Friday, March 29, 2013

The Mezquita in Córdoba

The mezquita looks like a fortress from the outside.

Sometimes it takes me awhile to write about the grandest places we've visited because the thought of having to describe their beauty (and sort through our family's 100s of photos) is so overwhelming.  That's my excuse for not having yet posted about the Mezquita (Spanish for "Mosque") in Córdoba which we visited last summer.

The Mezquita is an enormous building which began as a mosque in the 8th century but is now a Catholic cathedral.  A mosque becoming a Catholic church in Spain is actually not unusual, but in Córdoba the mosque was not destroyed - a Renaissance cathedral was simply built right smack in the middle of the mosque, while the rest of the surrounding art and architecture remain the work of its Islamic builders.  This is highly unusual.

Upon entering the impressive Moorish structure the first thing you will undoubtedly marvel at is the repeating red and white candy cane arches EVERYWHERE.  They appear on top of just about every one of the 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite columns that hold up the expansive ceiling.

After walking through the dimly lit forest of stripes, the Baroque cathedral interior at the center of the building does come as somewhat of a jolt.  As opulent as any European cathedral, however, one is quickly captivated by the discordant splendor of it all.

Interior of the cathedral in the middle of the mosque.

If you are Catholic and attend one of the Sunday morning Masses, as we did, or are not Catholic and think you can endure a Catholic Mass, you can enter the Mezquita for free (as opposed to paying 8€ per person admission).  Our family enjoyed attending service in such a unique structure and hearing the beautiful organ resound among the ancient Mezquita walls.

Organ player during Mass.

The juxtaposition of Islamic and Baroque architecture.

Outside the Mezquita is the Patio de los Naranjos, or Courtyard of the Orange Trees, which is filled with - of course - orange trees and their fragrant blossoms.  There is also a lovely fountain here.  The courtyard is free to enter.

In the courtyard you can get some great photos of the massive bell tower, which, in the 1600s, was converted from a minaret to the tower.  It is adorned with cathedral bells captured from Santiago de Compostela.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Celebrate Springtime!

Today is the first day of Spring!
Are you traveling anywhere lovely for spring break??

I'd like to say these tulips were real,
but they're plastic souvenirs for sale
in Holland.

These Edelweiss plants are real!
For sale in Hallstatt, Austria.

My son likes flowers too.  Posing in the garden
of the Residenz Palace in Würzburg, Germany.

Garden in Marigny Square in Paris.

Garden in Grainau, Germany.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pelgrom Tavern in Antwerp

Atmosphere and authenticity is what you'll get when you visit Pelgrom Tavern and Restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium.  Don't let your children be spooked as they walk down the deep, dark staircase into the medieval cellar beneath one of Antwerp's charming little alleys.  

Step into medieval Pelgrom Tavern and Restaurant.

In this ancient underground cellar you can enjoy traditional Flemish food or a variety of local beers by medieval-style candlelight.  As a child my family came here often and I always loved the ambience.  My children did too when we took them there:

I guess Rick Steves has discovered Pelgrom Tavern and recommended it in one of his books, and now the restaurant is perhaps a bit more touristy than when I was a child and it was mostly frequented by locals.  Still, the long communal tables and intimate atmosphere invite conversation and a shared good time by everyone.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Roofless Carmo Convent and Church in Lisbon

The most prominent reminder of the earthquake that destroyed most of the city of Lisbon in 1755 is the roofless nave and concrete rubble of Carmo Church and Convent, sitting high on a hill overlooking Rossio Square.

This Gothic church was once the largest church in Lisbon, and was packed with worshippers attending Mass on All Saints' Day in 1755 when the earthquake struck and the roof caved in.  The large convent and its library of 5000 books were also lost that day.

Today the ruins of Carmo Convent and Church are a historical tourist attraction.  Its bare pointed arches, pillars, and rubble stir the emotions and even my children were captivated.  The church interior has a nave with three aisles and an apse with a main chapel and four side chapels.

What once was the main altar is now an archaeological museum (the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo or Carmo Archaeological Museum).  Admission to the church covers admission to the museum and it's worth taking a look.  My kids liked the mummies.

The museum also houses a collection of tombs, most famously that of King Ferdinand I, statuary, ceramics, mosaics, ancient tombstones, and other architectural relics from all periods of Portuguese history.

Tomb of King Ferdinand I

16th century azulejo panels depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ.

Model of the Carmo Church before its destruction.

Rubble at Carmo Convent.

The best way to reach Carmo Convent and Church is to ride the Santa Justa Lift to the top.  The church is then right there in the Chiado district of Lisbon.  Alternatively, you can take the green or the blue metro line to the Baixa/Chiado stop.  The church is closed on Sundays, but open 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. May through September and 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 October through April.  We paid 9.50€ admission for our family of two adults and two students.  Occasional open-air orchestral concerts are held beneath the archways in the summer.

Beautiful views of the city from Carmo Convent and Church.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Photo Friday: Town Square in Hallstatt

My daughter, just 11 years old, sitting pretty in the colorful town square in Hallstatt, Austria.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lovely Lisbon

This is not the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

This is not Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

Both of these landmarks are in Lisbon, Portugal!  The 25 de Abril Bridge was our first glimpse of Lisbon as we crossed it by car to enter the city, and we were all astounded at how identical in shape and color it was to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  The Cristo-Rei, or Christ the King, statue  was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro and also watches over the city it protects with outstretched arms from an isolated hilltop.

The week we spent in Lisbon last summer in a great little Baixa district apartment was a lovely end to our vacation - Lisbon is a magnificent city.  Most impressive are the views, from almost everywhere throughout this hilly capital, of the Atlantic Ocean, the Tagus River, and red-tiled roofs as far as the eye can see.

Because Lisbon was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1755 and subsequently rebuilt by the Prime Minister at that time, a man with modern urban plans, the city today has large squares, grand boulevards, and many parks and plazas.

Rossio Square

Rossio Square

Commerce Square

Park at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara lookout point.

Alfonso de Albuquerque Square in the Belém district.

There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit in Lisbon:  the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery.

The Tower of Belém was designed as a fortified defense tower and ceremonial gateway to Lisbon to ships traveling on the Tagus River.  The Tower sits on the bank of the river and is open for tours, though we did not go inside.  We did admire the architecture with its arched windows, balconies, and watchtowers.

Tower of Belém

The Jerónimos Monastery was built in 1459 by Henry the Navigator to house monks and, with its cathedral, to be a house of prayer for seamen and explorers departing or entering port.  Vasco da Gama and his crew spent the night in prayer at the monastery before leaving for the Orient in 1497.  The monastery is an enormous, ornate structure and definitely worth visiting.  Tour the cathedral and the stunning interior square cloister.  Big tip of the day:  entrance to the Jerónimos Monastery is free on Sundays!

A short walk down the river from the Tower of Belém is another monument, the Monument to the Discoveries, a fairly recent (1960) structure to honor the Portuguese Age of Discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries.  Its sculptured figures include depictions of Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and 30 other explorers.  An elevator to the top of the monument takes you took a fine lookout over the city of Lisbon.  Another tip for you:  there are free, clean restrooms under the Monument to the Discoveries.

Monument to the Discoveries

It wouldn't be a great European city if it wasn't protected by a medieval castle on a hill, and Lisbon is proudly safeguarded by Castle of São Jorge, a 10th century Moorish citadel with a 360° view of the capital.

Castle of São Jorge

A very lovely half day can be spent walking the castle walls, climbing the towers, and, as we did, enjoy a picnic inside the large interior square.

Santa Justa Elevator
Transportation around the city is unique and fun, and there are ways to save money.  For example, to go across town by bus the fare is 1.75€ per person.  For our family of four, a taxi cab was less than 7€ to travel almost anywhere in Lisbon so that was obviously cheaper and more convenient.  Also, you'll definitely want to ride the iconic Santa Justa Elevator and one of the cute vintage cable cars.  I suggest you do this on the same day to save money by buying a 5€ all-day transportation pass.  This pass lets you ride all buses, subways, cable cars, and funiculars for 24 hours.  A terrific savings, since the Santa Justa Elevator ticket by itself is 5€!  Lisbon's subway system is clean and nice, but we found it not quite extensive enough to reach all the tourist sites.

Vintage cable cars in Lisbon.

Riding the cable car.

Glória Funicular

Beautiful side trips, or day trips, to gorgeous towns such as Sintra, Cascais, and Estoril are an easy and inexpensive (18.40€ for the four of us to take the train to Sintra) train ride from the Lisbon station.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to
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