Milan

The Duomo in Milan, Italy

Italy’s economic capital is probably best known for its bi-annual fashion week, but there’s much more to this stylish city than big name designer outlets and shopping. I spent last weekend in Milan, and before my trip, it wasn’t somewhere that was on my radar. But I was looking for somewhere to go for a pre-Christmas mini-break and noticed there were cheap flights to the city, so I decided to see what it was like.

The Lombard capital may not have the same must-visit status among travellers as Italy’s cultural powerhouses Venice, Florence and Rome, but I found a city that’s steeped in culture and history with great food and shopping, and a slew of incredible artworks that almost rivals Florence.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

Milan is home to one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals, an architecturally renowned shopping arcade (above), a world famous opera house, two da Vincis (including one of his most celebrated masterpieces), countless other priceless artworks, an imposing castle, top-notch museums and charming churches. In a nutshell, I wasn’t short of things to do.

I arrived in Milan mid-afternoon and after checking into my hotel near the central station, I hopped on the metro to the Duomo to have a quick look around the city centre. On walking out of the metro station, I was greeted by the imposing sight of Milan’s magnificent and enormous cathedral, which dominates the Piazza del Duomo. It’s an incredibly decorative and ornate building, and I was amazed by how many statues and carvings adorn the outside of the building.

Christmas time in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

I’d decided to visit the Duomo the following day, so instead of going inside I walked over to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. The arcade, which was built by Giuseppe Mengoni in the 1860s, is something of an Instagram star and having seen it in so many photos, I was keen to have a look at it myself. Built from a pinkish marble, the arcade is laid out in a cross shape, with an incredible glass and iron roof that culminates in a massive dome in the centre of the arcade.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is filled with grand cafés and shops, including designer labels such as Prada and Louis Vuitton, and when I went in, was packed with shoppers and tourists taking photos. In the centre of the arcade there was a giant Christmas tree, sponsored by Swarovski, and it looked as though they were about to have an event to switch on the Christmas lights as there was a stage set up in front of the tree with cameras and security guards milling around.

La Rinascente department store in Milan, Italy, illuminated for Christmas

I wandered through the arcade, window shopping as I went, then walked back towards the Duomo, where I ventured inside the plush La Rinascente department store. La Rinascente is essentially Milan’s Harvey Nicholls, only posher. Walking through the store, I’m not sure they had any labels that weren’t high-end and completely unaffordable for mere mortals such as myself. But I was heading to the store’s renowned food hall on the seventh floor.

Alongside the rows and rows of delicious products, the food hall features a number of places to eat including a lobster bar, a juice bar, a mozzarella bar and a sushi restaurant. I skipped the restaurants, preferring to look at the incredible products in the food store. There I found fantastically shaped pastas in different colours, wines, sauces, condiments, and stunningly inventive and artistic sweet treats for Christmas – all with eye-watering prices.

I stopped to look at some pretty chocolates that had caught my eye when one of the store assistants came up to ask if I needed any help. At that moment I spotted the price tag for the chocolates – $70! – and politely told her I was “just looking”.

Passion fruit and raspberry eclair

By now, I was a wee bit peckish so I stopped at the patisserie counter, which was filled with scrumptious-looking pastries and desserts. I couldn’t resist one of the passion fruit and raspberry eclairs (above, a bargain at $3.90!) and bought one to take away.

From La Rinascente, I hopped back on the metro as I had booked tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The painting is in the 15th century convent’s refectory and is so popular, you have to pre-book your tickets online or by phone weeks in advance.

Santa Maria delle Grazie Church and Convent

The ticket office, where I had to pick up my ticket 20 minutes before my scheduled visit, is in a separate building to the church. I found this a little confusing and wasn’t really helped by the sour staff who seemed to have no patience with the many bemused tourists looking to collect their tickets. I eventually found the ticket office myself, and once I had my ticket, headed towards the refectory entrance.

Only 30 people are allowed to view The Last Supper at any one time and all 30 from my group were soon huddled together in a narrow corridor waiting to be allowed in. At 5.45pm, a lady came down to scan our tickets and we passed through an electronic door. Once the entire group was through, the door behind us closed and another electronic door in front of us opened. We went through two more chambers like this before we got in to see The Last Supper.

The refectory was bombed by the US during the Second World War causing lots of damage to the building, but The Last Supper miraculously survived intact. The huge painting is on the right wall of the refectory, and on the opposite wall, there’s a painting of The Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano.

The Last Supper, which was commissioned by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, in 1495, dominates the room, and although it’s very faded, has a mesmerising quality. It’s a masterpiece and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it and soaking up all its details. The one thing that struck me was how much John the Baptist looks like a woman and then I remembered all the (frankly believable) conspiracy theories that John the Baptist is actually Mary Magdalene.

The Crucifixion opposite is a great work of art, too. It features two very faded portraits of Ludovico il Moro and his wife Beatrice added by da Vinci, and I spent some time admiring that, too. Before I knew it, our 15 minutes were up and we were quickly ushered outside.

Inside the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie

After my visit to the refectory, I decided to have a look around the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. The church, which was designed by the architect Donato Bramante at the end of the 15th century, looks like a fairly typical Milanese church from the outside, but inside, I realised it’s a work of art.

It was gone 6pm when I visited and I couldn’t see very well inside as the lights were off, but the walls and ceilings were covered in a beautiful patterned fresco. Along the right and left walls, there were a series of altars in little alcoves behind locked gates. I soon discovered why the alcoves were protected as above the altars were priceless pieces of art by the likes of Caravaggio.

In the St Crown’s Chapel, for example, Carvaggio’s Deposition from the Cross took pride of place. Even more astonishing, the painting had replaced Titian’s The Crowning of Thorns Coronation, which was stolen by the French in the late 18th century and now sits in the Louvre. The Santa Maria delle Grazie church is a spectacular building, everywhere I looked there were superb pieces of art, and I was glad I’d popped in, even if it was too dark to see it in all its glory.

Having looked around the Santa Maria delle Grazie, I headed back into town where I wandered around the main sites again. It was great to see them all lit up at night. If anything the buildings looked even better in the dark as they were much more dramatic with the illuminations. I then walked the short distance to the Brera district, where I was amused by the prosecco-themed Christmas lights (Cardiff take note!), and found a nice little trattoria for dinner and some quiet time after the jam-packed start to my Milanese trip.

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Cardiff – St Fagans

St Fagans Castle and gardens, Cardiff

One of my favourite places for a Sunday stroll is the St Fagans National Museum of History on the outskirts of Cardiff. The museum is an open-air museum set in 100 acres of woodland in the grounds of St Fagans Castle.

Blaenwaun Post Office, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

The castle and the grounds were given to the public in 1948 by their then-owner the Earl of Plymouth and since then more than 40 buildings from different eras from all over Wales have been rebuilt in the grounds.

Over the summer, the main entrance building, which had been closed for the past few years for an extensive refurbishment, reopened and I was keen to see what it was like. I was surprised to find the main building was quite sparse with an enormous foyer and a small information desk, a new café and a shop. But it turned out it has yet to fully reopen as the exhibition galleries are still being refurbished.

Turog Bakery, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

As a creature of habit, I always follow the same tried-and-tested route whenever I visit St Fagans. My first port of call is always the bakery (above) because their cheesy buns are one of my favourite things in the world to eat and they’re so popular they often sell out. There’s nothing more disappointing than a trip to St Fagans to find there are no cheesy buns. So cheesy buns purchased, we were free to stroll around the rest of the grounds at our leisure.

A pig on the farm at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

First off, we headed down to the farm (above), which is home to numerous animals such as geese, chickens, and my favourites, the pigs. I love the pigs, especially the adorable piglets, and make a beeline to see them whenever I visit. They always look so content lounging on the ground or moving around their pens, sniffing as they go and munching the straw around them, that I could spend hours watching them.

Siop Losin (sweet shop) at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Having spent quite a long time watching the pigs, we strolled back towards the bakery, past the old water mill and the toll house, and on to the Gwalia grocery stores. There you can buy traditional Welsh produce such as cheese, jam, seaweed snacks and honey. Next door there’s a new sweet shop (above), so we popped inside and found a back wall filled with jars of old fashioned sweets, while the area around the counter was brimming with chocolate, Kendal mint cake and sticks of rock. I resisted the temptation to load up on sweet treats and instead plumped for an intriguing pot of raspberry and lavender jam from the grocery stores.

Oakdale Workmen's Institute, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Behind the Gwalia stores is the Oakdale working men’s institute (above). I’m from a long line of coal miners in the Valleys and the institute is one of my favourite buildings as I feel it’s the one that best represents my Welsh heritage. Working men’s institutes were built all over the Valleys to provide coal miners and their families with a social and cultural centre, and this wonderful building boasts a library, reading room and committee room. Over the years, I’ve spent ages poring over the photographs that hang on the walls, wondering whether or not any of the faces staring back at me are my ancestors. Probably not – but it’s not impossible!

After the institute, we wandered up through the woods to Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court). It’s a recreation of a medieval princes’ court from Anglesey and has been under construction for a few years. I like popping by whenever I’m in St Fagans to see how it’s coming along and this time I was surprised to see one of the buildings was almost finished. I’m really looking forward to having a look around it when it opens as there aren’t any surviving examples of the princes’ courts and I’m keen to see what they would have looked like.

 

From Llys Llywellyn, we walked the short distance to another of my favourite buildings, St Teilo’s Church (above). From the outside, the church looks like any regular church, but inside it’s elaborately painted as it would have been during the Middle Ages. I love looking inside and seeing the decoration. I often forget when I visit old churches in the UK that many of them would have been painted during the Middle Ages and I’m always amazed at how colourful and decorative St Teilo’s Church is as it’s so different to the plain, stone churches we usually see in the UK.

Wicker man at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

After looking around the church, we strolled up to the old slate farmhouse, which was closed for renovation work, then walked past the woods that played host to the Battle of St Fagans on 8 May 1648 during the Civil War.

As we wandered back down towards the centre of the museum, I was intrigued by the giant wicker man that was standing tall in one of the fields (above). The wicker man had been erected for Halloween and was set to be burned during one of the museum’s nighttime Halloween events. There were lots of craft stalls nearby, too, where you could buy handmade goods or try your hand at making a mini wicker man, pottery or jewellery.

 

Our final destination was St Fagans Castle (above right). I love strolling around the castle gardens as they’re so vast and varied. They include Italian-style gardens on the hill leading up to the castle and a series of rectangular ponds beneath them (above left). Up near the castle there’s a fruit and vegetable garden with a number of greenhouses, as well as a series of gardens beautifully laid out in different patterns.

It’s a really pretty, relaxing place to walk, especially during the autumn when the trees are a medley of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. I’ve been inside the castle countless times, so I often skip the tour inside and just spend time enjoying the gardens, which we did this time, too.

Red stone farmhouse, St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff

From the castle, we then headed back to the main building for a well-earned, warming cup of tea in the café. The perfect way to end a very pleasant autumn stroll.

Info
St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff CF5 6XB
Open daily, 10am-5pm
Free
museum.wales/stfagans/

Lisbon – Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon

The last place I visited during my trip to Lisbon was the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, founded in 1969 to house the enormous art collection that belonged to Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian was an obscenely rich businessman born in Constantinople in 1869. Over the years he amassed a massive collection of around 6,400 artworks dating from the Egyptian and Greco-Roman period to the early 20th century. When he died in 1955, he left his collection to the city of Lisbon on condition it built a museum to house it.

The museum was constructed in the mid-1960s in the city’s Parque de Santa Gertrudes and around 1,000 of Gulbenkian’s artworks are on permanent display. The building has won a number of architectural awards, but if I’m honest I wasn’t too keen on it. It’s very late 1960s/early 1970s with lots of beige and brown, which I found quite ugly.

Inside, the museum is split into different sections and the first part I visited housed ancient works from Egypt, the Greco-Roman empire and Mesopotamia. There were also tiles, rugs and various other objects from Persia and Turkey, as well as some lovely pieces of porcelain and silks from China. There was a lot to look at and it was fascinating to see so many varying pieces in such close proximity.

I then wandered over to the section on European art. This part of the gallery is home to a magnificent bust of Victor Hugo by Rodin, a portrait of Madame Claude Monet by Renoir in which she looks wonderfully French, as well as paintings by Nanette, Gainsborough and Turner.

The standout part of the gallery was the room dedicated to René Lalique. Gulbenkian amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of objects by Lalique and the pieces on display are incredible. There were beautiful glass goblets, dazzling vases, and delicate hair accessories and broaches. Everything was so elegant and pretty, I spent ages looking at it all.

Gulbenkian’s art collection is home to some exquisite works of art so I enjoyed my visit. It’s rare to see such a huge breadth of pieces from so many different eras and parts of the globe in such a small space. The gallery was also quite quiet as it’s away from the Lisbon tourist trail, so I was able to take my time looking around the collection. The only downside was the miserable staff, but the fabulous artworks more than made up for it. If you like art, it’s worth a visit.

Lisbon – Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Alfama

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The Castelo de São Jorge and the Alfama are among the oldest parts of Lisbon. This ancient, hilly district is home to a warren of winding cobbled streets and characterful old buildings, and it’s where I decided to spend my final morning in the city.

The Castelo de São Jorge is perched high on a hill, and to get to it, I had to put my thigh muscles to good use as I climbed the steep cobbled streets that twisted and turned in all directions. It would be easy to get lost in this labyrinthine part of Lisbon, but luckily there are signposts en route to show you the way to the castle. The stream of tourists heading up the hill also provided a handy clue that I was going the right way.

View over Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Castelo de Sao Jorge

The castle was built by the Moors in the middle of the 11th century. Unlike most castles in Europe, the Castelo de São Jorge was built as a base to house troops and wasn’t intended to be a home. But the following century, the castle was captured during the country’s Christian reconquest and it became a royal residence. It’s easy to see why the royal family would want to live here. From its vantage point on top of one of the city’s seven hills, it boasts fantastic views over Lisbon and the River Tagus (above).

Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

The area around the Castelo de São Jorge is enormous, home to the castle itself, the remains of a former palace and an archaeological site featuring buildings that date back as far as the Iron Age. When I arrived at the castle, I passed through an outer courtyard then spent some time walking around the outer perimeter of the castle. This gave me an idea of the scale of the fortress – it’s huge, with tall formidable sandstone walls linking a series of square towers.

Inside the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

After exploring the castle’s exterior, I went inside, crossing a stone bridge and passing a huge stone tower that once housed the royal treasury and a couple of bare stone rooms to reach a large courtyard. The courtyard is a big space, but like the rooms that preceded it, empty. So after having a quick look around, I climbed a flight of stairs that led to the ramparts above.

It’s possible to walk all the way around the ramparts, going inside the towers and admiring the spectacular views over Lisbon. There isn’t a huge amount to see inside the castle, it’s essentially an empty shell as there aren’t any furnished rooms to give you an idea of what it looked like when it was in use. So the ramparts, with their incredible views, were by far the best part of the castle and I enjoyed walking around them, stopping here and there to look out over the city.

Having explored it all, I made my way back down to a second courtyard, which was also pretty bare but had a few features, including a couple of wells and some trees.

Archaeological site at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

By now I’d seen everything there was to see in the castle, so I headed over to the archaeological site. The excavations have uncovered a number of ruins from different eras, including Iron Age structures, a couple of Moorish houses and part of the Palace of the Counts of Santiago, which was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake.

You can’t walk in between the excavated buildings but you can walk around the edge of the site and there’s a guide that shows you what you’re looking at. It was interesting to see remains from such varied points in Lisbon’s history so close together, and it brought home how old the city is and the richness of its history.

From the archaeological site, I made my way back towards the entrance, passing the ruins of the old royal palace (also destroyed by the 1755 earthquake). The area around the ruined palace is a relaxing and attractive space with fragments of columns, trees and statues dotted around, as well as a strutting peacock (above).

Alfama district of Lisbon

After leaving the castle, I decided to explore the Alfama district. The Alfama is home to many of Lisbon’s oldest buildings and it was a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours, ambling up and down its narrow, winding alleyways and soaking up its sights and sounds. As I neared the waterfront, I stumbled upon a fantastic market selling all sorts of crafts including jewellery and leather goods, and I bought a pretty bracelet and a small bag made from cork.

My morning at the castle and the Alfama was enjoyable. The castle was enormous, and even though there wasn’t much to see inside, the views from the ramparts made up for the lack of attractions and the archaeological site was interesting. The Alfama neighbourhood, meanwhile, was a cool, relaxing place, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. An agreeable way to spend my final morning in Lisbon.

Sintra – Moors’ Castle

View of the Moors' Castle in Sintra from the Pena Palace

It’s almost impossible to miss the Castelo dos Mouros or Moors’ Castle in Sintra. The striking fortress, which sits high on a hill overlooking the town, dominates the surrounding landscape and is visible for miles. Its stone ramparts, towers and battlements are sprawled across the hilltop making it a formidable defensive structure.

The castle was built by the Moors in the 10th century following their successful conquest of Portugal and Spain, but it subsequently fell into a state of disrepair until it was restored by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century.

Tomb beside the Moors' Castle in Sintra

The Moors’ Castle was my last port of call in Sintra and after my visit to Pena Palace, I followed a trail through the woods that links the two sites. Along the way, I passed various stone structures, such as the small stone tomb above.

The tomb was built to house a number of human remains that were uncovered when King Ferdinand II’s restoration works damaged part of the necropolis at the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim opposite. The church, which is open to the public, now houses an exhibition about the castle’s history, as well as artefacts found during archaeological excavations.

When I reached the Moors’ Castle, I made my way inside and headed towards the Castle Keep (above) where I had great fun climbing the towers, clambering over walls, and going up and down various steps. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and I was in my element seeing all there was to see.

View of the ramparts at the Moors' Castle in Sintra

From the area around the Castle Keep, I wandered down towards the outer walls of the castle. The walls form a defensive ring around the hilltop, connecting the castle’s towers and the mountain’s various rocky outcrops. I ventured down onto the walkway from one of the towers (above) but it had become very windy and I found myself struggling to hold my ground. The gaps between the ramparts are quite large with a sheer cliff the other side of the wall, and as the strong gusts became increasingly frequent, I didn’t feel safe carrying on so I decided to skip the walk.

Instead I headed back down to the centre of the castle where I set about exploring the rest of it including the Royal Tower, which was one of King Ferdinand II’s favourite places. I meandered up the hill to the Royal Tower where I had a good look around, admiring the phenomenal views. The wind though was really strong here, too, and at one point, I was caught by a massive gust and had to grab hold of the stone wall at the top of the steps to avoid being blown over.

With the wind increasing in its ferocity, I decided to stay away from the towers, too, and spent the rest of my visit looking around the lower parts of the castle before making my way back down the mountain to Sintra’s old town.

View over Sintra and the Atlantic Ocean from the Royal Tower in Sintra

It’s a shame the wind was so strong as the views from the castle were incredible. From the Castle Keep, I had a great view over Sintra, and from the Royal Tower I could see for miles and could even make out the Atlantic Ocean in the distance (above). The castle was built on one of the highest points in the Sintra hills to protect Sintra and nearby Lisbon, and with its fantastic vantage points, it’s easy to see why the Moors decided to build a castle here.

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The castle is a fascinating place to explore and very different to the many castles I’ve visited elsewhere in Europe. The only disappointment was the wind – it was so strong I didn’t feel safe looking around some of the more exposed parts of the castle. But I’d love to go back on a less windy day and see all the parts I missed.

Sintra – Pena Palace

Pena Palace Sintra

High on the hills overlooking Sintra is the kitsch, brightly painted Pena Palace. It’s a magnificent, romantic building surrounded by 85 hectares of gardens and like so many buildings in Sintra, unique. It’s one of the quirkiest, most unusual palaces I’ve visited.

Pena Palace Sintra

The palace was originally a monastery built by King Manuel I in the early 16th century. But four years after it was abandoned in 1834, it fell into the hands of King Ferdinand II. The Austrian-born king was keen to turn the old monastery into a romanticist castle, which he did with the help of the German geologist, architect and engineer Baron Wilhem Ludwig von Eschwege in the mid-1800s.

Walking trail in the Sintra hills

There are a few ways to get to the distinctive palace from Sintra – you can either catch the number 434 bus, or you can do as I did and climb to the top of the mountain. From the bottom, the palace looks as though it’s miles away and an arduous climb, but in reality it only takes 20 minutes or so along a stone path that’s carved out of the hillside. It’s a fun climb and not too taxing, with lots of steps and stone archways to pass through, and spectacular views over Sintra.

View of the Pena Palace from the Moors' Castle in Sintra

When I arrived at the palace, I headed through the main entrance and spent some time walking around the outer parts of the palace. There are lots of battlements, terraces and towers you can explore while soaking up the fantastic views. The palace is built on the second highest point in the Sintra hills and is the perfect location for a defensive structure as you can see for miles around.

Old monastery at the Pena Palace in Sintra

The palace is divided into two wings – the red wing represents the old 16th century monastery, while the parts painted a deep yellow denote the newer parts of the castle built by King Ferdinand II.

Pena Palace cloisters

My first port of call inside the palace was the magnificent cloisters. The two-storey cloisters are decorated with beautiful Moorish tiles and there’s a massive plant in what looks like an upturned stone shell in the centre. The interior of the palace has been left as it was when the Portuguese royal family fled into exile following the revolution of 1910 and looking around, it felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Everything has been perfectly preserved.

From the lower floor of the cloisters, I toured the scullery, the dining room and King Carlos’s apartments, all exquisitely furnished and decorated. Upstairs, I wandered around Queen Amélia’s apartments (above), which included her bedroom and a little tea room between her private rooms and her office where she met with her closest friends and family members.

Ceiling in the reception room at the Pena Palace in Sintra

The palace’s reception room is an astonishing space with a scene of Islamic architecture painted on the walls by the Italian scenographer Paolo Pizzi in 1854 and an intricate vaulted ceiling featuring a plant design (above). The way the room has been decorated makes it look much bigger than it is and it’s quite striking.

Chandelier in the smoking room at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I continued through a couple of galleries where there were some nice pieces of porcelain on display and then ventured inside the smoking room, which boasted an amazing chandelier (above). The eye-catching 19th century chandelier had a replica of a climbing plant wrapped around it.

The noble hall at the Pena Palace in Sintra

Continuing with my tour, I stepped inside the noble hall, a huge rectangular room with dark red furniture and brilliant statues of men holding a chandelier-like lamp (above), and the stag room, a small round room with lots of antlers on the walls. The last notable room I visited was the royal kitchen, an enormous room with lots of wooden furniture and tons of copper cooking utensils.

Gate at the Pena Palace in Sintra

Having looked around the palace, I decided it was time to explore the extensive gardens that surround it. Pena Park covers some 85 hectares in the Sintra hills and boasts more than 500 tree species from all over the world, waterfalls, lakes, hidden paths, grottoes, statues and follies.

I didn’t have time to see everything in the gardens as it was almost 3pm and I still wanted to visit the Moors’ Castle before it closed. So I decided to head up to the Cruz Alta, the highest peak in the Sintra hills. The park was a peaceful place for a stroll, and it was fun ambling around and stumbling upon its many random features, such as the statue of a warrior perched high on a rock or the classical round temple with lots of columns.

Alta Cruz in Pena Park in Sintra

The Cruz Alta is 529m above sea level and is marked by a stone cross (above). The cross is a replica installed in 2008 as the original one laid by King Ferdinand II in the mid-19th century was destroyed by lightning in 1997. By the time I reached the Cruz Alta, it was getting really windy but I made it to the top and was pleased to be able to say I’d climbed to the highest point in the Sintra hills.

Queen Amélia's garden at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I made my way out of the park and before I left, stopped off at Queen Amélia’s garden. The garden is located below the Pena Palace and is a small rectangular space featuring formal plant beds and trees. It’s a pretty little spot and was used as a vegetable garden when it was a monastery.

19th century wing at the Pena Palace in Sintra

I really enjoyed my visit to Pena Palace. Visually, it’s an unusual, quirky architectural delight and I’m not sure I’ve seen another palace that’s been painted in such vivid colours. The decor inside the palace was also quite unconventional and it was fascinating to see the palace as it was when the royal family fled in 1910.

The extensive grounds, meanwhile, were a great place for a relaxing stroll with lots of interesting features. The only disappointment I had was not having enough time to see everything. If I came again, I’d leave myself more time so I could fully explore the park.

Sintra – Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira stately home

Nestled in the lush green hills surrounding Sintra is the extraordinary Quinta da Regaleira, a stately home quite unlike any other. This marvellous home and its unusual gardens were designed at the turn of the 20th century by the Italian architect Luigi Manini.

The estate was built as a summer residence for António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, a Brazilian-born philanthropist and collector, and his family. Some of Portugal’s most renowned artists contributed to the project and Manini himself spent 14 years working on it. The resulting estate is a remarkable feat – a unique piece of architecture and landscaping.

Quinta da Regaleira is on the outskirts of Sintra, about a 20-minute walk from the old town. You can also catch a bus to the residence, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been open to the public since June 1998.

Overlooking the gardens at Quinta da Regaleira

When I arrived at the estate, I was given a map and it was only then I realised how big the place is. The extensive gardens stretch all the way up the hillside and are filled with fantastic follies, water features, and hidden caves and passageways.

I started my visit with a short stroll around the lower part of the gardens. Following the map, I made my way towards Leda’s Grotto, then carried on to the Regaleira Tower, following the path (above left) up to the tennis courts, before making my way back down the hill via a couple of fountains (including the Fountain of Regaleira, above right), a grotto and a little lake.

I then walked back towards the entrance via the Promenade of the Gods, a tree-lined avenue featuring statues of Greek and Roman gods such as Ceres, Hermes and Pan. Walking around I was amazed at the many elaborate features in the gardens, and I couldn’t help but admire the imaginative minds behind it and the huge amount of work that must have gone into making it a reality. If I was mega-rich and could build my own estate, this is the sort of place I’d build.

Quinta da Regaleira stately home

Having got my bearings and familiarised myself with the gardens, I decided to explore the mansion. The house, which is built in a neo-Manueline style across multiple floors, is spectacular. The elaborate grey stone house features all manner of turrets, spires and balconies, along with lots of ornate carvings.

View from Quinta da Regaleira stately home

You can wander around the house by yourself or join a guided tour – I decided to look around by myself. The inside of the house isn’t as magical as the outside (but given how ornate the exterior is, it would have to be truly magnificent to top it). Inside it’s a fairly typical Edwardian stately home with attractive wooden ceilings and great views from the upper floors.

Quinta da Regaleira chapel

By the time I’d finished looking around the house it was lunchtime, so I headed to the cafeteria for a quick lunch. I then made my way to the nearby chapel (above). The chapel, like the house, is very ornate with intricate carvings on the outside. The inside doesn’t disappoint either with elaborate decorative features and frescoes on the walls.

By now I’d only seen around a third of the estate, so I headed back up the hill past Leda’s Grotto to further explore the gardens. I soon found myself by an exotic-looking water feature, the Lake of the Waterfall (above left), with stone bridges, stepping stones, a waterfall and a grotto. I slipped inside the grotto (above right) and found myself at the entrance to a tunnel, so I decided to follow it.

When I came out, I continued walking until I reached the Cistern, a stone terrace with a bizarre castle-like turret (above right). I climbed to the top of the turret, then made my way to the stone facade opposite (above left). Like everything else in the estate, the facade was elaborate and ornate, and featured a number of towers and doorways.

Quinta da Regaleira Initiatic Well

I passed through one of the doorways into another tunnel and followed it, emerging the other end by the Initiatic Well. I strolled around the upper paths of the gardens, clambering up shortcuts off the main pathways before turning around and going back to the well. The Initiatic Well is a 27m-deep subterranean tower surrounded by a spiral staircase. I followed the staircase down to the bottom of the well, marvelling at the dramatic sight above me.

Quinta da Regaleira Initiatic Well looking up from the bottom of the well

I then slipped through another doorway, rejoining the network of subterranean tunnels, following the passageway, which was wet underfoot in parts, for quite a while, before eventually emerging at the Grotto of the East. The underground tunnels were a little spooky, especially when there wasn’t anyone else around, but great fun to explore as I didn’t have a clue where I was going or where I was going to come out.

I loved Quinta da Regaleira. It’s one of the most extraordinary, unusual and enjoyable stately homes I’ve visited – and I’ve visited quite a few! I turned back into a child during my visit, happily stepping inside every grotto I came across, climbing the many towers and turrets, and exploring all the secret passageways. You need to set aside at least a couple of hours to see everything, but it’s worth it. A must-see if you ever visit Sintra.

Sintra and its National Palace

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Two magnificent palaces, an incredible hilltop castle and a quirky stately home are just some of the many things to do in the pretty, picturesque town of Sintra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site to the west of Lisbon is surrounded by lush, tree-covered hills in the Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais and was the favourite summer destination of the Portuguese nobility.

Needless to say with so much to see and do, Sintra was at the top of my list of day trips from Lisbon. The town is just 40 minutes by train and so on my third day in Lisbon, I hopped on the train from Rossio Station.

Forty minutes later I was in Sintra and I strolled down to the old town, which is dominated by the enormous National Palace and its distinctive white conical chimneys. High on the hills overlooking the town, I could just make out the dramatic Moors’ Castle and kitsch Pena Palace.

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My first port of call was the National Palace as I was keen to get there early to avoid the crowds. But even though it was just after 10am, it was already busy with coachloads of tourists.

The enormous palace was originally founded as a Moorish fort in the 11th century, before passing to the royal family in the 12th century when King Afonso Henriques conquered Lisbon. The palace was rebuilt and extended over the centuries, and the present palace, with its distinctive shape, white walls and red tiled roofs, has remained pretty much the same since the 16th century.

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Inside, the first notable room I visited was the Swan Room (above), a large rectangular space built during the reign of King John I in the early 15th century. The room features green and white tiles on the walls, heavy wooden furniture and a beautiful ceiling painted with swans. The room is still used for state banquets today.

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I then wandered down to the central patio, an attractive outdoor space with a great view of the statuesque 33m-tall chimneys. Just off the patio is the water grotto (above), a pretty little space decorated with white and blue tiles, and stucco paintings that depict the creation according to the Bible, the four seasons and more.

Having had a good look around, I continued through the palace following the suggested route, passing the Magpie Room, which was used to receive dignitaries and ambassadors; King Sebastian’s bedroom; and the Mermaid Room, which features paintings of mermaids on the ceiling.

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One of the most impressive rooms in the palace is the Heraldy Room. This square room with blue and white tiled walls has an incredible vaulted ceiling (above). The ornately decorated 16th century ceiling features the Portuguese royal family’s coat of arms; the coats of arms of King Manuel I’s eight children from his marriage to his second wife Maria; eight stags; and the coats of arms of 72 of the most powerful families in Portugal at the time. The palace is home to lots of unusual painted and decorated ceilings, but this is by far the most spectacular.

I continued through the palace, visiting the bedroom where King Afonso VI was kept prisoner for nine years by his brother Pedro II in the late 17th century and the Chinese pagoda room. This room is so-called because it’s home to an incredible miniature Chinese pagoda. Then it was on to the Palatine Chapel, which boasts some wonderful frescoes on its walls.

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Towards the end of my visit, I ventured inside the striking Arab Room, which has green and white geometric-print tiles on the walls and is dominated by a bronze fountain in the centre of the room (above).

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Then it was on to one of the most striking rooms in the palace, the incredible kitchen underneath its iconic chimneys. The 15th century kitchen is huge, with white tiled walls, a number of hearths, two massive ovens and lots of copper cooking utensils. It’s a fantastic space and quite unlike any other palace kitchen I’ve seen.

The National Palace of Sintra is a superb building but I came away feeling underwhelmed. When I visited, there were lots of tour groups who would crowd into the rooms for long periods of time, making it difficult to see what there was to see. Waiting them out, meant getting stuck behind them for long periods again in the next room, so I found myself skipping ahead to get past them and not really taking the time I needed to appreciate what I was seeing. Looking back at my photos, the palace is an incredible building but there were so many tour groups I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I’d love to go back and see it again, preferably when it’s quieter.

 

Lisbon – Belem

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With two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a palace, a museum and a café famous for its pastel de nata, there was no way I was spending four days in Lisbon without making a day trip to its western suburb of Belém on the banks of the Tagus River. The easiest way to get to Belém is to hop on a tram, which takes half an hour from central Lisbon, and I caught the number 15 tram from Praça da Figueira, next to Rossio Square.

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém

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Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is reputed to be the best place in Lisbon for pastel de nata, so it was my first port of call when I reached Belém. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, looked a little intimidating from the outside as there were lots of tourists milling around. But most of the tourists were buying pastries to take away with them so I headed inside to see if there were any spare tables and found a maze of rooms with plenty of empty tables to choose from.

The café was a wonderfully relaxed place. Old fashioned and charming, it had a red tiled floor, and blue and white tiles on the walls, and wasn’t remotely snooty or pretentious like some of these famous cafés can be. The service was good, too – quick and efficient.

I ordered the pastel de nata and when the Portuguese custard tarts arrived they were incredible – a delicious combination of warm, creamy custard surrounded by a crisp, flaky pastry. They weren’t too sweet either and there was icing sugar and cinnamon on the table for topping the tarts. It was the perfect way to start the day.

Mosterio dos Jerónimo

Having had my pastel de nata fix, I headed up the road to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo. I wrote about the magnificent monastery in my last blog post as it was such an astonishing building I felt it deserved its own post. Then I wandered through the Praça do Imperio gardens on my way to the Torre de Belém, a 20-minute walk away.

Torre de Belém

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Built on the banks of the Tagus River by King Manuel I in the early 16th century to protect Lisbon from a sea invasion, the Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings and is featured on lots of the city’s tourist memorabilia. There was a long queue to get into the tower when I arrived, but luckily I’d bought a combined ticket at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, which meant I was able to bypass the long line of people and stroll right in.

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The stone tower is pretty and features lots of ornate carvings, some of which are very Moorish, and the viewing platform at the top of the tower provides great views over Belém (above, with the Ajuda Palace high on the hill in the background) and the Tagus River. However it’s quite small and doesn’t take long to look around. I left feeling rather underwhelmed. It was okay but there wasn’t a huge amount to see, and I didn’t feel it justified the 40-minute round trip from the monastery.

Ajuda National Palace

Nestled in the hills overlooking Belém is the astonishing Ajuda National Palace. Built by King John VI in the early 19th century, the palace wasn’t completed as planned because the royal family had to flee the country in 1807 when Napoleon invaded, spending 14 years in exile in Brazil.

As I approached the enormous palace – a 20-minute walk uphill from central Belém – I couldn’t help thinking it looked rather shabby and in need of some love. But I was pleasantly surprised when I went inside and found it was packed with remarkable treasures. The palace was quiet and there weren’t too many other people around – I’m not sure it’s on many tourists’ radar – which meant I could take my time wandering around and looking at all there was to see. And there was a lot to see.

The palace was home to the Portuguese royal family from the mid-19th century until the end of the monarchy in 1910, and became a museum in 1968. Two floors of the palace are open to the public and there are lots of rooms – all lavishly decorated – to visit, including the king’s and queen’s bedrooms, the audience room, the music room and the throne room.

Some of the rooms are quite unusual – there’s the pink room, so-called because all the walls and furniture are pink, which is filled with porcelain figures. The oval archers room is an unusual shape and the state dining room, with its two long rows of ivory-coloured tables and chairs, is jaw-droppingly grand. State banquets are still held here and the room was laid out as though ready for an event.

Other notable rooms included the painting studio, which features beautiful wooden furniture, and the billiards room, which is home to some rather inviting wooden chairs. I loved the Ajuda Palace, it’s the epitome of a hidden gem – an all-but forgotten palace tucked away in the hills, a little rough around the edges, but a delightful experience inside.

Museum of Electricity

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My last stop of the day was the Museum of Electricity, a renovated power station on the banks of the Tagus River. It’s a striking building – all industrial red brick and grey metal. I headed upstairs to the second floor of the cavernous building, which was hosting a photography exhibition. The museum often hosts art exhibitions and when I visited, it was hosting an excellent exhibition of contemporary photos from around the world that depicted sport, nature and people going about their everyday lives.

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Having checked out the exhibition, I wandered into the Tejo Power Station boiler room, which features lots of wonderful metal contraptions, machines and pipes (as above) and teaches you how boiler rooms work. As I walked around I could hear the sound of the engines whirring, which made me feel as though I was inside a working electricity station.

The Museum of Electricity is home to lots of machines with detailed explanations about how they work and the role they play in making electricity. One of my favourite displays featured black and white photos of the sub-station and the various men who once worked there. The photos were fascinating and I was especially taken by one photograph of a man inside his tool warehouse. I also enjoyed an exhibition about some of the leading players in the discovery of electricity such as Thomas Edison, André-Marie Ampère and Alessandro Volta.

At one point, I followed a sign to go inside a furnace, and as I climbed the steps to do so, I could hear the furnace crank up. Inside I walked across a red hot coal walkway and everything around me was a fierce red and black. I then walked downstairs to a large room where the ashes came out from the furnace and there were models of two men collecting the half-burned coal from the funnels above.

The museum was great and one of the most curious museums I’ve visited. I was expecting a fairly conventional electricity museum and until I got there, was unaware it also hosted art exhibitions. The photo exhibition was excellent, but I really enjoyed seeing the power station and learning how they make electricity. It was a well thought-out, fascinating place.

Lisbon – Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

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Built by King Manuel I of Portugal in the 16th century, the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is one of Lisbon’s most popular landmarks. The huge monastery, which is affiliated with the Order of St Jerome (hence its name), is situated in the western suburb of Belém and is the resting place of Portuguese monarchs and poets, as well as the legendary explorer Vasco da Gama.

Having read that the monastery is often heaving with tourists, I arrived bright and early before it opened at 10am and was glad I did as the queue to go inside was already enormous. I queued up in the sunshine for what seemed like ages, taking the opportunity to admire the ornate carvings on the monastery’s exterior and watching tour group after tour group bypass the long line, before I eventually got to the front of the queue and bought my ticket.

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Inside, I headed straight for the monastery’s cloisters. The 16th century cloisters, which are a classic example of Manueline architecture, are split over two floors. I wandered out onto the grassy quadrangle in the centre of the cloisters for a better look and was taken aback by the abundance of intricate, ornate details carved into the stone.

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The cloisters are one of the most superb pieces of craftsmanship I’ve seen. They’re also really photogenic and I found myself taking a ridiculous amount of photos, waiting patiently for the many visitors around me to move so I could snap as many tourist-free shots as possible.

Having walked all the way around the ground floor, I moved upstairs where I took a look inside the Church of Santa Maria from the balcony that overlooks it. The church is home to the tombs of King Sebastian and Vasco da Gama, along with various other Portuguese royals. You can enter the church from the ground floor, but the queue to go in was enormous and having already spent ages queuing, I decided to skip it and enjoy the view from the balcony instead.

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The balcony offers a great vantage point from which to view the church (above) and I got a good look at its architecture, including the 30m-wide vaulted ceiling and could just make out the high altar at the far end, too. It’s a beautiful church but seeing how many people and tour groups were milling around down below, I was glad I was viewing it from the relative quiet of the balcony.

I then spent some time exploring the upper floor of the cloisters. Like the ground floor, the upper level is filled with ornate carvings and there are lots of interesting features to photograph, so I had a good look around, taking even more photos as I went.

After seeing all there was to see, I went back downstairs where I wandered around the different rooms that lead off from the cloisters, such as the sacristy, the library and the refectory. The refectory (above, left) is a long, empty rectangular room with pretty blue, yellow and white tiles decorating the walls that depict scenes from the Bible such as the feeding of the five thousand and Joseph’s life in Egypt. The library, meanwhile, is home to an interesting exhibition about the history of the monastery, Belém and Portugal called A Place in Time.

The monastery is fantastic and if it wasn’t clear by now, I really enjoyed my visit. As a keen photographer, I left with a crazy amount of photos. The only downside was the huge number of visitors. I’m not sure there’s ever a quiet time to go, but I’d imagine early morning or late afternoon are probably the quietest times if you’re planning a trip.

Top tips

  • The best way to get to Belém from central Lisbon is to hop on the number 15 tram, which you can catch from Praca da Figueira. You pay for your ticket on the tram.
  • As I’ve already said, get there early or really late to try to beat the queues – you’ll still have to queue for a while, but it won’t be as busy as going in the middle of the day.
  • The monastery is free to visit on Sunday mornings (which probably means it’s also stupidly busy).
  • If you’re planning to visit the Tower of Belém, buy a combined ticket for the tower and the monastery, and you’ll be able to stroll past the queues for the tower.
  • Stop off for a breakfast of pastel del nata at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém before you go. The cavernous café, which is just down the road from the monastery, popularised the Portuguese custard tarts – enjoy them warm, dusted with icing sugar or cinnamon.