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The Alhambra, Granada

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Located on a rocky hill protected by mountains and surrounded by woods, The Alhambra is considered the most brilliant Islamic architecture in Europe. It was the residence of royalty and of the court of Granada in the middle of the thirteenth century. The location of it is absolutely breathtaking which is set against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Spain. It is one of the best preserved Arabian palaces of its era.

There is a limit to the number of visitors to the Alhambra. Maximum is about 6,600 people each day, with just 300 every half-hour to enter the Nasrid palaces. We bought our tickets 2 months in advanced online as we knew we were going there at a busy time during Semana Santa (Holy Week).

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How to buy your tickets:

We purchased our tickets online via www.tickemaster.es. This is the easiest way to purchase your tickets in advanced. I highly recommend purchasing in advance so you can get the time slot you want. You can purchase at least 3 months in advance. We purchased the ‘Alhambra General’ which includes access to all the visitable spaces of the monument: Alcazaba, Nasrid Palaces, Generalife, Carlos V Palace, Public Baths and the Mosque.

- Once you’ve clicked ‘buy tickets’, it will take you to a page where you choose the date you want to visit.

- Choose the number of tickets you want to purchase.

- A time schedule will show up. Click on the time you prefer to enter the Alhambra. You’re given a choice to enter either in the morning slot, afternoon or evening.

- Once you’ve clicked on a time slot, you’re given a choice of time you would like to enter the Nasrid palace. Then it will take you the total price for your tickets. If you have a child under 12, click ‘Niños Menos 12 A’. Kids under 12yrs old are free but they still need a ticket so make sure they’re included.

How much time do you need at the Alhambra? It depends on the kind of traveler you are and if you have kids in tow. We purchased the afternoon slot which meant that we can only enter the Alhambra after 2pm and our time to enter the nasrid palace was for 6pm. It was perfect for us. We got to sleep in, had a nice lunch in town before heading up to the Alhambra and spending the rest of our afternoon and evening there. The Alhambra is located up on a hill and it’s best to grab a taxi to take you right at the entrance. We were at the entrance by 2pm. We spent 3.5 hrs exploring the beautiful grounds of the Alhambra and that was enough for us. We were in line by 5:30 as we waited for our 6pm entrance time to the Nasrid Palaces.

The Nasrid Palaces will blow you away. This is really the highlight of the Alhambra. Once you’re inside, there’s no time limit. You can spend as long as you’d like being mesmerized by the tile work and architecture. I got goose bumps all over my body as we walked in. It’s hard to explain how amazing it is. The photos don’t do justice. You have to be in it to feel the greatness of it.

Put the Alhambra on your bucket list. You won’t be disappointed!

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For those inclined, you can look for an old episode of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” which aired back in September 22, 2013. In this episode, Anthony Bourdain visits the Alhambra with his long time friend and cinematographer Zach Zamboni. Here, Zach explains his love for the Alhambra and all it’s magic and mysteries. After you watch this episode, it would want to make you get on the next flight and go straight to Granada!

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Seville, Spain

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Seville is a beautiful city. Much different from other cities in Spain I’ve been to as it has a more traditional feel with the people and architecture. It’s not trying to be hip or modern, the people are proud with it’s traditional heritage and culture.

We picked up our rental car in Lisbon and did the 4.5 hour drive to Seville. The drive was beautiful and really easy. Surprisingly, there is no border between Portugal and Spain. That was a nice surprise for us! When we arrived Seville, we went straight to the narrow maze like streets of the old town as our hotel was right in the middle of it. Driving in the old town was the most stressful ever! The streets were so narrow and we couldn’t tell the difference between a street and pedestrian. It was so crazy! We got lost in it for an hour until we found our hotel.

Our hotel was right in the middle of the old town surrounded by perfumed jasmine flower and orange trees. It’s the typical Seville atmosphere I wanted to be surrounded by. We stayed at Hotel Rey Alfonso X. Choosing a place to stay in Seville was a little bit more challenging. With road closures throughout the day and night for Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions and having a rental car to park, I made sure we were in a hotel that has it’s own parking lot within the hotel grounds. Hotel Rey Alfonso X is in a perfect location with it’s own parking and valet service. There are so many other choices of hotels that are more charming but they either lacked parking space or the parking lot is separate from the hotel which I didn’t want. Parking in Europe is kind of a nightmare. So if you have a car to park, make sure the hotels parking is within the hotel and not separate like a block or two away. I always like staying close to everything especially having a 4 year old in tow. It makes it easy to get back to the hotel at any time of the day and I also like the idea of being able to walk out and having so many restaurants and cafés to choose from.

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Seville is fairly small and you can walk around to most of the major spots. Places we visited:

Plaza de Espana
This place is so grand and the architecture is so beautiful. This is the photo you see in most tourist postcards of Seville.

The Royal Alcazar of Seville
It is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe

Flamenco Show
This is kind of a must if you’ve never seen one. I’ve been to Spain before and have seen it but we knew Luna would love it and something she had to experience. So we went to a theatre to watch one. Totally a touristy kind of theatre but she loved it and still talks about it until now.

Seville Cathedral
A Cathedral that dates back to the 15th century.

Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza
Bullfighting arena. We joined a free tour which is available on certain times of the day.

Other than the places above, we explored the neighbourhood of Triana, visited a couple markets and enjoyed the city while walking and getting lost in it.

As for food, we ate a whole lot of tapas, paella and churros con chocolate for breakfast every morning. Luna was in heaven to have churros every morning. She loved it! Thankfully, the churros cafe was just right by our hotel.

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Semana Santa (holy week) in Spain is a huge celebration. There are processions all day and into the evenings. It gets pretty crazy but really cool to experience it. The labyrinth streets of the old town are just packed with people and you hear drums and music coming from all different areas. Giant floats of the Virgin Mary and other saints are carried by men underneath it. It’s quite moving to watch. The streets are packed with people and balconies covered with more people watching. It was also nice to see the locals dressed in their formal attires and the kids all looked like little dolls. It must be part of the tradition but little sisters are dressed alike like twin even if they are not and same with the boys. I couldn’t stop taking photos of them.

As for the people dressed in pointy hats, it’s not what you think and what we associate them back home in North America. There’s actually no connection between the two at all. It can be kind of eerie at first to see streets filled with people in their tall pointy hats and matching robes with their faces completely covered except for their eyes. You see hundreds of them during Semana Santa. The purpose of their faces being covered is it symbolizes mourning and also a sign of shame for the sins they have committed throughout the year. Some of them even go barefoot as an act of sacrifice for their sins. Also, it’s not just men that are dressed in these gowns and pointy hats, girls and little kids are dressed in it too. They are part of a church. The little ones carry a basket filled with candy and chocolates which they give out to the kids watching. Luna was thrilled about this and she quickly learned to stick her hand out during the procession and she got loads of treats from them. It’s really a great thing to experience. Come in April for this!

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Lisbon is stunning! The city is covered with patterned tiles and endless stairsteps. But we survived the hills and stairsteps of Lisbon during our 6 day visit. Lisbon is one of those cities where everywhere we looked, we wanted to capture it with our camera. I think we took 3,000 photos in Lisbon alone.

While in Lisbon, we stayed at this beautiful rental apartment in the Santa Catarina area in Lisbon’s historic center. We rented our apartment via housetrip.com as it has lesser fees than airbnb (though, we oringally found it via airbnb). While searching for an apartment, I wanted to be in the historical area but in a more residential neighbourhood as I wanted to stay where the locals live. With Lisbon being a hilly place, I made sure we were in the “lower” neighbourhood so it’s flatter and easier to get in and out of the apartment with an umbrella stroller and for a taxi to be able to drop us off right at our doorstep. The “lower” neighbourhood of Lisbon would be Rossio, Baxia and Chiado. We were a short walking distance to these places and just on the bottom of Barrio Alto. The hilltop neighbourhoods would be Bairro Alto to the west and Alfama to the east. With Luna in tow and an umbrella stroller, I knew it would be a challenge to stay anywhere in the hilltop neighbourhoods as with some places, you can only get to it by endless stairsteps. Imagine getting off the taxi and having to drag a couple luggages, an umbrella stroller and Luna up the stairs to get to our apartment?! That would be a nightmare!

The cab from the airport to our apartment was super fast. I think it was a 15 min ride. We were warned by Alexandre (the apartment owner) that taxi drivers can be sneaky and will probably overcharge us. He said we should not pay more than 15 euro as that covers the taxi ride + luggage. When the taxi driver dropped us off at the apartment, he was charging us 25 euro. So we called Alexandre and he came down and sorted it out with the taxi driver. At the end of it, we payed 15 euro and thanks to Alexandre! Apparently, this happens all the time.

The great thing about traveling and being in a new city is just getting lost in it. We did A LOT of walking up and down the hills, peeking into homes, walking into shops and just discovering the city and all it’s different neighbourhoods by foot. On some occasions, we did take the tram to take us to Alfama area. That saved us a lot of sweat pushing the umbrella stroller. The Metro is also pretty easy to use and we took it to Belem and LX Factory. We also checked out Museo Berado, Modern Art Museum and MUDE (design and fashion museum) and the best part was, they were all FREE! Yes, FREE!! MUDE  is pretty awesome. It’s in an old bank and the basement exhibit was in a massive Ocean’s 11 worthy vault. Artifacts were displayed in safety deposit boxes. Very cool.

Some other places we visited:

Såo Jorge Castle
A Moorish castle on a hilltop overlooking the historic centre. Amazing place that you can’t miss.

Jeronimos Monastery
Spectacular architecture! A UNESCO World Heritage site.

National Coach Museum
This place wasn’t on my list of places to check out but we walked right by it and decided to go in. We weren’t disappointed. It was amazing to see a collection of Portuguese royal coaches & carriages and it has the largest collection all over the world. There were about 45 coaches and carriage on display and most were ceremonial vehicles owned by the Portuguese royal family. It was amazing.

If you’re looking for Lisbon’s art & design district, that would be LX Factory and is located between the core of Lisbon and Belem. It’s located in an old manufacturing district where you will find great eateries in a warehouse setting, design firms, production studios and a lot of great shops. This place is totally not touristy. Everything is design-centred focus. We probably spent half a day here. While at LX Factory, you have to check out Ler Devagar bookstore inside a large warehouse that used to be a printing workshop. On some days, exhibitions, theatre shows, poetry and concerts are held here. You’ll see a vintage printing press, a bar and a cafe inside the bookstore. We had lunch at Cantina which is set in a warehouse setting and serves amazing traditional Portuguese food. This was one of the best meals we had in Lisbon. Everyday, the menu changes and it’s simple with only 2 entrees to choose from. They also make their own bread in a log-fired oven. I would highly recommend stopping here for lunch. The space is unpretentious and beautiful at the same time.

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As for shopping, check out:

A Vida Portuguesa
It’s kind of like Anthropologie but everything locally made from Portugal. A great place to buy souvenirs.

Embaixada LX in Principe Real
Set in a beautiful old palace from the XIX century with an arabic inspired courtyard for coffee and snacks. Browse around the shops selling design focus items made in Portugal.

21PR Concept Store
Just a couple doors down from Embaixada and also offers “Made in Portugal” products. Great space and great little coffee shop on the ground floor where we had delicious pastries.

Loja das Conservas
A shop that stocks tinned seafood from all over Portugal. Tinned seafood has gone gourmet in Portugal. This place is great and they’re super helpful. They carry all different brands. I bought a lot of bacalau to take home. So good!

In Lisbon, wherever you see a sign ‘Miradouros’ it means viewpoints. With Lisbon being a hilly city, there a lot of Miradouros everywhere and all have spaces to sit and rest. Some have cafes serving snacks and refreshments. Miradouro De Santa Catarina was just around the corner from our apartment (a 2 min walk) and we spent one evening there after dinner sipping wine and snacking on peanuts. The view is stunning and it was packed with people sitting on the grass, hanging out, playing music and kids riding their bikes. It was great and Luna loved it. Lisbon has an awesome public drinking culture which I absolutely love! You can drink everywhere and amazingly, everyone is so civil.

Being in Lisbon in the Spring was great. We were there early April and the weather couldn’t have been better. It was hot during the day but not scorching and evenings were cooler. It was perfect. Though, it was funny to see some locals in their winter coats and tights. But for us tourists coming from Canada, it was summer weather to us! If you plan to go to Lisbon, make sure to bring comfortable shoes! I put Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles in my flats and it worked perfectly. I was able to walk all day with no pains. Our umbrella stroller worked out perfectly too in those cobbled stone streets. So don’t be afraid to bring it. It made our life easier. If Luna got tired, she would nap in it and we were able to be out all day. Our days were long. We would start at 10 am and go to bed by 1am. So having an umbrella stroller was great for short siestas as little people can only handle so much walking in a day.

We truly enjoyed Lisbon and hope to go back again one day. Stay tuned for a post on eating in Lisbon and a day trip to the magical town of Sintra coming soon!

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Olhao – Portugal

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Olhão is a much, much bigger town than Tavira. It’s the largest fishing port in the Algarve and it’s full of Moorish-style houses. Olhão almost has two personalities – a more industrial look from the fishing port side but if you wander in the historic side of the town, you’ll find homes covered in white paint (almost looking like Greece) and small buildings with wrought iron balconies and tile decorations in pastel colours. They’re beautiful.

Olhão is also known for their 2 markets but unfortunately, they were closed by the time we got there. But I hear these markets are filled with a variety of fresh fish and seafood straight from the port and local fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a must see market so if ever you decide to visit, check out the market schedule first.

There is also a beautiful church of Nossa Senhora Rosario which was built in 1698. It has a beautiful baroque facade and apparently, it’s the first stone building in Olhão. We admired it from outside but couldn’t enter as it was closed. We must have visited at an odd time with the markets and the church closed but nevertheless, we enjoyed our short visit. Would we recommend staying in Olhão? Probably not as it doesn’t have the quaintness of a smaller town. But it’s a great place to visit and perhaps a seafood lunch at the port as you watch the fishermen go about their business.

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Praia do Barril – Portugal

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Praia do Barril is one of the beaches in Tavira. To get to the beach, you can walk or take an old school train which takes about 8 min and cost 1 euro each way. We loved Praia do Barril. The Anchors Graveyard is pretty awesome. Nothing I’ve seen before at a beach. We played around it for a bit while Luna collected some shells and kept herself occupied making sand cakes (she likes doing this wherever she sees sand).

The beach is very tourist friendly with washroom facilities, shower (extra charge), restaurants, shops, bars and a playing area for the kids. The beach is vast and the water extremely cold. It was a very hot day though but even then, the water was too cold for us to jump in. If you’re in the Tavira area, I highly recommend this beach. Give yourself an afternoon or even a full day here. Apparently, this beach doesn’t get the crowds unlike the other beaches in Algarve. So you’ll have a lot of space to stretch around you and play in the sand.

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Tavira – Portugal

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While in Algarve for a week, we decided to base ourselves in 2 areas: The Eastern & Western part of Algarve. This turned out really great for us as we were able to really explore each end without too much driving and really having the time to enjoy all the places we were visiting. We chose Tavira as a base on the Eastern side of Algarve as it’s a small town that has kept it’s traditional charm. It really is one of the cutest towns in Algarve and I highly recommend basing yourself here to explore the Eastern side. For a small charming town, it has a lot of restaurants to choose from which is a priority for me. It’s always nice to experience staying in a small town vs just passing by for a quick visit as you get to slow down and really feel the surroundings. Tavira also has some of the finest churches in the Algarve and there’s about 20 of them in a small town. You’ll also see a lot of typical Portuguese homes with tiled fronts along narrow cobbled streets.

While in Tavira, we stayed at the beautiful Tavira House Hotel and I highly recommend it. It’s a little boutique hotel nestled in the middle of the town. It doesn’t have it’s own parking but we always managed to find free parking right in front of the hotel. But pay parking spots are extremely cheap if free parking is not available. The hotel has a beautiful grand living room, a nice rooftop patio, outdoor courtyard surrounded by orange potted trees where you can have your morning breakfast and a soaker pool on the lower courtyard level. It offers free breakfast every morning which consists of cured meats, variety of cheese, espresso, teas, orange juice, rolls and jams. And on some evenings, they offer a complementary Portuguese wine tasting to their hotel guests. We didn’t make it to this as it started late afternoon and we were out but heard from other guests that it was a great experience. Ivana, one of the staff even gave Luna a bag full of chocolates on our last evening. The bag was handmade by her grandma. I can’t express enough how much we really enjoyed our stay at Tavira House Hotel. It’s also very rare to find a hotel in Europe with a King size bed!

Tavira has it’s own beach called Ilha de Tavira. It’s an Island beach where you have to take a short ferry ride from Tavira town. The beach is really nice but it didn’t have conveniences like washroom facilities at the beach which can be hard if you have a 4 year old in tow. Though, there are restaurants as you enter the Island where you can probably sneak in and use their washrooms. We did eat lunch at one of the restaurants and enjoyed a pot of octopus rice and a big plate of fresh oysters. Delicious!

In Algarve, all you want to eat is seafood. They’re so fresh and so delicious. One of our favorites was Cataplana. It’s their native dish. Think bouillabaisse. It’s really a pot full of seafood goodness. You can’t leave Algarve without having this. We also had a lot of grilled sardines.

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We were also lucky to have experienced Holy Week in Tavira. The week before, we were in Spain and experience daily processions in Seville and Granada. But experiencing it in a small town is really different as they just do things differently. It’s not as big and grand. It’s smaller and more intimate but seemed more magical. Apparently, this particular procession is really a big deal for the church brotherhoods and they look forward to this all year. During the day, the roads were covered with fresh lavender as it would be the path for the evenings procession. Imagine seeing the streets of a small town covered in lavender? It was amazing and smelled so good. The procession started at 9pm. People held lit up candles and as the procession started, the lights in the town were turned off and the town glowed in the dark. It was so beautiful. Come in April to experience this. It’s a magical experience and you really feel like you’re a part of it.

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Santa Luzia – Portugal

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Santa Luzia is located in the Eastern Algarve in Portugal It is a tiny fishing town, nowadays knows as “Octopus Capital” which is a local specialty. The town is really small and so charming. We explored it by foot admiring the many little homes covered in pastel patterned tiles and locals going about their business. I love small towns like this. There’s a sense of calmness that you don’t get in bigger towns.

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Salvation Mountain

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Leonard Knight spent 28 years building, Salvation Mountain, a self-funded tribute to god using adobe clay, hay and donated paint. He lived on-site in the back of a truck, building or patching his mountain daily. Salvation Mountain is proof positive that love and faith – some may even say, madness – compels people to do wonderful and inspiring things. Visiting Salvation Mountain was as moving as seeing Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia or Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel ceiling – even more so knowing that it was built in our lifetime by one man with no institutional funding. It’s truly an inspiration. This was Luna’s favorite stop on our Palm Springs trip. She happily calls it the “Rainbow Mountain”.

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The mountain’s vibrant rainbow of colors creates a striking contrast against the desolation of the surrounding desert. Nearby is Slab City, an off-the-grid community of desert residents and part-time RV snowbirds. I first learned of Slab City and Salvation Mountain from Sean Penn’s 2007 film, Into The Wild. In act two of the the film, Christopher McCandless, the disenfranchised protagonist travels to Slab City and finds a like-minded community who, like himself, have rejected mainstream culture. There’s a scene in the film where the real Leonard Knight impassionately explains his message of love to the films characters. Leonard’s message of love, transcending religion, reaches out to everyone. I was moved by the scene. Years later, I had forgotten about the mountain until seeing beautiful images from adventure-seeking desert travelers on Instagram. We felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to experience it ourselves.

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Climbing the rainbow-covered slopes was a magical adventure. Luna, free of fear, immediately wanted to run up the mountain. The patchwork of colors and soft-curves of the mountain were pure joy for our four-year old. There were no branded characters, themed rides or admission fees. It was a genuine life-sized fantasy land. Quirky, folky, “outsider” art to us. Wondrous and inviting to Luna. It made me wonder: why do we build amusement parks when the whole world is an amusement park? Leonard Knight, you are a genious.

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American folk art is found in all corners of our nation. Perhaps one of the least likely locations would be the desert where Salvation Mountain is found. Leonard Knight’s artwork is a national treasure, a singular sculpture wrought from the desert by a modest, single-minded man. It is a sculpture for the ages–profoundly strange and beautifully accessible…
Barbara Boxer

Salton City – Salton Sea

Salton City Yacht Club by The New Domestic | Peter Hoang

Salton City, once a booming lakeside resort town in the Salton Sea, is now sparsely populated and desolate. The only remaining evidence of the beach boom is a road glamorously named “Yacht Club Drive”. The drive is two large lanes running east and west divided by a once landscaped median. The Salton City developers obviously planned for lots of traffic but now the road leads literally to nowhere. At the end of Yacht Club Drive there’s nothing. The Yacht Club, seemingly burned down in a fire, is a modern ruin of concrete foundation and topless burnt palm trees. Strikingly, however, the harsh washed out white beach set against the stark blue sea creates a moody, eerily beautiful scene.

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Obituaries of the Salton Sea and its environs have been written many times, but the people on its shore in Salton City never have taken them seriously. With the fanaticism of revivalists, many are convinced they live in Southern California`s last frontier, waiting to be discovered-again. – Bill Graves, Chicago Tribune