Flower Power – visit Holland’s Tulips

Flower Power – visit Holland’s Tulips

 

The Dutch province of Holland is famous for many things; windmills, canals and of course tulip fields and Keukenhof. What better way to immerse yourself in Dutch culture than a springtime visit to this northern European destination, becoming part of the visual tulip fairytale. Why not join us on this Bucket List adventure as we share the colourful highlights of this veritable Dutch feast in this visual storybook. 

 

A teary sight

There are a handful of our travel experiences that have made my eyes leak and my first sighting of Holland’s tulips is certainly up there with the best of them.  There’s something very special about that first sight, first taste, first burst of an emotional connection to a new place – once seen, never forgotten.  And that is how Holland’s tulips will be for me. 

Great Easter weather brought the crowds to Holland and I was concerned that it might feel too claustrophobic. Especially as trying to find somewhere to stay was looking tricky. We finally managed to get the last spot in a great little campsite, which happened to be a tulip farm – how perfect was that? From our courtyard position, the vibrant yellow stripes made the darkest of moments light up.  Like an excited puppy ready for its walk, I felt like skipping to my first, up-close-and-personal tulip experience. 

As I stood amidst a field of tulips with the heady scent like freesias, my bucket list entry firmly got a tick and with sighs like a love-sick school girl, I drank in the vision.

Rows and rows of sunshine yellow, deep purple, scarlet and pink stripped flowers filled my sight. And adorably the rogue pink tulip that made its unwelcome appearance in a row of homogenous yellow blooms gave me a sense of allowing myself to ‘stand out amongst the crowd’. 

It was lovely having a field of tulips beside our ‘home’, yet my insatiable appetite craved more. I wanted to expand my experience. So with our bicycles (no electric needed here), we tootled off in search of the technicolored carpets and we were not disappointed.

 

Where to find them

While the corridor of colour reaches from Den Haag to Haarlam, the main concentration of fields can be found between Noordwijk and Lisse. 

And our advise? Park up somewhere and get your bikes out, as the smaller roads between these carpets are often narrow and busy with onlookers. To really experience these parcels of pleasure, riding the excellent network of cycle paths gives a totally sensory experience.  Go to the Tourist Information or any hotel or campsite in the area and you will be given a map that shows you the current year’s fields and the best cycle routes to reach them. And of course they are free to view.

Lisse is the central hub of tulip county and is where the famous botanical gardens of Keukenhof can be found. More on that in a moment. 

 

The fields

Memories of Provence struck me as we started to see acres of multicoloured fields. The lavender just crochets the landscape with its fragrant purple flowers. Holland’s tulips do something similar. Rows upon rows of coloured stripes that would have looked at home woven into Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream Coat. Farmers walking up and down the rows picking out the anomalies, making perfect lines of tulips. And in truth, I’m sure the display we saw in the third week of April was minuscule compared with two weeks prior. Still, seeing colour combinations sitting side by side showed me how well nature’s palette works. It’s a very special sight even towards the end of the season. Check out our gallery below. 

 

 

When to go

Timing is everything in the world of tulips as Mother Nature has an uncanny knack of following her own rules. The bulbs are driven by the seasonal changes in temperature and how warm or cold the soil is. If the spring weather is warm, then the fields will bloom early and the opposite is true if there’s a cold spell. So it’s best to check a site like this to see what’s happening in the tulip world. 

If you have the flexibility, Holland’s tulips have a three week season and the general advice is to visit mid to late April. Although if you have to stick to more stationary dates, then in March you are likely to see the crocus, the daffodils and the hyacinths, which then surrender their space to the king of flowers – the tulips. Around the same time, especially in Keukenhof, the azaleas and rhododendrons start to display their power, so there’s always something pretty to look at. 

 

 

Visiting Keukenhof’s flower power

Let me paint a picture of your Keukenhof experience.

Imagine being in a 3D artist’s studio with pallets of every colour of the rainbow, with each one having at least 50 shades of gr…. colour!  If feels as if you are in a space of virtual reality or a parallel universe, where colours know no bounds and light has a spectrum to bend the most static of perspectives. 

This 32 hectare ‘garden’ is a pleasure zone offering 800 varieties of tulips alone. Then add the azaleas, rhododendrons, daffodils and hyacinth and you have a plethora of visual delights. The 7 million bulbs are planted at different depths in the soil so that throughout Keukenhof’s season (Mid March to Mid May) a different treat will greet each and every visitor. 

The craftsmanship here is beyond description as the blend of flower beds, pathways, lakes, rivers and sculptures just hold your interest for hours. The colour combinations and flower varieties will take your breath away. Then in a flash you realise that these treasures are just temporary – a mere three weeks. Somehow this impermanence adds to the experience as you acknowledge the huge eraser that will certainly wipe out this picture perfect painting in a matter of months. 

Every year new themes are built into the Dutch gardens and for 2019 it was Flower Power – the strength of flowers. Their ethos is using flowers to connect people from across the world who come together to enjoy the gardens. And just walking through this landscaped haven, you really get that power sinking deep into your heart. 

Whether you have children, disabled family members and or dogs, Keukenhof accommodates us all in their beautifully crafted gardens. Easy to navigate paths weave from one section to another, with water features, sculptures, a maze, restaurants and boat rides if you wish. Keukenhof is a must. 

Here’s just a few of the 800 varieties that I captured on our visit. Click the image below for our Gallery.

 

 

Keukenhof practicalities

You can buy tickets either on line or at the entrance, (on line being €1 cheaper.) Prices on line are:

€17 per adult;      €8 children aged 4-17;     infants aged 0-3 are free

Allow at least three hours to wander around this world of artistry; take time out and rest your feet by enjoying a mint tea and apple pie, perhaps partake in a cornet of homemade fries and mayo or just sit and contemplate at any one of the hundreds of benches dotted around. This is not a place to rush. Although come early if you want to beat the crowds.

It will be busy; an average of 1.4 million people visit during this tiny botanical window, so be mindful of this. Although despite the crowds and Instagram dressed models, the flower combinations are so mesmerising that they transport you to your own personal Narnia where the crowds are mere dots of colour.

And finally don’t worry about the weather. Whilst you may think that brilliant sunshine is the only way to see this divine garden, the rain creates such a photographic canvas with the drips of water from the petals, enhancing every shot. 

 

Our Keukenhof visual storybook

My instinct says that to inspire you to visit, words alone will not suffice. A sensory experience such as Keukenhof needs multimedia, so sit back and indulge for a few moments as we attempt to capture the images of this wondrous and magical place. Check out our gallery below by clicking on the image and then sit back and watch our short video.

 

 

 

Practical tips for your visit

Given the small window for Holland’s tulips, putting some plans in place before the spring hits Northern Europe is wise. So check out these Top Tips.

  1. Book your trip between end of March and end of April.
  2. Leave booking your Keukenhof tickets until a week before you visit so you can check the forecast.
  3. Book accommodation well in advance, whether that’s a hotel or campsite. If the weather is particularly good or you plan to visit over Easter then this part of Holland attracts many visitors. 
  4. It’s worth remembering that the dates for schools’ Easter holidays differ across Europe, so there could be a three week period where visitors take the opportunity to travel here. 
  5. Many of the blooms in the commercial fields are farmed for the Tulip Procession which is generally mid April. (2019 it was April 13th). It’s a procession of floats and cars decorated in flowers and this famous carnival travels from Noordwijk to Haarlem starting at 9.00am until the early evening. For more information, click here.
  6. Many of the fields are accessible for photographs, unless the farmers are feeding or de-heading the plants.  So respect their signs for privacy.
  7. Remember that these fields are working farms.
  8. Don’t pick the flowers, unearth the bulbs or run between the rows as you may damage the plants.
  9. Hire or bring your own bikes as the cycle paths are so good, extensive and flat that getting around this area is easy. 
  10. Take the opportunity to visit the coast whilst in the area as there are miles and miles of golden sandy beaches.
  11. Arrive at Keukenhof early to avoid the tour coaches that generally arrive between 1030 – 1100am.
  12. If you can time your visit around 27th April, then why not extend your stay and experience Koningsdag – King’s Day. Now that is a real cultural explosion. 

 

 

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Our Portugal Road-Trip Guide

Our Portugal Road-Trip Guide

Portugal, a gem on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsular may be the farthest west of its European neighbours although don’t let its distance fool you. This is a chocolate-box of goodies that, once you open will have you hooked. After 40 days and 40 nights exploring this Iberian beauty in March 2019, we have plenty to share of our adventures both inland and along its award winning coast.

Whether Portugal is new to you or may be just a little known, let us inspire you to consider travelling to this western treasure. Sit back and indulge yourself in thoughts of how Portugal could become your next expedition as we share our route highlights, discoveries and delights.

 

14 things we learned and discovered about Portugal 

1. Portugal’s countryside so often felt like the ‘green, green grass of home’. With rolling hills and a lusciousness that had a feel of UK, Portugal had an instant appeal. No parched lands; instead acres of green pastures that felt instantly comfortable.

2. Portugal has a strong affiliation with UK dating back to 1386 with the Treaty of Windsor. That alliance is still in place today and so the two countries remain intrinsically linked and there is evidence of this everywhere. From red pilar boxes and telephone kiosks to the warmest welcome from a gracious population.

3. Like every country Portugal has its motorway network, some of which are payable. Although for the whole of our 40 days we navigated our way around the country without touching one single motorway. 

4. On paper the Portuguese language may look similar to Spanish, yet the sounds are completely different. Although with a few basics we were understood. That said a lot of tourist Portuguese speak English, whilst the locals in towns do not, so be prepared. Check out our Getting by in Guide to languages, where you will learn essential phrases for Portuguese on Page 55.

5. Portugal has a rich cultural and historical diversity. With influences going back to the Romans and through to the bloody battles between the Moors and Christians, scars are etched into every town.

6. Portugal has the best coastline we have seen throughout Europe. If you want long stretches of iconic golden sands, that would feel at home in any Caribbean Holiday brochure, come to Portugal.

  1. Portugal has been shaped by seismic activity for thousands of years due to the close proximity of a number of major fault-lines, evidence of which you can see all around the coast. In particular, the earthquake of 1 November 1755, which destroyed Lisbon, impacted hugely on the Algarve coast thanks to the resulting tsunami. The more recent tremor of 1969 further moulded the coastline and the threat of earthquakes remains a constant threat to the Portugal landscape. So be mindful of this as you hike the coast.
  1. From a gastronomy viewpoint, Portugal will not disappoint. You must try Naters; a sweet pastry tart filled with cream-custard. They are a delicious if not a decadent treat. Then there’s the fish, which with a coastline as extensive as Portugal’s, you can guarantee taste and quality.  And do not forget the Douro Valley for its tawny and ruby alchemy – Port. This is elegance personified and is a Portuguese must.
  1. Portugal is a proud nation with values that give it an authentic and classic feel. Families are honoured, the earth is nurtured and respected and their heritage fiercely protected. Everywhere we travelled there was a depth and character to their towns, traditions and people. Sometimes those invisible yet intrinsic features of a country are what create the meaningful memories of a trip.
  1. Cork production is a major industry, especially in the Alentejos and Algarve regions. Roads are bordered by cork oak trees that stand naked; their bark stripped for this local commodity that, once processed is made into all nature of products from shoes, handbags and bottle stoppers. Check out Loulé for its cork selling shops which will have you mooching for hours.

11. Whilst Portugal’s flag may well be green and red, be in no doubt that yellow is more akin to Portugal’s natural hew – especially in spring. From the tiny yellow balls of the evocatively smelling Mimosa and the Ice flowers along the coast, to Lupins and Daisies – yellow covers every vista you see. 

12. I learnt that with so much time on the coast I became really dehydrated, despite drinking four pints of water a day. Being in the salt air, so consistently does make hair and skin dry out – so drink plenty of water.

13. Intermarché is well set up with washing machine facilities (€4-€8 for a wash and €2 per 20mins to dry). Some even have drinking water, waste and toilet cassette dumps too. Also if you travel in a campervan, then most of Lidl supermarkets have motorhome specific parking bays.

14. Camping is cheap in Portugal. For 40 nights we spent less than €100, which makes it by far the cheapest country we have stayed in. 95% of our overnight stops were either free because we camped wild or in cheap Aires. We had one night in a commercial campsite which cost us €25, although it did have every facility and activity you can imagine.

Click on the image below to see our floral gallery

 

 

Our interactive route map

Over 40 days, whilst we travelled around 800 miles, we really didn’t even scratch the surface of this fair land. Still it has made enough of an impression that we will return without argument or dispute. 

Below you will find our comprehensive Interactive Route Map that shows you the routes we took, our POI and the overnight stops that we called home. Click on the map to see the detail.

 

 

Getting the most from your trip to Portugal

There is so much gorgeousness we could share with you, that it’s difficult to know how best to present it. So after much deliberation, we have decided to structure it shaped around Portugal’s mainland regions – well the ones we visited! Each section has a Quick Reference Guide so you know what to expect (based on our experiences). 

As we haven’t seen the whole country, a guide like this is always a little bias and incomplete. Although our intention is to simply share our love for the places we explored, and hope it might inspire you to visit some of those off-the-beaten-track places that we loved so much. 

 

Portugal’s sunshine state – Algarve

Quick Reference Guide 

  • The central area of Algarve is great for golf courses, marinas and nightlife
  • Capital Faro, is the main airport servicing the region
  • West is best for dramatic coastal scenery
  • Alvor is where we found some of the best rock formations – go at low tide to walk amongst them
  • Algarve has one of the world’s Top 100 Beaches – Praia de Marinha
  • It has some of the best coastal hiking using way-marked walks
  • Is one of the most built up and touristy regions of Portugal
  • If you love water sports or want to visit the famous caves, it’s best to visit from May to September when the weather calms. Winter and early spring is great for dramatic waves and so is often too rough for boat trips
  • Cheap Aires for campervans are available throughout the region ranging from €4 – €9 many with electrical hook up 
  • Eating out is cheap and fish is particularly good along this southern coast. 

 

Whilst Portugal’s Algarve is one of the most ‘go to’ destinations, there are so many more delights along the coast and inland that will enrich your visit. For example the authentic and cultural joys of Loulé with its Saturday market and traditional way of life. Or try Silves with its ancient walled city and castle that is the largest of its kind in the region.

Paradoxically not all of Algarve’s draw is the golf courses and nightlife. Go west and you will be treated to an art form fit for a king. It has a coastline carved by the ferocity of Mother Nature; from Armacão – Lagos you will be awed by the sheer beauty of this coastal artistry. Known as the Rocky Algarve, the coves, caves only accessible by boat, and cliffs will have you kneeling in some sort of bizarre ritual of respect. Such is the beauty of the rock formations along this coast that they seriously compete with those we saw in New Zealand. 

So if you are a photographer, nature lover, geologist or hiker, the Rocky Algarve will have you speechless. Here, we have profiled five hikes that will take in some of the best scenes along this coastline – there are more although sadly a foot injury prevented any further exploration. 

Do check out Alvor, which is a stunning little seaside fishing town. It comes with a diversity that will entertain all manner of visitor. From its coastline extraordinaire to its white sandy beach and lagoon to the genuine fishing culture, Alvor will steal a little of your heart. The fishing community is key to this little town, away from the commercial hub. The community of fishermen’s huts that provide shelter from the sea’s wroth and the atmospheric estuary, offer a great composition for any artist at sunset. The cobbled streets of the old town are pretty much wall-to-wall restaurants  although out of season it is cute, if not a bit touristy. Check out A Tascado restaurant (R. Pedro Alvares Cabral 19).

Sagres is the furthest point southwest of mainland Europe and so a visit to its fortress and lighthouse is a must for this reason alone. For a mere €3 you can enter the grounds and loose yourself for an hour in the maritime history that goes back centuries. The limestone pavement reminds you of nature’s role in the region and the kamikaze fisherman that hang off the 100ft cliffs looking to catch their supper will colour your visit beautifully. 

Before you leave this seaside town, visit the São Vicente lighthouse, if only to take your first glance at the Wild West coastline that has wind and surf as it natural sculptures. Framed by the pink, yellow and purple Ice flowers, you will feel drawn to move north as the salt air massages your face with anticipation.  

Check out our gallery by clicking on the image below.

 

Wild West Coast

Whilst geographically not classed as one of Portugal’s regions, it seems important to have a section dedicated to this incredible stretch of land. It touches each of the country’s five mainland regions so seems worthy of specific mention.

Quick Reference Guide

  • Approximately 500 miles in length from Cabo de Sao Vicente in the south to Caminha in the north
  • Home to the largest surf in Europe – Nazaré where the World Championship are held in October
  • There are few signs of mass tourism along the southern shores – just quaint fishing villages
  • Fishing has been a crucial way of life here; look out for ancient Islamic village at Amado Beach
  • Roads are lined with mimosa and eucalyptus trees
  • Wild camping is tolerated along much of the coast – just be mindful of the National Park restrictions in high season
  • Bird life and photography opportunities are enormous, especially rock nesting storks  
  • Getting around Lisbon can be tricky – head inland to Évora to avoid it and its toll bridges
  • Has the best and most diverse coastline we have ever experienced
  • Visit the unique town of Costa Nova and her candy stripped fishermen’s houses
  • Great area for cycling with its quiet roads and coastal boardwalk routes

In all our years of travel we have been blessed with some incredible coastal scenes from India’s Goan beauties to New Zealand’s belles… And yet nothing prepared us for the raw essence of Portugal’s western coastline. Battered by Atlantic winds and views out towards US, this route will stun you into silence. There are two major hikes from Sagres that show off the full extent of this coastline’s magnificence; The Heritage Way and The Fisherman’s Way. The latter particularly has become a bit of a pilgrimage by backpackers as they make their way towards Porto Covo in the north.

The biggest difference between the west and southern sibling is its quietness and the lack of tourism. I recognise that we visited out of season, yet this aside, there are no high-rise hotels or gated residential estates, south of Lisbon at least. Just Portuguese working towns who go about their business to the exclusion of visitors. Partly because so few come this far north as they choose to hug the southern coasts. Although we implore you to check out this area. 

Explore the coastline and learn how ancient and modern fisherman live their lives. The remains of an Islamic fishing village can be found at Amado Beach just south of Carrapateira and a more modern view of life on the ocean waves is hidden in an alcove just south of Almograve. Watching how the fishermen navigate the treacherous waters around this volcanic coast is mind-boggling. You cannot miss the evocative and visually appealing fishermen’s pontoons at Carrasqueira just ten minutes from Comporta. Their rustic wooden platforms that extend out into the lagoon is a masterpiece waiting for the amateur photographer, capturing the essence of their formidable mariners’ lives.  

And if you happen to be bird-lovers, then watching the kites and storks will be timing-wasting enough. Especially unique is to see the storks nesting precariously on pillars of rock on the coastal edges, seemingly blissfully unaware of the danger of their house of choice. It is here that the battle between life and death is played out as peregrine falcons attack the storks in search for their precious eggs as a breakfast treat. The best place for this theatre ensemble is at Sarbadão Lighthouse, just south of Almograve Beach, which is pinned on our map. 

Another great place to watch the storks’ antics is at Comporta, just south of Lisbon and the Sebútal peninsula. This small fishing community, amidst the salt flats, dunes and lagoon, seem to have adopted the storks as their emblem and fiercely protect the nesting pairs. Church towers, roof-light windows and pylons are acceptable residences for these magnificent birds and you can easily while away an hour watching their territorial antics. 

The Wild West characteristics alters so dramatically like the chapters of a thrilling novel. From the south with its craggy rock and inhospitable landscape looking like something from the moon to the miles of golden sandy beaches further north. Dunes, pine forests and eucalyptus dapple the landscape and you can be in awe at how the coastline changes its look more often than a Kylie Minogue concert. Try not to miss out the charming villages of Vila Nova da Milfontes, Porto Covo and Peniche. Further north towards Porto, you must see Costa Nova, which is iconic for its candy stripped fisherman’s houses that have centuries old tales of mariners’ lives. 

Click on the image below to see our gallery of this wild west coastline 

 

Alentejos

Quick reference Guide

  • Portugal’s largest region, spanning the whole width of the country
  • Roman hub Évora is its capital
  • Cork production capital of the country
  • Neolithic evidence strewn throughout the inner uplands around Évora

 

Alentejos encompasses both the joys of the coast and ancient history that combine to honour deeply held traditions and cultural heritage.  If you travel along the eastern edge where Portugal rubs shoulders with its neighbour Spain, you can imagine the intrigue that this is likely to offer. Battles for supremacy and territory, fortresses for protection and towns set to historical high alert. Whilst we didn’t see much of this eastern bord, we did have our first steps on Portuguese soil at Mértola. 

Nestled in the heart of the Natural Park, its lofty position high above the river is the epitome of this fortress style town. Its castle walls still in tact, its cathedral sat on the site of an ancient Mosque and its Roman bridge giving you just a few clues as it to its historical heritage. 

Further west unfolds more Roman secrets – who knew their armies travelled so far west to conquer, build and dominate. Évora is a classic example of this. Capital of Alentejos, Évora has amazing city walls, museums to satisfy the curious and the remains of a Roman temple. Its central square is charming as you settle for a coffee and a Nater and just around the corner the must visit Chapel of Bones.

Click on the image below to see our gallery

 

Central Region 

Quick Reference Guide

  • Home to the Surfing Capital of Europe, Nazaré
  • Costa da Roca is the furthest point west in mainland Europe closely followed by Peniche
  • Check out the amazing geology of the Peniche peninsula 
  • If the weather is calm, catch a boat for €25 to the island of La Berlenga
  • Watch the windsurfers on the sheltered waters of the lagoon at Figueira da Foz
  • Visit the most beautiful and authentic walled village of Obidos
  • Drive the inland Atlantic Ocean way and see the devastation of the 2018 forest fires
  • Visit the charming village of Costa Nova and her candy-stripped fishing houses
  • Pop across to Aveiro, which is known as Portugal’s Venice with its small canal network
  • Drive inland to Viseu, which is the centre of granite production and explore its ancient buildings and street art
  • Take the N2 route and enjoy its beauty

 

Perhaps you are or have visions of becoming a surfer dude – and if so then Nazaré has to be a destination stop for you  and your board. This home to the largest waves in Europe – scaling a humungous 30m. With its unique factors of on-shore winds and underwater topography, it creates perfect professional surfing conditions and is why the European Championship are held here every October. What a spectacle that must be. 

For geologists, once more this coastline will regale you with its tales of evolution as strata form the most incredible pieces of natural art out on the Peniche peninsula. Their composition seems so different to other craggy areas of the coast further south, leading to a thesis or two from the academics about the different seismic influences in this region over the epoc. 

For lovers of history and culture, a short trip to Obidos will certainly appeal. This picture postcard walled city is charm personified and whilst compact and bijou, scale its walls and you will see how size has no impact on this village’s delight. Cobbled streets, terracotta roofs and rustic buildings give a medieval feel to it, coming straight out  of a Dicken’s novel. We had too little time here although enough to entice  us to return. 

We absolutely adored the coastal route north where our final coastal destination was Costa Nova. Shaped along a narrow strip of sand dunes, with golden sands one side and a lagoon the other, this town proffers more maritime history. Over and above this, visually  this  place is one that Instagram must surely adore. With its candy-striped houses it felt like you had walked on the film-set of a Willy Wonky candy making factory. It was truly  magical to see how the fishermen lived centuries ago in their brightly painted houses. What a delight it was to cycle around this appeal and almost delicious town. Do check out the fish market where you will be amazing by the variety of marine life  you can purchase. Clams were our gift of the day – truly delicious.  

Viseu – whilst its superficial greyness and busyness didn’t do much for its reputation, when you enter its hub, it was quite lovely. The vernacular that takes you just 200m uphill is the first surprise – second is that it is free. The route scales you up to the hilltop, on which the museum and cathedral are based. The gardens and parks built within the bosom of the city are charming and the riverside is just cute. Whilst you might imagine the street art having a negative visual impact, I actually think it is quite an endearing feature to the town. 

Click on the image below to see our gallery

 

Northern Region

Quick Reference Guide 

  • Porto is the capital of this region
  • Home to the famous Douro River valley and its Port drink
  • Find a Quinta and do some Port tasting along the ancient river as it carves through 586 miles
  • Continue your N2 route through the most beautiful mountain ranges
  • Visit Lamego and the Nossa Senhora dos Remedios
  • Turn right before Peso da Régua and drive along the Douro Valley’s most beautiful route N222 to Pinhão
  • Catch the train from Pinhão to Pincho – one of Europe’s most beautiful train rides €7.80 pp
  • Take a boat ride from Pinhão up the Douro river €10 pp per hour

 

Whilst Porto may well be the biggest draw of northern Portugal, if cities are not your thing, then a quick calibration of your compass to the east will reward you plenty. You have the central draw of Lamego, which is certainly worth a visit, in our book. Its characterful and pristine old town are gorgeous and its fountain clad avenue that leads the eye and the feet towards the mammoth 686 steps up to the Church of our Lady of Remedies which will get your heart pumping.  

And then you have the Alchemy of the North…. The Douro Valley. This depicts everything you can imagine about the partnership between man and nature working in harmony. With nature’s role taking the lead part in this staged masterpiece, you will be rewarded with fertile soils, carved terraces, curvaceous lands and a network of vineyards. Clinging to every inch of this landscape looking to capture the sun’s powerful rays, these vines are the very source of the tawny nectar that graces our table with cheese. Port, that magnificent and elegant tipple stakes its claim to the Douro valley and with the sparkling waters of the river, this must surely be some sort of Utopia. At the beating hub of the valley is Pinhão, a classical working town where the locals collaborate with each other and the land to produce not only history and a productive export, they also create a cultural experience for the visitor. Pinhão and its Douro is a must. Check how to make the best of our visit by clicking here. 

 

 

 

 

And finally…  Portugal’s answer to Route 66  – N2

The longest continuous road in Portugal, the National route N2 is a must if you enjoy getting off the beaten track. Whilst the newly built motorway infrastructure may well be favoured by those who need to travel far and fast, it will certainly not enrich your life like the N2. Covering around 450 miles, this road covers the full length of the country; north at Chaves to Faro in the south. Winding your way through valleys, forests, mountain ranges and river floors, this is a beautiful road to encounter, in part or as a whole. 

We drove two sections of the route; the first was south from Almodõvar in Alentejos to just north of Loulé. The second was north from Viseu to Chaves as we finally and with heavy hearts, exited Portugal back into the arms of Spain. 

We thoroughly enjoyed this exhilarating drive which is favoured by motorcycles and bicycles although can equally be relished by drivers too. Passing through such gems as Viseu and Lamego, it is just worth a cruise.

 

Some practicalities

Before we leave you with temptation running through your veins, let us leave you with some practicalities about your stay in Portugal. Whether coming by camper, plane or cruise liner, here are some tips that might be helpful. 

 

  • Fines are heavy if you enter a motorway by mistake without a vignette. Not all tolls are manned, so either set your navigation to avoid tolls or buy a vignette that will last for the duration of your stay. We decided against it as we didn’t feel the need to use them although your circumstances might require faster travelling. Check out this website for comprehensive guidance about Portugal’s Toll Routes.
  • Wild camping in Portugal is easy and profuse especially along the west coast where the volume of campers diminishes. We saw plenty of people parking in forbidden areas, which seemed to be tolerated out of season. I suspect the further into April you go, the trickier it becomes. Parking is not allowed in National Parks, so beware of the GNR’s presence and ensure no ‘camping behaviour’.
  • Portugal caters well for those on wheels as there are very cheap Aires along the coast and towns inland, which will cost you between €4 – €9 per night with services.
  • Most towns have speed restricting traffic lights. So as you approach they will turn red and then immediately green.
  • Drivers are sedate and respectful we found, making travelling through Portugal very pleasurable.
  • We were lucky with the weather when we visited, although if you visit during winter and early spring, be prepared for a variety of conditions. Layers is the name of the game. Being on the Atlantic, it is often windy.
  • Portugal is on Western European Time (WET) – so operates the same as UK time, and an hour behind its European cousins.
  • Portugal has a wide variety of Supermarkets from Lidl, sometimes Aldi, plenty of Intermarché (which was more expensive than Lidl) and a few Leclerc in larger towns/cities. Pingo Doce was a nice store that was generally cheaper and slightly better quality than Lidl.
  • Petrol and Diesel was more expensive than Spain – averaging around €1.39. The cheapest we saw was €1.23 at an Leclerc in Santagem and the most expensive was €1.45.
  • LPG was available throughout the country, although not at every garage. We had no problems with filling up our Gaslow tanks.
  • If you want fresh produce there are markets everywhere – some towns have their own market halls for everyday fruit and veg, whilst others have special Saturday markets. If you want daily bread, go to a Pandeira.
  • Credit cards are widely available although we suggest you take plenty of coins for Aires, washing machines and for tips.

 

Closing thoughts

Portugal wowed us. After a visit 15 years ago, we experienced the central Algarve with its golf resorts and marinas, which weren’t our cup of tea. Years on, with less stressful lives, more time and an open mind to travel diversity, we have been able to appreciate the Algarve. More than that, we have been able to relish in the fruits of Portugal’s inland gems and road less travelled destinations. Portugal has definitely leapt ahead to warrant a place in our Top 5 Favourite European countries. We have really appreciated its natural and cultural joys. We hope if you have the chance to come, that you too may feel inspired to travel this amazing country and feel richer for the experience. 

 

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7 Highlights of Évora

7 Highlights of Évora

Come to Portugal and immerse yourself in so much more than golden sand between your toes. Whilst the beaches entice any sun seeker, Portugal cries out to be heard on the historical stage. A saunter inland will open up a history lesson that will give your Portuguese experience a depth and context that will not disappoint. And it is the Alentejos region’s capital Évora that offers our classroom today… Come on in and check out our highlights of this ancient capital steeped in Roman and Gothic ghosts.

 

Where to find Évora

 

Évora is one of those places that whilst is built up on the outside, offers a compact and charming presence on the inside, sheltering its Roman ruins, cobbled streets and ample churches by protective city walls. Évora sets the scene for battle, conquests and supremacy which vibrate in its very foundations. And such is its importance that it has earned itself UNESCO status and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns network according to Wikipedia.

No more than 2 hours away from Lisbon, Évora is in easy reach, albeit probably not in a day trip. We headed east from the coast at Comporta for a bit of a beach break and found some amazing off-the-beaten track routes through rural Portugal. Surrounded by landscape littered with ancient megaliths, Évora has a real tale to tell going back 5000 years!

The Roman’s took charge of Évora in 57BC where baths and much of the city walls remain as a testimony to this period. Nearly 600 years later the Moors conquered Évora and they ruled for over 400 years until the Portuguese took charge in 1166. Much of Portugal under the reign of King Alfonso was released from Moorish rule and its identity today is significantly shaped by this epoch. Since then Évora has endured more battles and each time it seems that this small town has been a stalwart standing the test of time and war. 

With Évora’s colourful past, each building knits together a visual storyboard to entertain its visitor and these are the magnets that draw thousands of tourists each year. We took our bicycles in to the city, which is not to be recommended as the streets are steep, cobbled and a lot of them are one-way making it difficult to reach places. So we suggest using the map below to do a self-guided tour. Click on the map for an Interactive Tour of Évora.

 

Évora’s 7 Highlights

 

1. Aquaduct

The Roman Empire is known for its engineering prowess and the aqueduct is one of their legacies still visible today. And Évora’s aqueduct is a great example of their genius. We were lucky enough to be able to park alongside this magnificent and ancient symbol and just a two minute stroll through the city gates, and you can walk the length of the structure to its origin (38.57596, -7.91292).  What is lovely to note is how the houses are built into the arches. There are examples of this throughout the town; modern supporting ancient, what an interesting symbiosis. (38.57147, -7.90975)

 

 

2. Praça do Giraldo

Évora’s beating heart can be found in the Giraldo Square. Not really square, more of an oblong, although characterful none the less. It is here that you will find the Tourist Information office which we suggest is your next station stop for a map. A useful phrase is Posso ter uma mapa por favor? Can I have a map please? (38.57063, -7.90941)

From here you can look up towards the regal Saint Antonio church, which has so much personality yet is dressed in simplicity compared to the Gothic architecture that frames the Square’s edges. Giraldo invites you to stop for a coffee and people watch or may be indulge in a Portuguese Nater, especially good if you have a sweet tooth.

 

3. Roman Temple and Cathedral

Perhaps one of Évora’s most famous landmarks are her Roman ruins. (38.57259, -7.90729). The temple known as the Diana Temple is in the heart of the museum quarter and somehow conveys a robustness about the Roman Empire. It has itself so much history with its identity changing throughout the centuries. Its role has evolved from being part of the castle, an abattoir and a log store. The ruins are in a remarkable condition and with the backdrop of the Cathedral and the little park, it’s a lovely area to hang out for a bit.  Do check out the view from the edge of the gardens, overlooking Évora’s rooftops and to the city’s exterior. 

 

4.  Town Hall and Roman baths

This old palace is now home to the political hub of the town and its area. This is a magnificent Square bordered by a church and financial buildings.  Entry into the Town Hall is permitted for free, as are the Roman baths, which we wish we had visited. (38.57228, -7.90963)

 

5.  Chapel of Bones

Aside the Roman ruins, Évora’s other significant draw is the Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones. (38.56873, -7.90884)  For a €5pp entry ticket you can get access to this most eery and yet fascinating place of worship and meditation. This tiny 16th chapel in the grounds of the Church of St Francis is a thought-provoking visit. Built by monks as a solution to the growing number of cemeteries around the town; they interned the bones and in a bid to honour the dead, decided to put them on display within the structure of this building. 5,000 corpses today form the fabric of the chapel; bones and skulls don the walls, the pillars and the architrave. It is the most bizarre form of art; art that holds a message for its viewer, prompting them to think beyond the visual display in front of them – the transitory nature of life. The Chapel makes you reflect on the journey of life and how we rush through the days without pause for the moment. It’s a sobering visit. 

 

6.  Church of St Francis

Whilst dropping in to pay your respects to the bones, you may be forgiven for feeling so overwhelmed that you miss the Church of St Francis, which is the main body of this area. It sits on the roots of a church dating back to 1200’s. Its Gothic design is impressive and as you walk into the longest nave of any Portuguese church, its gilting will wow you. There’s gold everywhere. It really does deserve a short visit. 

 

7.  Cycle/Walk around the city walls

After the reflections from the Chapel of Bones, heading to the gardens just beneath the church brings your mind back to the beauty of the world. (38.56734, -7.91001).  There were lots of repairs going on when we visited, although I imagine it is full of splendour in the summer months. With its bandstand and peacocks, it’s a lovely place to wander. And from here you can access part of the upper walk around the walls, feeling the past beneath your feet. And then continuing your route on the lower level, you can trace your steps back to the beginning of your walking tour and end up at the aqueduct once more.

 

 

Évora – our conclusions 

If you love history, culture and context, then Évora will be a great place to visit. If you need a break from the coast, Évora will satisfy your need for curiosity – just for a day. Its cobbled streets are not just atmospheric, they are a piece of history’s jigsaw that will leave you understanding just a little more about Portugal. It will leave you richer for standing in the footprints of our ancestors before we head back to the inevitable draw of the western sunsets and crashing waves. We highly recommend this little detour in your Portugal tour. 

 

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Bella Italiano – Our Highs and Lows

Bella Italiano – Our Highs and Lows

 

Buongiorno e benvenuto!

Italy has been our home for over three months in the last three years and it’s been an experience of Highs and Lows. One thing we adore is the language. I’ve had some great teachers along the way from a Campsite Receptionist, who is now a friend, to camper neighbours who shared their local knowledge.

Imagine the scene; Emilio in his 70’s, looked like he had come straight off the set of an Italian Mafia film and his younger wife Anna by at least 15 years, who fulfilled most of the duties, not in a subservient way, just as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. They spoke very little English, so between us we spoke French, pigeon Italian and the odd word of Queeny’s tongue. What an incredible hour we had together and thanks to them, had some amazing experiences in Tuscany. They even gave us their phone number is case of any issues whilst in Italy. And oh boy! Could we have used that half a dozen times in the last month.

During our time here, we’ve experienced Lakes in the guise of Garda and Trasimeno, stayed in a volcanic crater just outside Naples and overnighted outside a Benedictine Monastery up in the mountains; we had two free, wild jacuzzis and mud wraps in the mountains – courtesy of Tuscany’s natural thermal springs. We’ve watched the sun go down on our lakeside ‘home’ in Umbria and watched it rise through Tuscany’s evocative poplar trees.  We found flamingoes on the Po Delta together with a few million midges that must be on their winter retreat from Scotland. We’ve seen Pisa’s tower lean a bit, Florence’s iconic Duomo Cathedral and Pontevecchio bridge, been treated to sunset in our beloved Venice and visited the iconic hillside towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino of wine fame.  And that’s before we mention the Cinque Terre and the famous Stelvio Pass which was hair-raising and brilliant all at the same time. 

And then we had adventures of getting ripped off in San Marino’s tax haven principality, had our bikes stolen from a public space in Lucca, been subjected to the worst roads and motorways we’ve ever been on and took part in a chaotic, free-for-all junk-yard derby that made Delhi look like an empty supermarket car park.  Sadly our road-trip south, which had the intention of experiencing Pompeii, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, was thwarted by the crowds, crazy-frog drivers and a bit of rubbish navigating on my part. How we came away sane and unscathed is beyond us.

Although despite all this, I have to say that each time we return to Italy, we love it a little bit more. I think our first visit scared the be-gesus out of us. Once you know the rules for navigating Italy mindfully, then it’ll end up being a fabulous experience. So you must come and make up your own minds.

Check out our Interactive Map below for all our Italian highlights from 2016-2018.

 

 

Our Italian Realisations

As we reflect on our Italian adventures over the years, we’ve learnt a few things about our pizza eating, pasta making friends:

  • They have little road sense or road politesse 
  • The country seems strapped for cash and lots of the seaside towns in the south are really run down and unloved
  • Drivers NEVER make eye contact behind the wheel of their cars
  • They disregard any rules of the road – in fact there are no rules
  • They think nothing of driving on your side of the road and overtaking right in front of an oncoming vehicle
  • They love honking their horns
  • They will only fix Toll roads, the rest are at the mercy of time and grass
  • They don’t seem to worry about volcano eruptions or earthquakes – if it happens, they get on with it as they live in one of the most seismic active areas of the world outside New Zealand
  • The north/south divide seems to be opposite that in UK. The north is definitely the most wealthy and most populated with BIG tourists sights. Whereas the south seems to be more rural, less commercialised and where fewer tourists come
  • Italy has by far the best sunsets we have ever seen – there must be something about the seismic dust that makes it so evocative and romantic
  • And talking of romance, Italy has the most romantic vibe of all countries we have visited. Love seems to be expressed everywhere in the most idyllic of places – except behind the wheel of a car
  • And above all, we’ve found some of the sweetest, kindest and most wonderful people here.

Our 14 Highlights

1. Venice

Well you can’t say Italy without immediately thinking about Venice. And whilst it suffers hugely from both tourist erosion and flooding, somehow this community seems to continue life as if there were no problems – typically Italian. With its canals, gondolas, bridges and islands, Venice has to be seen both by day and by night.  Both deliver a completely different vibe.  Check out our experience here.

2. Dolomites

Northern Italy that rubs shoulders with Austria and Switzerland is all about the battle of the mountains. At one end you have the Dolomites with their towering spikes that can be seen for miles, to the more femininely curvaceous Alps at the western end. Both mountains spectacular in their own way, each offering a unique personality and Italian experience. Either way you will hold you breath and gasp. 

 

3. Stelvio Pass

When we think of Italian roads, the image isn’t good. Although think again when you ponder on the driving challenge that is THE STELVIO PASS. We’ve driven a couple of Europe’s ‘most dangerous roads’, although I have to say this was the most challenging of them all. Not only is the road in good condition, it is one of the most beautiful things you will ever experience. Driving from Bolzano is a must, if nothing more than to save your brakes. The wiggles that snake up to the mountain’s snow line are just so testing; one after another, after another. It is exhausting especially in a motorhome, although out of season most definitely doable and we highly recommend it. Check out our footage here.

 

4. Lake Garda

Nestled in the bosom of the Alps, Lake Garda is the largest of all the Italian Lakes and whilst it is incredibly busy, even in September, it is a great experience. Whether you choose to do it by car, bicycle (using any one of the ferries), kayak or moped, Lake Garda is a gift that keeps on giving. Intense blue waters, northern winds that provide the sail power for the windsurfers and atmospheric villages that cling to the lakeside edges, Garda has it all. Limone is a delight, Gargnano charming and Riva in the north, buzzy.

 

5. Porto Venere

Sat on the eastern fringe of the Cinque Terre National Park, Porto Venere has sadly been missed off the ‘Famous Five’ list. And it is beyond our comprehension why. With its harbour, peninsular and iconic Gothic church, its narrow alleyways full of characterful houses, Porto Venere is supremely more beautiful than the ‘five’ in our opinion. With fewer crowds to affect your experience, this is definitely one to put on your list.  Check out our footage here.

 

6. Tuscany

What superlatives can I use to aptly describe Tuscany that won’t undermine its tend charm and infinite beauty? So I will conjure up an image for you that may entice you to this Italian region. Imagine rolling hills, carved with sunflower fields and poplar trees that cluster together along roads and driveways, that in the autumn mists and sunrise light offer you a scene out of Gladiator. With natural springs hidden in forests that bubble and soothe away your aches and villages perched on hills that offer a grandeur in their lofty status and wine oozing from the acres of vineyards that cover the land. Tuscany has romance at its core with divine beauty etched into every piece of soil. I defy you to not fall in love with this region. Volterra, Montepulcanio, Montalcino, Pomerance, Talemone, Bagno Vignoni and the White Whale of San Felippo Bagnoni. Deliciousness on a map.  Check out loads of footage we have here.

 

8. Po Delta

On the western coast, just a stone’s throw from the Venice magnet you come to flat lands that you wonder what beauty they can hold. Although for a completely unique and diverse landscape the Po Delta region is awash with wild life and salt-flats. And with this type of scenery you get flamingoes. Swarms of them – and mosquitos sadly. Although if timed right, a tour around the delta and Comacchio will give you a completely different perspective of Italy.

 

9. Alberobello and Matera in the south

The south has many undiscovered gems and given that most tourists go for the easy to reach northern regions, Alberobello and Matera are relatively unscathed by tourists.  Alberobello with its famous Trulli houses are quaint and one of the most unique buildings I’ve ever seen. White washed buildings and their round stone roofs transport you back in time as you wander around the cobbled streets of this UNESCO village. In contrast not more than 45 minutes drive away you have the rock village of Matera. Carved into the hillside with caves that dwellers called their homes Matera will delight you. Overlooking its river gorge, walks, bird watching and café culture will entice you to this place and make you wonder why you have never been before.  Check out our footage here. 

 

10. Paestum – Greek Temples

So many flock to Pompeii to see the famous, ancient Roman city and its fickle volcano Vesuvius.  Although it is for this very reason that we searched for something more authentic and not an expensive tourist trap. Heading past Naples, past Solerno and on towards Agropoli and you will find a far more genuine and less crowded monument. In fact Paestum is a Greek archeological site and its temples are in a great state, the best we have ever seen. It is definitely worth travelling a little further south to see this place.  Check out what we saw here.

 

14. Amalfi

The Amalfi coast is certainly beautiful and given that driving a motorhome along its roads is forbidden, we decided on approaching it by sea. We took a ferry from Salerno (where there is a campsite about 15 minutes down the road) and disembarked at the town of Amalfi. The town is, like many of it sibling resorts, crowded with coach loads of tourists, although if you get away from the main high street some of the views of the town from up above are great. Just for the sheer hell of it, we would highly recommend taking the bus back. Although it takes nerves of steel as the bus driver throws the vehicle around narrow lanes and steep overhanging cliffs, it is certainly an experience. Check out our experience here.

 

Making the most of your Italian adventure

 

1) Despite Italy’s reputation, do come as it is beautiful – if you plan ahead to the specific sites you want to see then it becomes much more pleasurable.

2) To cover Italy’s extensive miles, we suggest you take the toll roads and suck up the fees if you want to minimise brain ache and wear and tear on your vehicle. It’s not always pretty, although the ride is not pretty on some of the main roads.  Even the non-tolled motorways are shocking.

3) Italy has some amazing cities and palatial cathedrals, that rival Spain, although when visiting these Italian icons, stay in a campsite and take the bus. Crime here is rife.

4) Don’t make our mistake – pay for car parks and DO NOT park in side streets, even if there are cameras and other vehicles around.

5) If you go to Pisa, you’ll only need to see the main Cathedral and tower – there is nothing else – so an hour tops we would recommend.

6) Put Venice on the list, although stay at the site (if with a motorhome) on the inside of the city – Tronchetto, which is just over the bridge, that way you can experience Venice by day and night, which is very special.

7) See Florence out of season as the crowds are crazy and go early if you want to climb the Tower. Our advice for the best view of the city, is to walk to Michaelangelo’s statue, up the 167 steps – yes we counted them – the view over the entire city is exceptional.

8) Do not miss Italy’s eastern coast, south of Venice into the Po Delta. It is a nature lover’s paradise and a stunning natural environment, although keep away from the coastal towns as they are not pretty.

9) Bare in mind that any Italian with a motorhome will go away in it over the weekend, even out of season. So don’t expect to find Sostas (equivalent to French Aires) with much space.

10) Italian kids don’t go back to school until third week in September, so campsites are still classed as high season until then and then they close down anywhere from end of September to end of October.

11) I’m sure the Amalfi coast is lovely, although do not go in a motorhome unless you have a very strong constitution for driving. Campsites are limited and Motorhomes are not allowed on the Amalfi road. Go for a week’s holiday instead or even better, go on a cruise! It is the maddest area of Italy that we have experienced and that includes other main cities like Florence and Venice.  

12) Expect the unexpected here and you’ll be ok.

13) The fresh pasta and mozzarella here is incredible, as is their cheap wine. Stock on their baked beans found in larger supermarkets so that in your trip back up through western Europe you have supplies, as the French just don’t do Baked Beans!

14) Learn a few words of Italian as it is the most musical language ever and actually not difficult to converse with a handful of stock phrases. The best phrase I learnt was ‘Posso’, which means ‘Could I?’ From here you can say ‘Could I have’, ‘Could I pay’, ‘Could I buy’.  They appreciate the effort, even if it means you have to resort to Google Translate for the rest.

15) And finally, do come. We’ve not seen half of Italy yet and we still love it, you just keep your whits about you.

 

So our conclusion on Italy? There are many pockets of beauty in amidst some unlovedness, with crazy drivers and rubbish roads.  It is a bit like a sweet and sour dish. There are most definitely two flavours to Italy and whilst we will always go back, we do so with eyes wide open and our nerves braced.  For all our Italian adventures including Florence, this page gives you all our posts and videos. Italy in a nutshell.

 

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A Guide to Exploring Denia, Spain

A Guide to Exploring Denia, Spain

 

Delightful Denia, sat in the south east corner of Spain teeters on the edge of the Costa Blanca magnet. And yet Dénia could not be further from the Costa image that has been generated by decades of tourism to this sunny, southern fringe of Europe.  Authentic, vibrant and offering a wide variety of things to see and do, Dénia draws us back year after year. 

We are not great ‘returners’ to places because there is so much of the world to see, why would you want to have a return visit to somewhere? And yet, we all have our favourite ‘go to’ places where we feel instantly comfortable and pretty much ‘at home’. Dénia is that place for us. After five visits over the last three years, we strangely find ourselves magnetised to this corner of Spain and especially during the winter months, provides just a little sanctuary for our travel weary tyres.

And each visit opens up something new to us drawing us further in to Dénia’s irresistible charm. So much so that we feel we have now compiled a super list of things to entertain and delight you as you make your way to Spain’s southern beach belles. Why not swap the tourism of the coast for a little bit of authentic Spain wrapped up into a dynamic ball of culture, gastronomy and entertainment. 

 

Here is our Guide to this fabulous destination that could offer you a winter get away or a summer vacation with relaxation and activity blended together like a perfect cocktail. 

 

1. A peak into Dénia’s history

Dénia’s story begins way back when it was the capital of the Muslim Kingdom – if you are a historical purist then you would have to acknowledge evidence of Dénia’s prehistoric existence going further back than the history books can reveal. May be back then there was little interest in the town’s southerly location and oceanic position, although certainly as we crawl along the historical timeline we can see why Dénia was so widely admired by outsiders. 

The Greeks, Muslims, Christians and French have all placed their mark on Dénia in some form or another; whether it’s been to trade the raisins that were a strategic export from the town for over 100 years or using the 11th Century castle to protect their kingdom, Dénia’s place in history is firmly set.

In 18th century the Spanish regained control of this important region and it has been firmly in charge ever since. Now a modern grip has been placed on the town offering respite to tourists albeit not in the same way as its Costa cousins around the corner.  Dénia manages to maintain its authentic roots, charm and unobtrusive personality – that is until festival time. More on that in a moment.

With its busy fishing port and ferry hub for the Balearic Islands, Dénia refuses to remain passive in Spain’s economy. With its discrete hotels and restaurants positioned along the pedestrian promenade that stretches from sandy beaches, marinas to craggy coves, Dénia demands attention from those intent on passing by on the nearby AP7. Will you be one of them?

 

2. Our 3 favourite things to do in Dénia

 

Walking around the harbour, marina and promenade

The enormous marina oozes opulence as you weave your way through the Nautical Club and observe the gin palaces on display alongside the town’s promenade. For a moment you can gaze at their lavish lifestyle and dream. In stark contrast next door the fisherman moor up their rigs ready to off-load their daily catch in preparation for the fish market. Between 5-5.30pm every night, it’s worth heading into town to watch their antics and get a real cultural feel for Dénia’s working personality. Serenaded by parakeets that fly between the palm trees that lines the coastal road you can also admire the mastering of the Balearic ferry coming into to dock at 3.30 each day.  If you fancy the walk around to the breakwater behind the ferry terminal, you are rewarded with gorgeous views as you look back to the town’s skyline – particularly beautiful as the sun sets. A solar powered boat will happily escort you from just behind the ferry terminal back across the harbour to the main town promenade – all for free. 

 

Dénia’s markets

There’s nothing more authentic than a local market, where you rub shoulders with residents going about their daily lives. I love the feel, smell and look of markets with their vibrant colours and regional fare on display to tempt your taste buds. Dénia has two weekly markets; Monday morning’s market is all about clothes, shoes and accessories located at the western edge of the town at Mercadillo. And Friday morning is all about the fruit and veg stalls which is just two blocks away from Dénia’s shopping area – Marcos de Campo. Two streets of stalls draw you in with their calls of ‘Todo Euro’ – all for a £ – and there are certainly some bargains to be had. Although they don’t do much for the reduction of plastics sadly. 

At the top end of the Friday market area, there is also an indoor market, which is well worth a butchers, as they say! With meats, fish and bizarrely some vegetables too, this is a permanent market area and is great to wander around. So treat yourself to a coffee or chocolate and churros and just watch the market world unfold before your eyes.

 

Come in March and experience Las Fallas

Dénia may be a working port and a hub for authentic Spanish life, although you come mid March and the whole town takes on a completely different vibe. Firecrackers pop, bands play through the streets, traditional Valenciana customs come out of the wardrobe and 50ft statues appear through the streets. Las Fallas, the most bizarre experience that has to be entertained if you are in Spain in March. Throughout the whole Valencian region, this ancient tradition that stems from carpenters brings towns along this eastern coastline to life. For a whole week, these incredible works of art that have been crafted during the year are presented to the town. A competition for the best in their category, are vied for and money awarded for the most original art form. Papier maché, steel and wooden structures loom above you with intricate detail, which at the end of the week are burnt! It is just something you need to experience, just once in your life. Check out more about the festival by clicking here. 

 

2. Rides for cyclists

Dénia is positioned beautifully in a basin nestled between the Montgó Massif and Mount Pego creating a landscape of orange groves and almond trees. With these comes a lot of gorgeous flat cycling routes. For those looking for something more challenging, then just a few miles inland you will find plenty of mountains to test your skills, like the Col de Rates.  Cycling teams from all over Europe come here to train in the winter, so serious cyclists are well catered for.

 

gentle cycle through the orange groves

The route from the northern side of the town on the Via Verde to Els Poblets is fabulous. With the heady aroma of orange blossom from the acres of fruit laden trees, this car-free ride is wonderful. With the site of Mont Pego to entice you, this is a super leisurely ride. A quick refreshment at Els Poblets and then take the same route back, or along the coast if you are a looking for an alternative. From Camping Los Pinos, it’s a 18 mile round trip. From Dénia centre it’s about 11 miles. 

 

 

A challenging cycle around Montgó

If you are looking for something more testing or you have an electric bike like we do, then why not give the Montgó circuit a go. The ride will take you up the challenging mountain route from Dénia to Javea and then hugging the lower edges of the mountain you head back into Dénia on a good 19 mile round trip. And the views at the top are spectacular.  

 

A cycle to Jésus Pobre Sunday market

Another nice stretching cycle takes you out of Dénia out to a little mountain top village that each Sunday has a gorgeous  artisan market. So armed with strong legs for the ascent to the village and some pennies for a bit of lunch and a beer, you will be in for a treat on this fabulous cycle.  

 

3. Our 3 favourite Hikes for walkers

Dénia offers some wonderful walking, with gentle strolls along the coastline to more stretching hikes up through the Montgó Natural Park. Take your camera, your binoculars and of course water and layers as the afternoon winds can brew up suddenly in this area. Whilst we’ve not scaled the heady heights of Montgó as yet, we do have three favourite walks that we recommend. 

 

A saunter up to the Pepperpot

You can either join this walk from Dénia, if this is where you are staying and walk along the coastal promenade, or from Camping Los Pinos at Les Rotas. As you wind your way along the Mediterranean Sea, the crashing waves are mesmerising. This south easterly edge can be a bit breezy in the winter and early spring, especially whipping up in the afternoon so you will often see surfers trying their luck on the waves. Just past restaurant Mena, you follow the signs for Torre del Gerro and wind steeply up the hill to what is lovingly called the Pepperpot. This building that purveys the coast below it is actually the remnants of a 16th century fortification built to protect against pirates. The views from up here are magnificent. For instructions, you can use this link. If you’re feeling energetic, you can carry on up across the hill over towards San Antonio Lighthouse, although this is a big stretch and will take you another 2 hours round trip. 

 

A hike up to Javea’s windmills

This is a great climb up into the hills overlooking Montgó. Not only are you treated to superb views that can on a clear day take your eye up towards Valencia, your nature-loving personas will adore the wild rosemary, lavender and 650 other species of flora that call this landscape home. En route you will come across a run down and abandoned village that is now home to some amazing graffiti artwork. Perhaps locals see this as a blot on the landscape, although it is certainly a unique vantage point. As you continue to climb, you cross Las Planes and towards the ancient windmills that were built to maximise the winds that blow here to farm their wheat. Now mostly restored these windmills, some of which have been converted into homes, have incredible views over the Javea shoreline. It’s a walk that requires at least 3 hours and some sturdy boots, although a great hike of about 6 miles. For routes check this link out

 

A Walking Tour of Dénia

Every town seems to have their own free walking tour and Dénia is no different. If you head to the main Tourist Information Office you will be able to pick up information about their Walking Tours. We took ours during their LAS FALLAS festival in March 2017 and the tour takes in the Old Town as well as all the festival statues that are created specifically for this event. It is well worth visiting in mid-March to experience this extravaganza. 

Check out our gallery here….

 

4. Our 3 favourite places to eat

Dénia is a Mecca for food, as you might expect being both in Spain and on the coast. If you love seafood, then you. are going to love Dénia’s eating experiences. We have found three amazing places to eat that are our go-tos when we are here.

La Republic – Denia Marina

This is a place to come for a special event. It’s a five course meal for €21 and with views over the Marina and out to sea, it is a stunning location, with great prices. We adore it here. Read more about this special place here.

 

Fuegos – Bar and Grill

If you are looking for something more earthy, then you will never go wrong with this local restaurant. Always busy and in the four visits we’ve had here, we’ve not been disappointed. With a Menu del Dia for €14 and their house speciality half a chicken, this place is excellent value. 

 

Llaollao

Not a restaurant, although a must when you visit Denia – the frozen yoghurt shop. This is a great treat and if you can imagine your naughtiest ice-cream fantasy with toppings galore then you will have come to the right place. Located in the lower end of the buzzy Marco de Campo shopping street, Llaollao can’t be missed. It’s fluorescent green – and for between €3-4 you can have a tub of frozen deliciousness with toppings that take you back to childhood. We highly recommend it. 

 

5. Things to see beyond Dénia

You could easily while away your time in Dénia alone with buses, bikes and your own feet to guide you. Although beyond this magical town is a plethora of other sites that are worth exploring. For many of these we have hired a car, or had friends take us to these spots, so if you have additional transport, these are definitely worth looking at.  

 

The caves at Benidoleig

Not more than 15 minutes by car, or if you are feeling fit, you can cycle to (especially if you are electric assisted). The mountainous region surrounding Dénia is a jigsaw of natural and historical pieces that need to pulled together to complete your visit here. Whilst not the longest caves we’ve been in, they are of great archeological and scientific value. For a mere €3.90 per adult, €2 for children, this is definitely worth visiting. For more information check here.

 

Jalón Valley –  Almond Tree Blossom

Just 20 minutes by car inland, you weave your way through the Gata de Gorgos and reach the small town of Jalón, which if you are in the area in February is a must visit destination. With orchards of Almond trees, which are the first to blossom, this is a magical site. With the frame bordered by mountains, the pink and white flowers are worthy of photographing and walking through. The scent is heavenly.

 

Javea/Xavia

Javea is a popular tourist destination with its protected bay and shelter from the magnificent Montgó Massif. From Denia it is only a 15 minute drive away and buses will also take you there. It’s worth exploring for its harbour, coastline and old town. There is also a ferry that runs to and from Denia to Javea for €18 pp if you want to top off your experience. It runs from April to October – for more information and timetables, click here

 

Stand on the Greenwich Meridian point at Beniarbeig

Only 15 minutes away by car, or slightly longer if you cycle, you will reach the lovely little town of Beniarbeig. Famed for its old bridge monument and its Greenwich Meridian Point. Standing at this spot seems strange when you think you are directly in line with London a mere 1200 miles away.

 

Guadalest

If you have your own transport or can hire a car, then slightly further afield it is really worth visiting this gorgeous region. Just 15 minutes from Benidorm, Guadalest is steeped in history and is known to be one of the most highly visited sites in Spain. With its a reservoir surrounded by mountains and the castle and old town perched precariously on a precipice, Guadalest is full of charm. For a mere €4 you can enter the castle house and indulge in its history and bask in the views that, on a good day will take your gaze to the Benidorm coast. 

 

 

6. 3 Recommendations for sleeping

Dénia feels like home to us and each winter it draws us back. If you love the relative safety of a campsite then you’ll love  Camping Los Pinos.  At the southern end of the town, away from the buzz of port life and nestled in amongst the pines, you will feel a warm welcome from this family run site. Just a minute’s walk from craggy coastline, this site is perfect for watching sunrises, walking and cycling. The longer you stay the cheaper the site. For stays over 7 nights you pay only €15 and over 21 nights just a mere €12.50. It’s a multi-cultural site with a lovely mix of Dutch, German, British and French all connecting and social events at night, if that is your thing. Although this site is getting so popular that you will need to book.

 

Wild camping isn’t officially permitted in Dénia, like many places in Spain, although we do see vans down at Fernando’s restaurant at the northern end of town. Interestingly on Google Maps, it’s listed as an RV Park!  (38.847934, 0.102204). Although it’s a bit too busy down there for us with vans side-by-side. A night or two seems to be tolerated alongside the marina (38.837167, 0.120973).

 

If you ever need camping accessories or van supplies, then there is an excellent store up in the near-by El Verger. Just a 15 minute drive north, you will find an extensive offering of everything to do with camping, motor homing and caravanning. There’s even an Aire here if you need an overnight stop or services. (38.861775, -0.007745).

 

And if you prefer hotels or apartments, then why not check out Hotel Port Dénia by the Marina or the Bravasol Apartments in Las Rotas, right by the campsite. The apartments overlooking the coast can be rented for €29 per night if you are staying for 21 days or more. 

 

 

Final thoughts

Dénia has so much to offer and after three years and five visits, we still find new places to explore, by foot, by bike and further afield by car. Rich in gastronomy, festivals and day to day life, Dénia is ready to welcoming you with open arms and a warm heart. Each time we leave, it gets just a little harder – and that is coming from two free nomads roaming the world.  So next time you are heading for the Costas on the south coast, just make a short diversion off the motorway and check out the delights of Dénia – you’ll not be disappointed. 

 

 

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Bilbao and its Guggenheim

Bilbao and its Guggenheim

Think of Spain’s Bilbao and what comes to mind? Ferries, industrial port or perhaps the most iconic building – The Guggenheim Museum.

Set on the northern coast of Spain, Bilbao is much like any other city you pass through; enormous, all-consuming and  a tad impersonal. Remember that my views are coloured by being a predominant introvert who finds the vibrations of cities easily overwhelm my senses.  

And as we drove inadvertently through the centre of Bilbao’s hub, with congested streets, towering six story buildings rising like vertical umbrellas, I was left with the same detachment that I feel in many of the cities we visit. Had we made a mistake coming here?

Still we have come to appreciate after three years on the road, that travel is made up of a myriad of experiences. Each one we either love or tolerate and yet all of them are necessary to broaden our cultural horizons. So we valiantly continue to put cities on our agenda; some we end up adoring like Zagreb, Bratislava and Seville and others just don’t really do it for us like Vienna, Salzburg and Florence. 

Guggenheim's home - Bilbao old town view

You really could be forgiven for thinking that Bilbao is just about the ferry. And yet in the last twenty years, it has taken its rightful place on the tourist map. Its most significant draw is the masterpiece of the Guggenheim museum and whether you are an art lover or not, this building is renown around the globe for its architectural brilliance.  I’m neither a great artist nor an art fan if I’m honest, although sometimes there are things that are so iconic that visiting is a given.  I love that visiting somewhere new can influence how I think and feel or affect my perspective on life. And that’s why a visit to a place as iconic as the Guggenheim felt important. With its curves and light attraction everything about this building attracts the eyes and creates intrigue. Despite the art within being priceless, the building itself makes a statement all of its own.

Guggenheim museum view

With a tantalising tease of the cityscape from our lofty campsite at Kobeta, we took bus 58, which goes every 15 minutes from right outside the campsite into Bilbao old town. The €1.35 fare was a steal, allowing us to save our energy for the promenade along the river Nervión. 

On a still winter’s day, this city aspect was pleasing to the eye, providing a moving atmosphere that coloured our memories.  Our city preview from the previous day was fast fading from my mind. The architecture bordering the river, (that has its source in Burgos), is an eclectic mix of colonial, modern and medieval and it fringes the river banks with a certain je ne sais quoi. Whilst Bilbao, as the most active shipping port second only to Barcelona, has obvious roots in industry, make no mistake – this city is rebirthing and presenting its creative transformation to its European counterparts. Check out our gallery of pics below. 

For now though let me share with you the virtues of the Guggenheim. Although I am not steeped in knowledge about the museum, I just knew I wanted to visit. I had heard its reputation for being one of the most incredible pieces of architectural art in the world and that alone made me want to go. And there’s no doubt that it is more grand than the grandest thing you can imagine.

Our arrival at the Guggenheim could not be mistaken as this magnificent curvaceous beauty seemed to rise up from the industrial port’s ashes with grace and power. It is not an understated building and with pieces of artwork around the outside, I was captivated before I even entered its doors. Yet enter we must, as this was an experience I had been waiting for.  

We paid our €16 per person and passed through the well guarded security. There are three levels, each one offering a slightly different artistic theme. The first, Room Zero blew my mind and messed with my balance. A mirrored room gives an impression of Alice in Wonderland and as I watched the looping video, the way the images bounced off the glass walls is quite magnetic, making 3D seem like child’s play.

Accompanied by our audio guides, which come as part of the entrance fee, we learnt about the museum’s design by Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry. The huge project came to fruition in October 1997 and has transformed the dockland water’s edge image beyond all recognition.  

Built in titanium, glass and limestone, this is a masterpiece, which in different lights takes on completely different faces. And in many ways, you could almost be satisfied by seeing the outside of the museum such is its craft and beauty. Although the inside will challenge you in more ways than one.

Guggenheim Close Up
The Guggenheim curves
The Guggenheim's artwork

With an open atrium in the museum’s heart, Bilbao’s newest creation cries out to be admired. Splendid are its curves. Magnificent are its angular glass windows and resplendent are its halls that house such dynamic pieces of work. From Picasso to Van Gogh, Andy Warhol and a host of other artists from decades past, the Guggenheim is a centre-piece for self-expression and an almost eccentric interpretation of the world. Well that’s how it seemed to me.

The first floor was a real challenge.  The descriptions on the walls alone introduced a whole new language to me that provoked intellectual thought.  If only I had been able to photograph them, I could have convey their linguistic demands more eloquently. 

The halls are intriguing, leaving you wondering whether these minimalistic white washed walls were a stroke of brilliance or an obscene waste of money. One room simply had two televisions playing news from CNN. Another had memorabilia stuck to the walls with an edition of The Sun catching my eye. To the modernistic gallery of contemporary work that challenges our concept of space and time. The modern world confronted by artists set on complementing progression and challenging the very heart of the world’s evolution.

One of my favourite pieces was The Tent without a Signal. A 10ft tent-like construction, which inside simply held a circular set of metal benches. An odd sight for an art museum, although the artist has made a huge statement to  technology and how it consumes our lives behind our devices. The tent covering is made from metallic fibres that scramble mobile phone signals, rendering them useless. The space is therefore held as a sanctuary to profound silence that allows the audience to truly contemplate the depth of their souls. This seriously appealed to me as a Meditation Teacher.

The other incredible hall is a permanent feature called The Matter of Time. Artist Richard Serra’s ‘rumination on the physicality of space and the nature of sculpture’ offers a playground for adults. With enormous spiral structures made from steel you are invited to walk through their metallic form. It felt oddly like a Universal truth – such a small speck in an expanse of space. Weaving my way through the curves and the mazes, I felt transported into an out-of-world experience where for a moment, fear set in as I realised that I could be on another planet. And yet when viewed from the upper atrium, their structures were so simple and yet the steel designs challenged my spirit through that simplicity.

Leaving the museum, we were engulfed in a mist – as if in one last artist act of creativity; the Guggenheim’s moat came alive, piquing my curiosity. Every last bit of detail is invested in provoking the artist within. I highly recommend visiting this sensory journey that is so much more than a museum. It is architecture, craft, imagination and self-expression in their very purest forms. And it has to be experienced, just once in your life.

Bilbao has been built on a foundation of industry and trade and yet is embracing its evolution into a contemporary city. It does still have some way to go, although with UNESCO bridges and of course its brain-child the Guggenheim, Bilbao is redefining itself year on year.

The Guggenheim mist

 

Facts for your visit

  • The Guggenheim museum is closed on Mondays.
  • Not all the Guggenheim exhibitions will always be open as often they will be setting up halls for new presentations, so better check before you visit.
  • There are no photos or videos allowed in the museum halls so don’t be tempted as there are guardians everywhere.
  • The Guggenheim Bar is very nice offering a good deal on the local delicacy Pintxos – Tapas. 3 Tapas and a drink for €9.
  • Don’t take large bags into the Guggenheim, as you will be required to store them in the cloakrooms.
  • The shape and lights of the museum interior may cause some issues if you have sensitive eyes or migraine tendancies, so be aware of this before you enter.
  • The Guggenheim is disabled friendly with lifts to each of the three floors.
  • Getting around Bilbao is easy with the buses and trams that zig-zag the city’s network.
  • Within half a day we had absorbed all we wanted from the city, most of which was within the hub of the Guggenheim itself. Unlike, say London, there are very few other major draws, except perhaps the 17 bridges that span the river and the Artxander funicular that takes you up to the mountain of the same name, giving you a great panorama of the city.
  • If you are visiting the city with your camper, The Kobeta Camping Aire (43.25955 -2.9636), which for €15 per night inclusive of electricity and services, gives you a great spot for watching the city and visiting by bus.
  • If you come with dogs, remember that they are not allowed on buses without a muzzle, nor will they be allowed in the Guggenheim museum.
  • And a sensible note! Wear comfortable shoes, as just walking from the old town to the Guggenheim and back again will reward you over 12,000 steps and 9 kms. Trust me, my blisters will confirm this very well.

 

Overall I am so glad we visited and it reaffirms my thinking; despite my lack of love for cities, they hold great secrets and cultural treats, so visiting is an essential part of a traveller’s itinerary and my education, which feels influenced forever. Check out our final gallery below.

 

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