Highlights of Portugal

This month has been a whirlwind of travel activity for us. Festivals, road trips and the usual sightseeing covered across three European countries have left us little time to catch up on blogging, which explains my lack of updates. The temperatures are looking up and the worst of Europe’s fairly mild winter this year is (safe to say) over! Hurray!

We were in Portugal early this month and spent little over a week exploring the Algarve coast and up north through the cities of Lisbon and Porto. Here are some highlights:

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Lagos in the Algarve coast was a standout for us. Stunning cliff faces and some of the best beaches we’ve seen in Europe propelled Lagos straight into our good books. Lagos also served up some of the best food we’ve eaten in Portugal (finger licking good peri peri chicken and delicious monkfish stew) so you can’t hardly blame us for the good time we had there.

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We felt a little letdown by Lisbon having heard so much good things about it. It definitely had its charms and character but we probably had disproportionate expectations rocking up from the Algarve on a high. Lisbon did blow me away with its famous Portugese egg tarts, specifically the ones from Belem. This shop, Pasteis de Belem has been making these delicacies for decades and its reputation is unrivalled. Rightly so because they taste downright AMAZING.

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Sintra, an hour’s train ride away from Lisbon is a magical place that must go into every tourist’s agenda in Portugal. It is jam packed with palaces, castles and sprawling royal estates that give this entire town an air of fairytale charm. One of our favourite sights was the Pena Palace. It is unlike any other castle we’ve seen. I’m at a loss of words to describe this palace, only that it evokes a childlike wonder within me. Not like the fairytale princess castles that I once imagined and envied, but akin to a happy place with happy colours and all sorts of fun and dreamy things like unicorns and rainbows. I guess that’s the best description I can come up with for now.

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Oh, Porto! I could sigh about you all day long. Picture perfect waterfront buildings, freshly grilled fish coated with sea salt, beautiful blue skies that have us reluctant to leave and so much more. Porto stole our hearts.  It was the best part of our time in Portugal. I would return to Porto in a heartbeat (ok, maybe not so soon) but I sure wouldn’t pass up the chance to visit again in the future.

The Blue City of Chefchaouen

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When I first heard of a Moroccan town with buildings awashed in hues of blue I knew I had to see it with my own eyes. This town is no stranger in the Moroccan tourist circuit and it’s no wonder why. Wandering the maze of alleys and corners in Chefchaouen is like unwrapping presents on Christmas day. Every turn reveals a delightful surprise of a quirky blue door or blue steps leading to more hidden buildings. Getting lost within this blue maze is part of the fun of exploring Chefchaouen and it amazes me that people actually live and go about their daily lives here amidst tourists sneaking glimpses into their half open doors and windows. And yes, the insides are blue too ;)

The Sahara Desert

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There’s always a first for everything. First time stepping foot in the famed Sahara desert. First time trekking up and down sand dunes on a camel. First time camping overnight in the desert in the midst of a sandstorm. First time experiencing a sandstorm…

How do I rate my first time experiences, seeing that I’ve had countless first time experiences in the last 7 months alone? It’s easy to become numb and detached to these amazing experiences, but when I reflect on these first time experiences clocked in a span of just 2 days in the Sahara, my mind is boggled. I dig deeper to find the impact of these first time experiences on my self as a whole, and search for the emotion connected to the experience. How many can truly say that they’ve never felt more terrified of falling off a camel especially when it lurches down a sand dune? How many can speak of the extreme discomfort that comes when sand lashes against their face during a sandstorm? How many can laugh about the times when they had to attend to ‘toilet business’ in the vast darkness of the desert and getting spooked out by unknown creatures lurking beyond?

First time experiences can be unique and unforgettable for each individual. We may not have had the starry desert night sky we dreamed about, or the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, but we had our own Sahara desert experience and that’s something no one can ever take away from us.

Le Mont Saint Michel

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Visiting Le Mont Saint Michel has been high on our to do list since we first embarked on our travels around Europe. This man made wonder is a sight to behold. Le Mont Saint Michel was built to be a beacon of hope to pilgrims all around the world since ancient Roman times and to this day attracts busloads of tourists who are intrigued by the history or just splendid architecture. The abbey perched on the top of the island is worth a meander around, but what really stayed with us was the view of Mont Saint Michel from afar. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

A Rainy Day in Saint-Malo

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Our first workaway stint in the South West of France has ended and we left with plenty of sunshine in our pockets as we made our way up north to a region of France called Bretagne or Brittany. Saint-Malo was our first stop in this region known for its crepes and galettes (buckwheat pancakes) and our day in Saint-Malo was far from sunny with an unrelenting rain welcoming us into this beautiful walled city. Sodden but not downtrodden, we went ahead and explored the city with its many cobblestone streets,  beautiful buildings and cosy creperies. Walking along the city walls was a highlight for us despite our constant battle to stay dry under a teeny tiny umbrella and rain that came sideways. Already so captivating in the worst of weathers, I can only imagine Saint-Malo attracting busloads of tourists in the summer. In a way we had this city pretty much to ourselves to soak in. Here’s hoping the weather turns in our favour as we make our way further into the region and begin our second workaway stint with a new host family.

Kicking off 2014

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One of our aims for the second half of our European travels is to find new ways of maximizing our travel experiences. A bit of research led us to this website that cleverly connects travelers who want to work on desired projects in desired locations around the world in exchange for meals, lodging and a local cultural experience, with hosts who can provide just that. This concept isn’t new and we’ve toyed with this idea several times before. Turning this into reality was just one big step we had to take to challenge ourselves further.

We are incredibly lucky to have found a French family who were willing to take us in for a couple of weeks to work on renovating their estate with ambitious plans to turn it into a Bed and Breakfast in the South West part of France, close to Bordeaux. Not many projects were running during the winter season and we were focused solely on finding hosts in France because of our keen interest in the language and culture.

We are halfway through our time here and it has been an enriching and rewarding experience, to say the least. We feel very much a part of the family especially during meal times and the solitude and peace from being surrounded by the countryside outweigh any of the hard yards we’ve had to put in. We’ve learned a thing or two about the types of work involved in such an ambitious project, and are left in awe of the vision and determination of this small family who simply want to live their dream. We’ve also been exposed to the many facets of the simple rural French lifestyle and there are parts of it that we wish to take with us into our future home and family.

So here you go, a little update from us to kick off 2014. Happy new year!

All pictures are of the estate which is a working progress and the surrounding countryside of Saint-Thomas-de-Conac.