Portugal

My spring break arrived in early April. As Moscow was showing absolutely no signs of spring, I hopped on a plane to Portugal pronto! Having never been to Portugal, I listened to friends tell stories of this calm, friendly oasis in the south of Europe. Amazingly, the rumors were true – incredibly kind people, delicious wine (port), and gorgeous beaches.

Lisbon’s Central Square

I started in Lisbon, a modernizing city still retaining its old world charm. Squares filled with fruit and sangria stands appeared at every turn. Trolley cars rumbled by and sunshine streamed down 24/7.

Jeronimos Monastery was absolutely stunning.

 

Me snacking on a pasteis de nata, essentially an egg tart. Hot off the grill and oh so delicious!

My friend Anna had flown over from Boston for the trip and we had a fantastic time exploring the sights – botanical gardens, sardine shops, and the Jeronimos Monastery just outside of the downtown. Tilework covered nearly every surface of the town – from cobalt blue floral walls to parks full of wavy stone pathways, Lisbon is a feast for the eyes.

We rented a car and headed up to Sintra, an idealic town only 45 minutes outside Lisbon. Staying in an inn just outside the touristy downtown provided us with a chance to meet some very friendly locals.

Our inn served a huge breakfast from which we would pocket supplies for daily picnics.
Our inn served port on this breezeway each evening. In fact, so did every spot we stayed in!

Highlights from Sintra included the Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, a meandering acreage replete with tunnels, grottos, and lilacs.

Pena Palace, in all its glory
I’ve never seen architecture like this – it seemed to be part Scottish fortress, part Aladdin’s castle.

A grotto of the Quinta da Regaleira

From Sintra we took a day trip to Tomar to see the Convento de Cristo, the original digs of the Knights of Templar. With virtually no crowds, we delighted in this off-the-beaten-path gem. Many hours were spent wandering through the magnificent convent and I took a little time to sketch a bit of the gorgeous architecture.

Anna looking quite at home on the grounds of Convento de Cristo.

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There was an Indian Jones feel about the place.

Next we headed south past Lisbon and into the Algarve. While we went for the hiking, we most enjoyed the views from the ocean cliffs.

Our stay at Très Marias, a gorgeous farm in the middle of nowhere, proved a highlight of the whole trip. Anna had read about the spot years ago in The NY Times and it did not disappoint. Waking up in the valley of poppies was heavenly and we made friends with the resident donkeys.

The view from the breakfast nook at Tres Marias. The donkey pasture and mountains lay in the background.

While we would have loved to see more of the Algarve, my time in Portugal was drawing to a close. After heading back to Lisbon, we made a pilgrimage to the Museo Nacional do Azulejo. Host of a magnificent collection documenting the history of tilework in Portugal, the museum had much to teach us about the Islamic influence on Portuguese design.

Museo Nacional do Azulejo

A fantastic dinner of tapas capped off our trip. As I headed for the airport, Anna took a train north to Porto, a spot I hear is worth the trip. All the more reason to return to Portugal someday!

Yellow light emanated from the street lamps of Lisbon, bathing the city in a warm glow perfect for wandering the cobblestone streets.

All in all, we found the landscape of Portugal to be just as beautiful as the generosity of its people. Affordable, welcoming, and intriguing, Portugal is absolutely worth it.

Back in Moscow, we’ve had a rainy, cold past two weeks, making tennis practice a little challenging. Today, May Day, is the first warm day of the year, bring buds to the trees and hope that the winter is finally over. Much to look forward to in the coming months, most especially a visit from my parents in only a few days! Hope you’re all enjoying spring time, wherever you are. Until next time…

Sunset over Moscow – the end of a wonderful journey.

The land of Moomin

I’ve just spent 3 days in Finland – land of Marimekko, minimalist design, and Moomin. If you are not familiar with the hippo-like character of European and Asian fame, here he is:


And also Marimekko, the iconic Finnish brand:


I traveled to Helsinki with 10 members of Cultural Arts, the after school club that I’ve been running for the past two months. Our school is part of a conference that not only recognizes sports but also the arts, bringing together school groups from all over Eastern Europe. We were joined by teams from Estonia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, to name a few.


We came to Helsinki to celebrate the power of art to bring people together across cultures. 



Many discussions focused on differences and similarities of our various communities. Our group was made up of kiddos from South Korea, the US, Finland, Spain, Poland, and Britain. The other schools were similarly as diverse, bringing great depth to the conversation.


A lot of artmaking ensued and we also traveled to Porvoo, a quaint village outside Helsinki where the artist behind Moomin had a cottage.



A highlight of my time in Helsinki was the Designmuseo. A small but impressive museum celebrating Finnish design innovation, the museum had a lot to offer.


I had never realized the many design inventions to come out of Finland. Fiskars scissors, Aalto chairs, and various bicycles to name a few – enough iconic innovations to forgive them for Angry Birds, I suppose 😉


After three days full days of travel and artmaking, we were united in smiles and exhaustion. We made it back to Moscow safe and sound. Happily, this means that my spring break has begun – Lisbon, here I come! Been dreaming of sunshine and Sintra for quite a while 🙂


Catch you on the flip side!

A week in Moscow

I welcomed my first visitors to Russia this past week – my friend Meg came from Korea and her boyfriend Niek from Holland. They were ace guests and we had a fantastic time catching up. They covered a great amount of Moscow while still enjoying a chill vacation. They didn’t even let the lingering snow squalls get them down! Inspired by their wanderings, here is my Moscow Top Ten.

Roll into town on one of Moscow’s fabulous Aeroexpress trains – there’s one from each of Moscow’s three airports.

Make your way down to Red Square fairly quick for selfies in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (bluebird day on order, of course).

Explore the ridiculously ornate confines of St. Basil’s itself (not what I expected, I’ll admit!) with special ambiance from a men’s choir who just happened to be performing inside. 300 rubles to get in – no line, no waiting.

Book a cruise on the Moscow River out of the Radisson Ukraina Hotel – fine dining and a 2.5 hour tour of Moscow’s sites from the water. Highly recommended: the early evening cruise to watch the lights come up over the city in dramatic fashion.

Not to be missed – drinks at the Mercedes Bar on the 31st Floor of the Hotel Ukraina. Book a comfy couch and enjoy the 360 view of Moscow, including the Russian White House and new Moscow City.

Strelka Bar in the student neighborhood of Bolotnyy is always an exciting spot. From the rich but casual decor to the fabulous food and drink, it’s a stop not to be missed.

After you’ve had your dinner fill, enjoy the breathtaking views across at Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Once the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, this site has been restored to its original trappings, in all it’s golden glory. Don’t miss the views from the top deck nor the surprisingly cool crypt below – discovered by Meg & Niek!

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Be sure to tour the Kremlin. With a private guide, my friends hopped in and out of the churches on the Kremlin ground. I’m told you absolutely cannot miss the incredible riches of the Armory. PC: @meg_hayne

If the snow is falling, a tour of the Moscow metro is perfect no matter the weather! My four favorite stations not to miss – Komsomolskaya, Arbatskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, and Novoslobodskaya.

Gorgeous stained glass at Novoslobodskaya

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The Khokhloma handicrafts are not to be missed. I just came across this fabulous video about them today. A trip to Izmailovo Market, in all it’s touristy glory, is not to be missed. Also check out the small but friendly Museum of Vodka while you’re there!
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Gorky Park hosts ice skating in the winter, bike riding in the summer (bring your passport to rent!) and is also the home of my favorite contemporary art museum, The Garage.
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A winter palace of lights outside the Bolshoi Theater

And, finally, #10 – a ballet at the Bolshoi. Although I have yet to accomplish this one, I have a feeling that all may change with the arrival of another set of visitors next month… Book your tickets decidedly in advance! In the event they’re all sold out, the theater offers tours of the venue in English on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m told the line for English forms on the left. God speed 😉

A few other items of note before endeavoring to visit Moscow…

  • Learning the Cyrillic alphabet really helps – with many letters similar to English, it’s really not hard!
  • Downloading wayfinding apps like Uber (yes, they have it!) and Metropolitan (metro map) will go a long way
  • Buying a SIM card also helps for wayfinding – 700 rubles (roughly $11) for 1 month is available at any airport

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour of my current home city – and that my attempts to entice future visitors will not be in vain (direct flights from JFK, just sayin’…)! I’ve really come to appreciate Moscow and all of its wonderful surprises. Please come see what all the fuss is about – I have plenty of room!