Saturday, January 12, 2019

How to Spend the Perfect One Week Winter Holidays in Portugal

A country with warm weather - which for me, means more than one digit temperature - all round the year, and welcoming people, Portugal is a perfect destination for the winter holidays. With a great offer of food - from sea food to fish and the famous pastries - special wines and a rich cultural heritage displayed nonchallantly, another advantage of a trip to this country is that you can easily move from a place to another and if based in Lisbon, you can easily reach - by bus, in our case - other interesting destinations such as Porto, Sintra or Coimbra, within a couple of hours.
In the memory of my great week discovering a country whose language fascinates me - and wish I dedicate more time to improving it - here is my suggestion of a 7-day plan exploring the beautiful Portugal.


I've spent most of my time - 4 full days - in the capital city of Lisbon, exploring both the touristic and off the beaten path sides of the city. 
Our base was 45 minutes away from the center of the capital city - the city of Cascais. A summer residence of the former Portuguese Royal family since the end of the 19th century, and currently a residential area of well-off people, it has the advantage of offering an evening show of nature unchained, when the huge waves of the Atlantic Ocean are attacking the sandy beaches in full strength. A work of nature is the Boca Do Inferno, that can be reached by foot alongside the Atlantic Coast.
While walking the streets of Cascais hour after hour, we stumbled upon a very small and interesting museum of musical instruments where a passionate museum curator explained and put into context a lot of facts about the Portuguese musical. Among others, we've been shared that the very popular fado, for instance, was a latter addition to the traditional repertoire, especially during the years of Salazar dictatorship, as a way to create a new local identity.
If you are more into relaxation, Cascais also offers some very pleasant destinations, with golf clubs and a casino where you can play with your luck.

Portugal is a land of explorer and courageous travellers, which gives me more than a reason to love the country. The massive memorial to Vasco da Gama in Belém, facing the Vasco da Gama Bridge over the river Tagus, the second largest bridge in Europe, is a good start for your exploration of Lisbon. Nearby, there is the Geronimo Monastery which displays interesting works of art and history, going beyond the religious meaning. Nearby, small pastry shops selling the famous pastel de nata, are always surrounded by people, waiting at least 30 minutes in line to get their happy yellow egg tart pastry dusted with cinnamon. 

I am a very intensive traveller and I love to discover famous or less famous places completely by myself, but in Lisbon I felt the need to book a bus tour for a very quick introduction to the history and culture of the city. Once updated with all I had to know, I was feeling more free to roam the old streets, watch people, taste the food or just enjoy being wrapped in the shining rays of light. 

Portugal is not among Europe's richest countries and among the Western countries it has a post-WWII 3-decade long of dictatorship. Lisbon was frequently shaken by deadly earthquakes, the deadliest one being in 1755, with 75,000 victims (a serious reason not to ever move here). Once you are away from the usual touristic track, your eyes may encouter different realities than those advertised in the glossy travel pages. But this is the real life that I am usually looking for, wherever I go.

A big part of my Lisbon photos were dedicated to capturing the colours of the local architecture. The tiles decorating the entry walls and the big windows show an orderly interest to show to the passer-byes by a corner of beauty, but also a curiosity of the residents to observe the street moves. I still have on my to-do-list to learn more about the Portuguese architecture.

Lisbon is always busy and crowded, and if you are looking for a place to eat near the waterfront in the middle of the day, you better are not that hungry as finding a great view with a great place might take a bit longer than expected. I personally always loved the start of the evening, to get a bit of romantic vibe from the small table candles while sipping my local wine - a must is the 'green' vinho verde. If you are into shopping, or just want to have a look at the offer of local products of different kinds, you can explore the options offered on Baixa Street or Praca do Comercio

The small side streets alongside the seven hills the Portuguese capital city was built on, are a best choice for those looking for a more quiet view and place to rest. Either you arrive there by tram (recommended is tram 28 for carrying you up and down the hills) or by foot - given the many slopes of the city, comfy shoes are a best choice - you can find not only colourful street art (the richest and most spectacular collections of urban art can be found on Santo Apolonia, Jardim do Tabaco or between Belém and Baixa) - but also homemade food and welcoming restaurant owners ready to share their stories with you.


When I travel within a country, going by bus is always my option no.1, as I can see the landscape and cross small villages and towns. The trip from Lisbon to Porto was a great opportunity to see different sides of the country, while trying to modestly chat in Portuguese with the locals.

I know that in the last time, Porto is extensively featured by travel bloggers, especially for the white and blue tiled-facades, but at the time of my visit, I was personally not impressed. I loved the hectic Lisbon's spirit, but somehow, in Porto I was just a visitor, without any emotional involvement on my side. We stayed there only for half a day, and was a good choice, because besides just walking and walking the streets, and eventually grabing some local pastries, we didn't find anything else to do. 

To be honest, the local architecture has some interesting treats and a strong personality, which reminds of Spain and Italy as well. 

Some shops looked very out of time and of space, but as we visited in the last day of the year, everything was closed and the businesses were on hold until the next year. 

Now, looking back through my photographic memories, I might revisit my initial indifference. Porto might be more down to earth, but it is a charm in such a feature as well. 

There are always the different shapes and colours of the tiles that makes a big difference, including on a grey street.

But maybe my big problem that considerably affected my overview of this city, was that took over by the hurry of checking as many places as possible within a short amount of time, I hardly connected with the human side of the city. Hardly spoke with people. Hardly had time for a long slow meal at a restaurant, where eventually someone will want to stop a bit longer to explain something about a food and a wine. 

The doors were closed in the front of me, and no one was there to open them and show me some slices of local life. 

All I had to do was to watch the sun goes down and get back on the bus to Lisbon, where we had plan to spend the NYE.


The first day of the New Year was booked for a place I wanted to visit since my old university years: Coimbra, the place of one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1290. 

As I was studying history of mentalities in Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond, Coimbra resonated as one of the centers of knowledge on the continent. Students from all over Europe were coming here to learn about the world and its secrets. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was also the only Portuguese-speaking university in the world, which conferes to this university a special place in the building of the local cultural and intellectual identity.

Coimbra was also the place where the first kings of Portugal had taken up residence. A proof of the illustrious presence are the many monasteries, some of them hosting the tombs of those kings. Nowadays though, Coimbra is a place of silence, and for the first day of the year, we were the only tourists crossing the small historical courtyards and walking the cobblestoned streets.

It was raining in Coimbra and the streets were empty. The university was closed therefore we couldn't enter it and eventually visit the impressive collection of old books. But we had the chance of seeing this place, walk its streets and be alive in one of Europe's intellectual centers.


My love for castles and palaces is before moving to Germany with its rich collection of majestic buildings. Sintra castle is one of a kind, whose colours and unusual shapes and constructions are made famouos by the Instagram community right now. Before, when I booked my less than 30 minutes trip to it, I hardly had in mind what to expect.

I loved being surprised by all the small details of the Moorish style palace, included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

Every angle shows a different - more beautiful perspective - that challenges completely the overview. You can either visit the many rooms or just to roam outside, which is recommended especially during the warm sunny days. 

I was definitely happy that I spent there one full day, taking a slow tour around the premises and trying to understand every single symbol and history of this place that was the residence of the Portuguese Kings more or less continously between the 15th and 19th century.

Coimbra was our last stop in Portugal for this trip. The last and the most surprising, displaying an overwhelming mix of influences and histories that are waiting for a next exploration for understanding and revealing more of this small but full of surprises country. 

As I am writing it down, a couple of NYE's after my first trip, I started to dream about coming back, eventually for improving my Portuguese too! I wish as soon as possible!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Exploring the Secrets of the Bunkerstadt Wünsdorf-Waldstadt

Zossen was an unexpected long stop, but I had to return to Wünsdorf-Waldstadt for finally seeing what I was really looking for: a slice of history that only recently - 1994 - was still in the making. 

For over a century, this place was a forbidden city. First, it was a training camp for the Prussians, than military headquarters for the Nazis and the Little Moscow until 1994. As I am walking the long path from the train station, I can hardly see anything, as most buildings are a couple of meters away from the public area, hidden under a thick forest wall. When once in a while some buildings are closer to the eyes, they look delapidated, giving you that feeling I often had in such places, like Beelitz, that I am in a historical adventure park.

But the adventure awaits at least one hour away, as the city was well hidden behind forests and getting to find it takes at least as long as the direct train ride for Berlin - a bit over an hour. At least, I can fill my city lungs with the green forest healthy vibes.

The much awaited historical adventure is suddenly entering my Zen universe, in the shape of an aerial defense bunker, one of the many spread over the residential area. Since 1971, the Red Army started to offer its generous help to the 'Democratic' Germany to defend its air space, therefore, the frequency of such bunkers.

Dilapidated remains lay near the residential area, in places that could have been playgrounds. Children can use them to climb, carefree of the heavy meaning of history they stump on.

There are many remains from those Soviet times, whose origin is unclear, unless you are lucky enough to be accompanied by a local guide to show you exactly the old ways.

Keen to immerse into the history with a proper guide, we book a one-hour German tour for 12 Euro after which there are not too many historical secrets left hidden. The tour starts with the dilapidated buildings from the Nazi times. In building blocks desguised as rural homes, the Wehrmacht and the Reichswehr motorized division settled their headquarters here since the beginning of the 1930s.

After so many years, no one ever did anything to change the situation of the buildings, and after the Soviet troops searched for any scrap of paper that might be taken away, they used some of the bunker facilities but left everything as bombed as at the end of the war. Bunkers Maybach I and II were used for various military operations during the war, but it was also where secret correspondence between people involved in the 20 July plot against Hitler was discovered which lead to the hunt for those involved.

The initial construction of the site dated from the time of the Prussian infantry school, back at the end of the 19th century, when this modest location was connected to Berlin via the rail network passing from Jüterbog

Although I grew up in a communist country and was pretty knowledgeable about the political skirmishes I was never exposed so openly to the historical part of it as I am in Germany, even so many years after the end of the Cold War. The traces are starting to disappear, many of them eaten out by the need to make space for residential compounds, but still there is an enormous recent history material all over the former communist Germany.

We are visiting a small part of a bunker formerly used by the Soviet Army and I cannot stop and observe all the very small details of the surroundings, such as the old time door settings.

We pass through small passageways leading to different small spaces, guarded by heavy metal doors.

Some spaces were used also for communication surveillance in the region. Mostly, the Soviet Army deployed here . around 80,000 soldiers as of 1953 - was aimed to defend the border around Western part of Berlin, but as usual in such cases, there were always some additional things to do to the basic military agenda. 

For a non-technical person, all those installations just look odd, but they can make it into a Cold War history of electricity, for instance.

In some cases, the German locals needed some linguistic help to understand how exactly to use them properly.

Very often in places where the Soviet Red Army passed by, there were always words left on the walls: in the Reichstag or Beelitz, and now here. Very often there are just names and I just say to myself to decipher this habit one day.

Happily, we are visiting this place when there is a warm sunny day outside, otherwise if it would have been during rain, we may have need it some wellies as well. The temperature underground is only one digit and it makes me think in what harsh conditions people were working so hard here for the pride of the country. As Wünsdorf-Walsdorf was the headquarters of the Red Army in Germany, most probably there was always a lot of commotion that now was just sucked into the history vortex.

From a small chair, comrade Lenin - only with his pensive head left, a frequent sight of my childhood, is having his stone glory moment. Those were his times, but those times are long gone and I can only be happy about it.

Outside, it is a warm weekend afternoon, and I am happy to breath the freedom air, although it is in a city which looks almost empty.

The post office is waiting for a postman that will never knock its's door and can't wait to learn a bit more - and preferably more war-less content - about this city.

There is some other attribute associated with Wünsdorf-Waldstadt which is even more appealing than the historical touch: Bücherstadt. It means in English 'city of books' and this is the first ever German city bearing it. The idea was launched in 1962 by Richard Booth from Wales, which created the first such town in Hay-on-Wye in 1962 as a complex of antique bookstores and other cultural activities. Wünsdorf-Waldstadt was awarded this title on September 12th.

Affordable books, mostly in German, and mostly from the old DDR times can be purchased for as much as 1 euro.

In some places the books are left unattended and you can serve yourself, while being trusted that you will left the corresponding amount in one of the many piggy banks in the corners.

But even in the 'city of books' section, you just cannot avoid history. During the WWI, here was also established a big POW camp - Halbmondlager -, which included soldiers of many religions and faiths, as a Hindu tomb reminds. For the Muslim residents of the camp, a mosque was built, the first ever on German soil, but was closed shortly of 1924 and never open again. There is also a Muslim cemetery a couple of kilometers away, close to a forest area.

If you want to learn even more about this place, the Garnison Museum is displaying some interesting historical facts and artefacts displayed in the small garten.

And, surprise, comrade Lenin, in a more revolutionary and full body pose, is also there.

Just another aerial defense bunker is showing its ugly shape, a reminder that history at least for a couple of decades to go, will never leave this place. However, given its relatively good positioning in the middle of a green area and its closeness to Berlin, it makes it into a good destination for real estate and there will be not too long when probably a debate about the need to keep all those artifacts versus the need of better and cheaper housing will arise.

Until then, the few residents - some of them probably left behind by the Soviet Army - are enjoying some outdoors meals in many of the restaurants in the area. Thinking about much happier places, we stop to a Greek restaurant, for a cold drink and some spicy aubergines in tomato sauce at Akropolis.
Near us, a group of people in their mid-60s arrived to celebrate a birthday and unless I turn my eyes out of my tasty plate looking at the bunkers surrounding on land and underground this place I would just think I am having a relaxed meal outdoors. But with so many history lessons around, it takes longer to start enjoying the foodie part of my trip. This is weight of history and I am happy I finally made it to this place.
Maybe I should hurry to see more such places until they are still around.