2019 December – Azores, Portugal & Spain

Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Day 1: 

Flight to Lisbon and then around

We took a Sunday afternoon flight from Texas to New Jersey and then onwards to Lisbon, getting us there at 8:30 in the morning. At the station itself we picked up the very reasonably priced (32 Euros for 2 days) Lisboa Card, that gave us unlimited access to all public transport, quite a few museums and discounts on several others.

Lisbon, the city on 7 hills, is the capital and the largest city of Portugal, with an estimated population of half a million. It is rich in architecture…Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Modern and Postmodern constructions can be found all over Lisbon. Our first stop was the downtown area (Baixa) where we traveled the Santa Justa Lift after waiting in the line for about 30 minutes. Situated at the end of Rua de Santa Justa, it connects the lower streets of the Baixa with the higher Largo do Carmo and gives spectacular views of the city with the orange colored roofs. After walking around downtown, we had Portuguese lunch (not one of our favorites – too meat-laden for us) and then headed back to the hotel to rest.

Belem Tower, Lisbon
Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon

In the late afternoon, we first stopped at the Belém Tower, which we got to after changing a train and a bus. Officially the Tower of Saint Vincent, it is a 16th-century fortification located in Lisbon that served both as a fortress and as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.

Next to that is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary. From here the ships departed to explore and trade with India and the Orient. We also got to explore (mostly from the outside) the famous Jeronimo’s Monastery which is a massively spread-out structure in the same area. Even though it was the month of December and rainy, there was just a slight nip in the air making our walks quite enjoyable. Before heading back to the hotel, we had some lovely pastries at the Pesteis de Belem, known just for their desserts!!  

Day 2: 

Day Trip to Sintra Region, Portugal

Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Just 45 minutes by train from Lisbon is the magical land of Sintra, home to so many magical palaces and structures. From the Sintra station you can get a tuk-tuk to take you up the hills, or can get Bus 434 up to the Pena Palace. It is a Romanticist castle in the municipality of Sintra…the castle stands on the top of a hill in the Sintra Mountains. The quirky colored red and yellow palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. You can just tour the gardens (they give you access to the terrace too) or just for a little bit more, you can see the insides of the palace. We did the latter and that took us about 2 hours.

Moorish Castle, Sintra

A quick 5-minute walk from there is the Castle of the Moors, a hilltop medieval constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries, during the period of Muslim Iberia. No great shakes from a historic perspective, its quite a walk to trudge along the walls and enjoy the scenery and locations of various castles in the town of Sintra.

Streets leading to Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The tuk-tuk took us back to the Town Center. After lunch, we walked to Quinta da Regaleira – one of the most magical places we have seen! It consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions. The palace is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire” and seems straight out of a fairytale. Time just flew by there as we explored the hidden wells, ominous tunnels, gurgling waterfalls out of nowhere! A must-do!!

The magical wells of Quinta de Regaleira

Headed back to Lisbon, and took after a short walk in downtown, we retired for the night.

Day 3: 

Flight to Azores

The adventure began because we weren’t allowed to board our flight as we hadn’t checked in advance. (Thanks RYANAIR!! Boo!). After some major panic and drama at the airport, we had to hang out there for the next few hours until we got ourselves booked on a late late flight to Ponte Delgado, Azores and reached there around 6 in the evening.

Azores: Terra Nostra
Azores: Caldeiras in Furnas

Azores is an archipelago composed of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean on the west of continental Portugal. It has tropical jungles, vibrant lakes, volcanos, relaxing hot springs, stunning waterfalls, epic hiking trails, breathtaking cliffside viewpoints, endless natural wonders, and lavish greens everywhere in sight. We landed in the largest city in the archipelago, Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel island. We drove in our rental car through the rain in the forest on windy dark roads to the very awesome Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in the small town of Furnas
The volcanic activity, the natural thermal pools and green moss-covered landscapes were breathtaking. We walked around the town of Furnas and grabbed dinner at a local restaurant. We capped off the night with a relaxed dip in the Terra Nostra’s thermal Sulphur pools, which are closed to the non-hotel public after 6 PM. A great finish to a rough day!

Day 4: 

Around the Sao Miguel Island

About 15 minutes from our hotel lay the wonderful Formosa Tea Gardens, the only tea plantations in all of Europe! We had the pleasure of walking through the tea plantations and even got a chance to taste the tea grown there. A free factory tour was included.

Azores: Formosa Tea Gardens

From there we headed to Ribeira dos Caldeirões, about 30 minutes away, one of the several gorgeous waterfalls in the area. The waterfall on the side of the road was decorated by Christmasy bill boards. The short hike takes you up-close, behind and around the waterfall.

Furnas is the area with fumaroles where the hot volcanic earth can be used to cook food by letting it simmer for 6 hours every day (Cozido) – delicious crock pot stew is pulled from the earth and sent to area restaurants for lunch. That happens between 12 and 1230 every afternoon, so we rushed to the Lagoa da Furnas are to watch that.  Even though it was quite windy at the lake, we were able to see the 10-minute quick process at the banks of lake – also a major geothermal and volcanic hotspot. 

Azores: Food cooking in the volcano at Lagoa de Furnas

After a good lunch in the afternoon, we headed to the Vila Franca Islet area, but could not see much due to the thick fog, strong winds and rain. In the summers this place is supposed to be gorgeous! We made our way to several other scenic spots along the way and spent most of the evening at the hot water springs in our hotel.

Azores: Vila Franca Islet

Day 5: 

Ponta Delgada, Azores

We had an early-ish morning since we were told that the sky was clearing up and we wanted to catch the famous Sete Citades – the lakes with 2 colors! We took a slight detour, about an hour form the hotel, and headed to a pineapple farm in Ponta Delgada area where they grow these miniature pineapples that provide a taste explosion in your mouth! Too bad we could not get to taste them there because they were not in season.

The nonstop rain on our drive to Sete Cidades (the twin lakes) did not hamper our spirits. On a sunny day the two lakes are supposed to be of different colors – one blue and one green, but on this rainy day they looked the same grey color lakes to us because of the massive cloud cover.

About 30 minutes away from Sete Cidades on the western part of the island lies Ponta da Ferraria, a geothermal area of natural hot pools on the cliff sides. There is a small light house in the area too which provided spectacular views of the ocean – but be careful as small cars can get stuck if you drive behind the lighthouse. We chose to park in the front and walk down. Once at Ferraria, walking down to the natural pool we saw black lava rocks everywhere…a sight to see. The magnificent blue waves took our breath away and immediately this became our most favorite moment of the trip. Pictures cannot do justice to this spot – the massive waves crashing, changing colors, spraying you with water, and drowning the used-in-the-summer-time-natural-hot-water-springs-pool was a sight to behold! Wish we had arrived there in the right season to partake in the natural hot water spring pools at the ocean side with the waves intermingling!!

Azores: Massive waves crashing at Ferraria, Sao Miguel

The rest of the afternoon was spent roaming around in Ponte Delgada city – a rather large town surprisingly with several Portuguese style beautiful buildings, a walk by the ocean and some good food! As had become the ritual in Azores, we spent most of the evening in the hot water spring at the hotel.

Right before dinner, we visited the Cheese Factory there – a small shop with some delicious cheese and cheese candies as their offering, highly recommended! The day ended up with us trying cozido – food cooked in the volcano – but that wasn’t our cup of tea, (or bowl of pig in this case!!) – a little too much meat for our taste!

Day 6: 

Flight back to Lisbon, Algarve & then Seville

We took an early early morning Ryan Air Flight and left Azores with a heavy heart – if it hadn’t rained throughout, this could have been the highlight! From Lisbon airport, our rented car driver picked us up so we could head to Seville. (Flight, train or bus was also an option but we wanted to stop at Algarve along the way).

Algarve Coast: Benagil

The Algarve is the southernmost region of continental Portugal and boasts of the most spectacular beaches and scenery in the world. Unfortunately, a storm had hit the area the same day so we could not visit any of the beaches. We only got the chance to visit the lovely Benagil, a small Portuguese village in the municipality of Lagoa. The very awesome caves could not be seen from the beach though – they were hidden behind the rocks and needed a boat to get to them. All the other beaches were rained out too but we drove through Albufeira and Tavira, two of the beautiful fishing villages in the area.

After a gigantic pizza lunch, we headed on to Seville (a 6-hour drive from Lisbon if you go via Algarve coast), reached later in the evening but the city (much larger than we expected it to be) was abuzz with Christmas energy and high spirits. We soaked up the local culture while sitting around a table tasting the best food and sangrias.

Day 7: 

Seville

Seville, the only river port in Spain, is situated on the lower reaches of the River Guadalquivir about 80 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. We took a free walking tour of the important monuments of the area, like the Seville cathedral, bull-fighting arena, Alcazar and several other important structures. The highlight though was the Plaza de Espana which is located in the city Centro and has absolutely wonderful Riverwalk kind of area surrounded by towering beautifully architectured structures. A must-see!

Seville: View of the city from Giralda Tower

In the afternoon we got to see the Giralda Tower and the Cathedral from the inside – the walk up the 39 floors was not so bad, since there are only 7 steps in there and most of the walking is on the ramp.

Views from the cathedral give you a bird’s eye view of the city! We also took a short walk to the fantastically architectured Metropol Parasol – there is an entry fees of 5 Euros if you want to walk on it though.

Seville: Metropol Museum
Seville: Triana Bridge in the evening

The Triana bridge across the river separates the two parts of the city and looks wonderfully lit up in the evening. Don’t miss the chocolate churros in the area!! YUM! We walked back to the Plaza de Espana at night too since we wanted to see it all lit up, and oh it was worth it!

The evening ended with a wonderful performance of Flamenco that we had reserved earlier. There are several places that offer this along with dinner, but this one came highly rated so we booked it in advance. Ended the rather exhausting day with some awesome paella (even though technically it is from Valencia, Spain) and all kinds of desserts!

Seville: The awesome Flamenco dancers

Day 8: 

Drive in Spain – Seville to Granada via Cadiz, Gibraltar, Cordoba

This was bound to be a long day as we had rented a car early morning from the airport for our travels to Granada after stopping at various places along the way.

The first stop only took us an hour…. Cádiz is the oldest city, and a bustling port in southwestern Spain. Situated right by the oceanside we caught some good views of the Mosque/Cathedral… parking can be a bit of an issue there but we got lucky on this cold morning!

After spending only about 45 minutes there, we headed South to Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. It has an area of only 6.7 km² and is bordered to the north by Spain. Crossing the border can be time consuming there because of immigration checks. Some people park on the Spanish side and walk across. We took our car, however, since we wanted to drive all the way to the Rock of Gibraltar. We were able to see all that on a sunny day and even very clearly saw Morocco, Africa from there.

The Rock of Gibraltar with the mosque in the foreground (Europa Point)

Cordoba, a city about 2 hours’ drive from Gibraltar is in Southern Spain, famous for its Mezquita-Cathedral with the colorful arches was a Roman settlement, taken over by the Visigoths and then the Muslim conquests. The building is most notable for its vast interior space, with 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble and granite. When we walked in…we felt transported suddenly into another world… overwhelmed, fascinated, amazed and filled with wonder. Construction of the mosque had employed thousands of artisans and laborers, over hundreds of years. A sight to behold!

Cordoba: The Mezquita with the columns

Our next and final stop of the day was Granada, the house of Alhambra Castle, a 2.5 hour drive from Cordoba. It is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the confluence of four rivers…sits at an average elevation of 738 m above sea level, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, yet is only one hour by car from the Mediterranean coast. We reached there later in the evening and had the pleasure of staying at the awesomely located ‘Alhambra Palace Hotel’. After settling down a bit, we took a bus (1.40 Euros pp) to downtown and walked around there. Found a great Moroccan restaurant, decorated beautifully with its typical colorful walls, furniture and lamps and most importantly, serving good dinner to cap our long day!

Granada, Spain

Day 9: 

Granada, Spain

Granada: Inside the Alhambra Palace

Granada is known for grand examples of medieval architecture dating to the Moorish occupation, especially the Alhambra. The Alhambra was built chiefly between 1238 and 1358, in the reigns of Ibn al-Aḥmar, founder of the Nasrid Dynasty and his successors.

The guided tour for the Alhambra (Nasrid Palace & Generalife) had to be booked in advance and took about four hours. This sprawling hilltop fortress complex encompasses royal palaces, serene patios, and reflecting pools, as well as fountains and orchards. Featuring breathtaking architecture, its no wonder the stunning royal Nasrid Palaces were among our favorite attraction in Alhambra. Court of the Myrtles, Chamber of the Ambassadors, Hall of the Two Sisters, and Court of the Lions are among the most spectacular sights of the Nasrid Palaces.

The Generalife, the sultans’ gorgeous summer estate, dates to the 14th century. A soothing ensemble of pathways, patios, pools, fountains, trees and, in season, flowers of every imaginable hue, it takes its name from the Arabic jinan al-‘arif, meaning ‘the overseer’s gardens’.

As we prepared to leave Granada, our rental car broke down and we wasted a few precious hours to get another car. The drive from Granada to Seville via Ronda took us through the heart of Andalusia, home to stunning mountain landscapes of Sierra Elvira and the region’s most famous Pueblo Blancos (White Villages), that were characterized by whitewashed walls and red or brown tile rooks. Due to the time crunch we were not able to spend enough time in Ronda, and proceeded onwards to fly into Madrid later at night.

Granada: Palace of the Lions, next to Nasrid Palace

From the airport, the Madrid Centro was a 30 minutes Uber drive to our hotel in the Puerto Del Sol square area. The place was bubbling with energy and had beautiful Christmas decorations. The Casa de Correos (Post Office Building) is a popular meeting place, suffused with meaning for both city and country, easily recognized by the clock at the top of the Casa de Correos, as this marks the countdown on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve

Day 10: 

Madrid, Spain & then back home

Madrid is an unpretentious, capital city with miles of parks, plazas, and restaurant patios conducive to Madrileños’ favorite pastime, lingering outdoors. We walked from our hotel to Madrid’s Royal Palace which was built in the 18th century on the site of a former Moorish castle.

A five-minute walk in a different direction took us to the Plaza Mayor Square built in the 17th Century under the orders of Felipe III whose Bronze equestrian statue adorns the square. There are nine entrances to the square as its completely sequestered by historic three-story-high residential buildings. Took an afternoon flight after walking around in the morning in Madrid Centro area.

Royal Palace, Madrid

We once again fell in love with the history and culture of Spain that have conspired to leave a deep imprint on this rugged, arid land where medieval castles cling and broad beaches bug both Atlantic and Mediterranean shore. This was definitely a trip to cherish!

Didn’t Do (these items come recommended):

  • Lisbon: Jeronimo’s Monastery inside, Coach Museum, Pilar7 Bridge Experience, Tile Museum, Museum of Ancient Art, and walking around on the Alfama Quarters, A Tram 28 experience would have bene nice to drive around the city.
  • Azores: Sete Citades colors, Boca do Inferno/Hell’s Mouth, Tromba de Elefante, Miradouro da Vista do Rei (view points on the East Coast), (Caldeira Velha
  • Portugal: Algarve Coast, Azenha do mar, Camilo Beach/Ponte De Piedade/Lagos, Benagil/Zorreira Cave, Praia de Marinha, Praia da Moinhas, Faro, Albufeira, Senhora de Rocha, Carvoeiro
  • Seville: Decided to skip the Alcazar because we were planning to see the Alhambra Palace in Granada
  • White Villages of Spain: Arco de la Fronteras
  • Gibraltar: Monkeys at the top of the cable car, and a side trip to Morocco
Ronda: Pueblos Blancos (White Villages)

Dos and Donts:

  • Advisable to carry some Euros in cash which were used for tips, street foods and taxi.
  • There is a cost associated with water that is provided at the restaurants, and any bread etc. that is placed on your table. Portuguese Food is very meat-laden… pig ears, pig feet, shrimp legs/eyes .. if you are into that – enjoy! J
  • Re: Ryan Air – pay extra attention to the rules of the airlines. Ryan airlines close their gates an hour before departure and check-in stops 2 hours before the flight.  
  • Crossing into Gibraltar takes time as they check documents while entering. Driving in your car is advisable, so you can drive up to the different vistas on Gibraltar.   
  • Car Rental Spain may not be reliable. E.g. Our rental car broke down and we lost a lot of time getting them to give us an alternate car. The second car’s engine light came on in the middle of our drive making us rush to the airport, giving up some destinations.
  • Having a data plan is recommended as it helped us walk to our destinations with ease. We used Google maps for all directions and drives.

Top 5:

  1. Ferraria, Azores, Portugal
  2. Quinta da Regaleira, Lisbon, Portugal
  3. Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain
  4. Seville Experience, Spain – especially Plaza de Espana
  5. Hot Water Springs, Azores, Portugal

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