities, complementary breakfast, happy hour and even a roof-top swimming pool. Aside from having continuous problems with a card key to get into our room, we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Oasis Palace Seville.

Aside from frozen yogurt (the best one is located beneath the Metropol Parasol), all three nights we stayed in Seville was had a tapas dinner at Dos de Mayo, Plaza de la Gavidia 6. This was by far the best tapas we had in all of Spain. The food, the service and the entertainment by the bar/waitstaff was second to none. Try the grilled squid, drizzled with extra virgin oil oil, garlic and parsley, or the eggplant fritters, lightly battered and drizzled with molasses syrup.

Notre Dame de Chartres

Being a blog centered primarily around travel, it seems I’m lacking a post on churches and/or religious architecture. Wherever you travel, particularly around Europe and South America (composed primarily Catholic or Christian nations), there is a church around every corner and travellers are often urged to visit their monuments to religion. I clearly remember my travels around Europe in both 2004 and 2007, where I actually got to the point of saying, ‘OMG, not another church!’ Every town, city and village has at least one church, which is usually clearly highlighted in your average travel guides as an site of interested. And I, being the good little traveler, began visiting these churches, one by one, until they all turned into one mental melange of stained glass windows, vault, flying buttresses, spires, pews, alters, etc. If you asked me to describe a particular one, it would be somewhat difficult to distinguish one from the other. However, the cathedral at Chartres is one which stands out in my memory. Perhaps it was its grand size, its detailed and beautifully crafted sculpture work, or maybe even its magnificent stained glass windows. Whatever it was, it remember it being worth the visit. So if you’re staying in Paris for an extended period of time, or if you’re a history, architecture or art buff (I put my hand up here), I recommended taking a day out of the city and heading to this beautiful little town known as Chartres.

Being an art history student studying French in Paris, and having a love of architecture of any shape and form (ok, maybe not every shape and form, but I can appreciate most styles of architecture, from late antiquity to the present) I could not miss the opportunity of living so close to Notre Dame de Chartres and not visit one of the most amazing high Gothic cathedrals in the world. So one Saturday morning I jumped onto the train and headed towards the small town of Chartres.

The town of Chartres is located south-west of Paris – the easiest way to get there is to take a SNCF train from Le Gare de Montparnasse to Chartres station – the train trip is approximately one hour. Once you leave the smog of Paris and its bonlieu (the grey ‘working class’ outer suburbs of Paris) the surrounding countryside is a welcoming sight. Thick forests, cultivated farmland and quaint little villages flicker past the train window. Once you arrive in Chartres, breath in the fresh air and make your way to the cathedral. Being a small town, it’s difficult to get lost between the train station and the cathedral – just look up at the skyline and once you spot those tall Gothic spires framed against the sky, it’s rather difficult not to find the Cathedral.

Aside from visiting the cathedral, which is the town’s claim to fame, the town of Chartres is a rather pleasant place to spend the day. After the chaos of Paris, the small quiet streets and laid-back atmosphere of Chartres is rather welcoming. The town is very quaint – being set on the banks of the Eure River, parts of the town are connected by little bridges. It definitely is a ‘typical’ French rural town – with interesting little side streets, cobbled stone footpaths, beautifully designed and ‘cute’ picture-book houses and the twitter of birds flying by. For those gourmets out there, Chartres also has a great shopping precinct with an array of shops, cafes and fresh produce markets (if you want to purchase fresh produce, be sure to arrive at the markets before midday)!

And finally, the cathedral. Notre Dame de Chartres is absolutely breathtaking – the grand proportions of its stone columns and archways, the intricate and colourful stained glass windows, the impressive and tactile sculptural work… Just walking down the nave, one is awestruck by the shear size and magnitude of the structure – the space is just enormous. I once wrote an essay on Gothic and Romanesque religious architecture at university, arguing that one of the original purposes of these buildings was to subdue the populous by highlighting the power and might of the church. An being within the building, you surely get a feeling of the power and influence that the church once had over society.

To think that work on the present cathedral began in 1020 and after a number of additions and setbacks, it was finally consecrated in 1260. How amazing it is that such buildings were designed and constructed over 800 years ago! We think of the middle ages as being a period of simplicity, but we can see from buildings such as Chartres Cathedral, that they were quite technically advanced in some aspects. The building even impresses present day visitors. It is truly spectacular.