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Sintra is one of the most magical places I've visited. I'd wanted to go there for years, and during my last Spring in Europe I had enough vacation days to take 4 off for a 6 day holiday in Portugal - to Lisbon and Porto with a day trip to Sintra!
 
    Sintra in only about a 45 minute train ride from Lisbon, and unfortunately a tourist hotspot. The Castelo dos Mouros was pretty empty, but the Palace at Pena was quite crowded. Here's how to get there ahead of the rest of the crowds and make the most of your trip:

  1. There's too much to see in one day. We managed to see the Castle of the Moors, Pena National Palace (but not the whole park) and Quinta da Regale Park in a day, but if you want to see more you might want to stay an extra day or two.
  2. The train leaves from Rossio station, but there are two Rossio stations that are near each other, an underground metro station, and an above ground regional station. They connect underground, but we found it easier to just walk a little further above ground to the Rossio railway station.
  3. The Ms stand for Rosio metro, to get to Sintra you want the one in the box! If you go in the wrong one, they are connected.
  4. Buy a Viva Viagem cards ahead of time and use that - you can refill it in Sintra if need be. The line to buy tickets was ridiculous, and this was on a weekday. The lines to the 5 ticket machines weren't moving at all for the 10 minutes we waited. Eventually someone came by to tell us that the machines were coins only, which explained the hold up. We weren't getting anywhere and time was passing so here's what we did:

  5. We used our Viva Viagem cards. Since you can only by them and load them with 5, 10 and 15 euro at a time if you want to using the 'zapping' feature, we'd planned on buying two for 5 euro to cover our travels around Lisbon and buy our Sintra tickets separately.

    Since we'd already used them to get from the airport to Lisbon, we didn't have quite enough money left for a round trip to Sintra and back (at the time of writing this, a round trip ticket to Sintra is less than 4.50), but we 'zapped' our way past the ticket lines and onto the train. At the Sintra station, we added 5 more Euro to each of our cards as soon as we arrived.

  6. The Scott Urban bus costs 5 euro and you cannot use your Viva Viagem card, but it's worth it. Many of the attractions in Sintra are way up on the hills (mountains?) and even if you are quite fit and have cyclists' legs, you'll spend a significant portion of time walking up them.
  7. The routes are not always easy. Wear sturdy and comfortable shoes, (no flip flops) and be prepared to climb plenty of stairs, especially if you visit the Castle of the Moors.
  8. There's a 5% discount if you buy your tickets online. (As of May 2015). 
  9. Unless you are into period furniture, feel free to skip the inside of the Palace of Pena tour. I think the ticket into the park is one price, a ticket inside the walls and courtyards is another, and a ticket that includes going inside the building itself is the most.

  1. The town of Sintra does not continue up the mountain where the Castle of the Moors and the Palace of Pena are. While there are restaurants at some of the attractions and a gift shop at Pena, there aren't any convenience stores, groceries, etc so if you think you might need something buy it before you get on the Scott Urban bus.

  2. That being said, there are no restrictions on outside food at any of the places we visited. The Castle of the Moors has a few vending machines and you could buy chips and premade sandwiches from a kiosk there, but there was no cafe like in Quinta da Regale or Pena, which meant the tables were open for everyone.
  3. The lunch we brought with us - the chips were kinda gross.
  4. Bring sunscreen!
Have you ever been to Sintra? Am I forgetting anything?

This was our third stop of the day trip to Mahabalipuram, just outside of Channai (once called Madras). After seeing the Pancha Rathas, we took an auto rickshaw down to Mahabalipuram's beach, to visit the Shore Temple. Built in the 8th Century in what was once a once bustling port town on the Bay of Bengal, it is the last remaining temple of seven used by sailors to navigate by. About ten years ago the Indian Ocean/Sumatran tsunami revealed the ruins of another further out to sea.

The bottom part of the temple has been eroded by water.
In fact, the base of the standing Shore Temple has been underwater at some point, as the waves and currents have eroded the reliefs.

"It has been bitten by the ocean" said the french member of the party.

The main shrine in the large temple is dedicated to Shiva, but as you continue through the temple you'll pass a dark chamber off to the side housing a reclining Vishnu. Another shrine to Shiva can be accessed from a second entrance outside. There are three shrines in two buildings in one temple complex, so depending on the source there are one, two or three temples on this site.




As we were walking towards the temple, someone pointed out this bird. She couldn't remember the name in English, but she remembered there is a children's song in German about animals being invited to a wedding, and this kind of bird uses it's long thin beak to curl the bride's hair. So in the middle of the walk way to a temple in India, there were two people singing children's songs in German.



You do have to take off your shoes to enter the temple, but you just leave them next to all the others somewhat willy-nilly and they'll be waiting for you when you come out.


Smaller statues and shrines surround the temples. The complex is quite small and looks the most striking when viewed from a distance. The proprietors must have realized this, and have put up a chain link fence around it to stop people from taking photos without buying a ticket.

After that we stopped by the Tiger Temple (very small, not worth a stop if I'm honest, and made our way back to Pondicherry.




Lisbon's Carmo Archaeological Museum is housed in the ruins of a medieval convent partially destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. While some parts were rebuilt for other uses, most of it remained as ruins, the arches reaching towards the sky like stoney ribs, until 1864 when it was given to the Association of Portuguese Archaeologists.
 

The old apse chapels have become a museum for a very unusual collection, including objects from Portuguese history, but also some from further afield including one Egyptian and two pre-Colombian mummies. The museum explains that it wants to preserve parts of history that could easily be overlooked, deemed unimportant or destroyed, like the building itself.

It is quite small as parts of the original convent were rebuild for other purposes and are no longer associated with museum. Now it's about the size of a cathedral or other large church. Had I been there by myself (and had there not been road works just outside, it was so loud the woman selling tickets was wearing earplugs!) I would have liked to sketch the ruins, but otherwise you can see it quite quickly.




You can even see it from across the city

There's some unspoken rule in Hamburg that some days it's OK to take off without requesting them ahead of time or having them count against the (very generous, I should mention) holidays allotted.

I know being in academia things are a little bit more relaxed. We're not chained to a desk all the time, and if you get your work done it doesn't always matter if you do it in your office, in the library, at a cafe or sitting outside at home.

But many a day I have arrived to the office to find all the lights off and it deserted, and thought: is today a holiday I don't know about? Or there's someone I need to talk to at work who says they'll definitely be there Friday but never shows up.

How to enjoy those few summer in Hamburg - and I just realized, everyone looks really pink in this photo...
For example:

A year and a half ago, when I made the transition from "visiting scholar" to "actual employee who get's health insurance", I had to make an appointment at the central finance office at the university here to turn in and sign some papers. Until this was taken care of, I wouldn't be recognized as an employee or even paid (despite having worked there for a year and a half), so it was a Big Deal.

I made my appointment on a Thursday for the afternoon the next day, so about 24 hours before. By no means far enough in advance that it could be forgotten about, but sure enough, I showed up there and he'd taken the afternoon off, without telling anyone that I'd be coming around. His colleagues didn't seem surprised by this at all, in fact they seemed sort of annoyed with me for making more work for them rather than him for shirking his responsibilities.

I also notice it in the building across from mine. I'm on the 3rd floor (4th floor in the US) and have a pretty good view of the windows across the street, and usually all the lights are on and there are people sitting at computers, but some days there's barely a quarter - they're all taking the day off.

Now I'm not  saying you should feel free to takes these days off, depending on where you work you could get in a whole lot of trouble! But rather, don't be surprised to find your office half empty, no one can make that important meeting and no one responds to your emails on these days:
  • Friday afternoons
  • The first few warm, sunny days of the year
  • Between Mid-December and the end of the first week in January
  • Any day that falls between a public holiday and the weekend. In the US if a national holiday falls on a Thursday, you get the Friday off (and they'll call it Independence Day Observed, or something like that). In Germany, you get the Thursday off and good luck getting anyone to show up that Friday!
  • The day(s) you get back from travel, even if it's from a holiday. I suppose feeling tired from traveling could be considered a sick day rather than a holiday, but I have a colleague who'll stay home for 3 or 4 days after returning from a long work trip.
  • And, if you're at a University, between mid June and mid September. (AKA, whenever semester is not on) Lots of people are working from home, "working from home" and on holiday.
Of course, lots of people take holiday around Christmas as well as those days that turn a holiday and a weekend into a four day weekend, I just can't imagine any employer would approve 4/5ths of the office to be out at once like here!

A colleague of mine suggested I join some of the grad students at the Christmas Market for a beer or gluhwein after colloquium - which ends at noon, meaning they were skiving off work to go day drinking.
Part of me loves the flexibility to being able to enjoy the rare sunny afternoons here, but part of me wishes it was a bit more official - everyone should get the afternoon off. What if I've been missing out on sunny afternoons sitting by the canal? Or sleeping in late on wintery mornings near Christmas?
I haven't actually been to this one, but since this post is going up on the 29th of April, and I'm planning on visiting May 3rd, I thought I could include it here, and maybe update it later.

The castles wasn't built as a single project, it's actually an add on to part of the famed Walls of Constantinople.

The Golden Gate and the Castle of Seven Towers in 1685. Via Wikipedia
The Castle was created in 1458 when three towers were added behind a portion of the wall with four already, including the Golden Gate

Like many castles, it's purposed has changed over time to suite the needs of the day. As well as being an archive and treasury, as well as a fortress and prisons to ambassadors and sultans. 

While it's technically in Fatih, which includes Sultenhamet and the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, it's quite a ways from there. The suburban train servicing the closest station seems to be out of order at the moment, but a short walk from another stop shouldn't be too hard in Istanbul in May.

photo by tripadvisor user misswhitneypaige

Update: It was closed.


We took the Marmaray from Sultanahmet station to Kazliçeşme (the Sirkeci-Halkalı Banliyö line is not opperational, but still shows up on google maps) and then a quick walk from the station to the main road, along a crowded grave yard and the castle was there in front of us.



 As we walked towards the main gate, we noticed men mowing the grass around the outskirts of the castle and doing some general maintenance work, but when we got to the doors they were closed. Someone standing nearby gave us a vague "sometimes it is open, but sometimes it is closed" answer and asked if we spoke French. Between the two of us we know a bit of Spanish and German, but no French. I suspect the castle closes for the season and was about to open for the summer, hence the yard work being done, but it was still quite annoying that they closed it.
Peeking in through the door



The castle is so basic, just seven towers connected by walls, that apart from falling off the walls there's not much trouble you can get into that it hardly needs any staff to run. I would think just leaving it open with a suggested donation would be worth it. Except I guess someone could hurt themselves and the organization running it could get in trouble.

We walked around the edge of is and noticed it was located in a pretty rough neighborhood. There was lots of trash and someone had taken up residence in the ruins with a garden planted in the moat.

I could not find a website for the castle anywhere, so unfortunately I can't guide you to an opening times schedule or any other useful information.  From what I've read, the castle is out of the way enough to be free from crowds, however I think a little more publicity and attendance wouldn't hurt.
A couple of months ago, I posted our travel plans for the next few months, and called our busy schedule a "Travel Extravaganza". We'll be flying back to the States for good on June 29th, so this may be our last chance to visit the cities in Europe for quite a while, not to mention we'll probably never have as many vacation days ever again!



I have a lot of new posts in the works, but they'll take time so I wanted to do a quick update:


Athens


Highlights:
  • Seeing the Acropolis
  • Walking along the harbor in Piraeus on our lone sunny day
  • Cool Street art
Lowlights:
  • Athens was a lot colder than usual, and it rained quite a lot. 
  • I also caught a really nasty cold, the kind where you'd rather stay in bed all day than go out. 

Krakow


Highlights:
  • The Old Town
  • lots of good, cheap food (craft beer for ~3 euro a pint)
  • dragon bones,
  • seeing the beginning of the Rekawka festival
Lowlights:
  • It was a cold Easter, and it snowed a little bit most days. We were prepared this time and it didn't rain, so the weather didn't impact us too much. Still, I'd love to visit Krakow in the summer. 
  • A lot of museums, restaurants, bars, etc were closed because of the holiday.

Lisbon

(Lisbon and Porto, with a day trip to Sintra)

Highlights:
  • Sintra, possibly the most magical place I've ever been. 
  • The most amazing pie/cake inside a printing factory turned bookstore -  the crust was a giant meringue!
Lowlights:
  • I hurt my knee on all those hills and castle steps, and had a lot of trouble with stairs and walking downhill for the next few days. 
  • A lot of closures, either restaurants being closed for good, or just not open when we wanted to eat. 
  • We also got offered drugs a lot, even at 11 am on busy Avenida da Liberdade. 
  • The apartment we stayed at in Porto wouldn't let us flush the toilet paper.

Istanbul


Highlights:
  • The Basilica Cistern
  • Hagia Sophi
  • the Blue Mosque
  • Turkish Delight
  • the sunset over Sultenahmet from the ferry.
  • Kadıköy
  • Apple tea.
Lowlights:
  • The packed trams. 
  • The man at the front desk at the hotel was very rude to us, and at breakfast 3 or 4 employees would stand around watching you eat. If you tried to get something to drink they'd rush over and insist they do it for you, regardless of what you wanted. 
  • Lots of people trying to aggressively sell us things, like Ahmed the Carpet Salesman (who will probably get his own post), people touching me and blocking my path, being argued with if I didn't want to eat in someone's restaurant. etc. 
  • Yedikule Castle was closed. 
  • Our flight home sat on the tarmac for an hour and half with no explanation. Finally, they told us there'd been a problem with a passenger, but that was it.
Next up is a day trip to Lubeck this weekend, and then Munich and a couple nearby towns the week after.
This post originally appeared as part of the A to Z Challenge, and was called 'Z is for Zeus the Olympian'.
We visited the Temple of Zeus the Olympian on our last full day in Athens. It rained quite heavily while we were still in the hotel that morning, and again once we'd reached the temple.


The heavy rain was short lived, and we were able to venture out from under the shelter of our umbrellas.

The massive thing took 638 years to build, started in the 6th century BC by Hippias and Hipparchos and finally finished in the 2nd Century CE under Emperor Hadrian. it was left untouched for over 300 years in between, as democratic Athens thought such a colossal project was waste of public resources.

This image and the one above it were taken within 10 minutes of each other

Soon after, in the 3rd Century it was pillaged and then used as a source of raw materials for other projects until the late 1800s.


Although it is not free, you can get a great view of it through the northern gates, and is a part of the Athens Tourist Ticket which includes the Acropolis and the other historic monuments in Athens.



This post originally appeared as part of the A to Z Challenge, and was called ' X is (sorta) for eXtra Space for Packing'.
My husband and I primarily fly on the cheap ass discount airlines like Easy Jet, Ryan Air and German Wings. In all honesty, I don't find them that much worse than the full price carriers considering they only offer short flights (as of now, but it seems like that will change in the near future).  The difference between German Wings and Lufthansa is negligible on a two hour flight compared to the money you save.

The most annoying part though, is the baggage allowance - or Easy Jet especially, where you're only allowed a single bag (although I usually like to keep my passport and ipod in a small purse and no one's made me put it inside my backpack yet). I don't need a lot of stuff, and try to pack as light as possible, but it sure is nice to be able to pack for unpredictable weather, or bring an extra book with you.

So while this isn't truly an X entry, today I'm going to share some tips I've found for find a little extra space for packing all you can into your single bag:
  • If you're bringing a backpack, use the water bottle holders for small items like umbrellas, rolled up T-shirts, hot water bottles or a shoes in each. Maybe even put something inside an empty and dry water bottle. If you're afraid it might slip out you can hook it to your zipper pull with a carabiner or other clip.
  • wear your largest/heaviest clothes (I've flown in combat boots before, they're annoying to take off for security, but considering they're by far my warmest shoes and the kind of luck we have with the weather, it's worth it.)
  • tie or clip things on to your backpack - like a scarf around the handle on top. Once I clipped a small bag with my DS and games in it to my backpack and it wasn't a problem.
  • This is a bit sneaky, but any small item that you're holding in your hand, (especially if it could have bought in the airport or it's for your in flight entertainment), will probably be allowed on. Things like a book, sandwich, tablet, knitting...
  • Even sneakier: reuse a duty free bag. (Ok, so I'm hesitant to recommend this, but sometimes you just need a second bag so you don't have to be rummaging around in your suitcase for a book and snack the moment you get on the plane - it's just far easier to carry them separately).
  • if you think you'll want to bring things back with you from your destination, and space is going to be a premium, you could consider bringing socks and undies that are at the end of their life and chuck them before you leave for home. The same goes for toiletries.
What not to do:
Via Huffington Post, 'This Is What You Should Do When Your Carry On Exceeds The Baggage Allowance'

How do you find that little extra space when you're packing? comment and I'll add to the list!
This post originally appeared as part of the A to Z Challenge, and was called 'W is for Wawel Castle and Cathedral.
 
We read online that entrance to Wawel castle is free Monday mornings, so after double checking it would in fact be open Easter Monday we headed to the south of the old town to check it out. We still had to stop at the ticket office and pick up paper tickets despite it being free entry. Wawel Castle is more of a fortress than say, Prague castle, but it's not the stone citadel I usually think of when I hear Castle.


Since it was Easter Monday  a lot of it was closed. We did not get to see da Vinci's 'Lady with an Ermine', for example, and when we went to look into the cathedral were told it was closed.



There's a small museum called Lost Wawel with some of the more typical archeological site find - things like tiles and buttons. We did get to walk through one of the old halls on a walkway suspended in the air, which was a nice way to experience the site without walking all over a possibly fragile floor.

Image via wikicommons
Despite arriving at about 10:30, we had to wait until 12:30 to see the crown jewels and armory. I guess they deliberately space out the entrance times to stop over crowding, but it was very empty when we arrived. They only sell or give out a limited number of tickets a day, and it seems a shame that you can't go in when it's empty because you've been assigned a later time. For example, if only 40 people want to see the Crown Jewels at 10:30, then it makes no sense to make them wait until 100s are trying to get in.


We did get to see a lot of gold, and a lot of weapons. I was surprised at how little information was provided, a whole display case would have a descriptions like "guns, 17th to 18th century" or Swords from "Poland, Turkey" which I can only assume means Turkey and Poland. I, being the complete nerd that I am, wondered things like "This 7 ft (2.15m) sword was just ceremonial, right?", "why this guy's armor have wings?" and "where is Poland, Turkey, anyway?".

Via Wikipedia's Polish Hussar page
Seriously, there was a suite of armor with feathered wings coming out the back, but no information about it at all. Later I looked it up, and in the 16th c the Winged Hussars really did ride into battle with wings - possibly to protect their backs, to make enough noise that their forces sounded louder than they were, or maybe to drown out the other sounds of battle that could frighten their horses.

But none of that was included in the exhibition..

I asked at the info desk if the cathedral would be opened tomorrow, and was told it would open at 12:30 that day. which worked out very well for us, except it would have been nice if they'd told us that originally.


While the cathedral itself is more or less what you'd expect, the most unsual things about it are hanging just outside the front doors. One of the legends of Krakow features  he slaying of a dragon (sometimes by a cobbler, sometimes by the mythic King Krakus), and some of it's alleged bones are strung up at the entrance.


It's speculated that they're probably fossilized whale or mammoth bones, but there are times when stories are truer than facts, and dragon bones make for a very good story.
This post originally appeared as part of the A to Z Challenge, and was called 'V is for Venice'.

Venice was one of those places I thought looked beautiful, but never planned on visiting. It was just too expensive, too touristy, too smack dab in the middle of the beaten path.

And then I got sent there for work. Originally for a week, but it got extended to 9 days after a slight change in work plans.


It was wonderful, one of the most rewarding places I've visited in terms of atmosphere. Just walking to between our hotel and where we worked took us over the Grand Canal Sometimes I find that famous destinations feel like almost any other city or town once you're there, but Venice was always only Venice.


We were lucky that for this project only one of us needed to be there at a time once the equipment was set up. It gave me plenty of time to wander the labyrinth of alleyways that lead to deserted squares and steeple-less marble churches.


You find yourself walking down narrow cobbled streets, past flowered balconies only a meter above the water, past tourist shops here are full of  beautiful masks and glass balloons that look so charming in bright bunches, some in heart shapes.





We spent the first night there watching gondolas pass under us, a singer belting out familiar ballads, aggressively flourishing a vibrato to the night.



It does get quite crowded. I was there in late October and can only imagine what it was like in the summer. San Marco's square would be thronging with crabby tourists, impatient locals, richly dressed Italians, and a few couple posing for professional photographers most hours of the day. Try to get there early if you can.



Even though we were there in October and the weather was cool, some day were quite sticky until a cool breeze off of the lagoon blew the humidity away.



Masks watch you from store windows, filigree and sparkles, luxurious and mysterious.



I walked down a deserted street and peered through a doorway. Up a flight of stairs I saw these dresses as far as I know there was no museum or theatre - just another hidden treasure of Venice.