Sunday, February 17, 2019

6 Easy Tips to Improve your Language Skills (without using an App)

I was lucky enough to grow up in a very complex linguistic environment, with at least 3 complicated languages regularly spoken at home. As a kid, it might be confusing, absurd and annoying. Besides keeping asking why we are not 'normal', like all the other families and speak a simple local language, I remember my very rebelious years when I simply refused to accept the fact that I should learn or speak a certain language (let's say, French). Which language ended up being one of my few places of stability and comfort, in a life that brought me all over the world and a multitude of languages. Every time I am in a home where I am surrounded by French books, especially those from the Editions de Poche collection, I instantly remember my childhood and my mother's working room, from where I was snatching some books, not few of them by authors forbidden in the old country.
As I was growing up, the pressure of learning languages increased too, as my professional and personal life was becoming more and more complex. I've learned some languages for pleasure, some to better communicate with my new friends or a partner, some because they were part of my professional assignments. I had to forget some of them to make place for some new ones, or remember some, when life brought me again in the old places of my childhood. I wish to have enough time and dedication to learn at least 3-4 more complex languages, one of them Mandarin.
After a life full of adventures and life experiences of all kinds, 10 years ago I landed in Berlin, Germany, with a very precarious collection of words in the local languages and unclear life plans. No friends, no relatives, just me and my boxes full of books. My plan was to take a break for a very busy corporate life I was very proud of but was somehow eating me and my life alive, get on a short Sabbatical to finish writing my PhD, and eventually try to put my life together. 
My PhD was successfully written altough I've decided that the everyday academic life was as deceiving as my previous corporate, institutional and media lives. Professionally and personally, I had perfectly human downs and ups, and I ended up getting back to business life, although on a relatively smaller level, while building up my own business. Meanwhile, I've learned and improved a couple of languages, while my German was very much lagging behind. It's a common place that while you are living in Berlin, you hardly need to use your German and I was a living proof of this: for five years, I've hardly made any effort to use the basic grammar and vocabulary that I've learn during an intensive class I took at the very beginning of my expat life in Germany. My friends were able to speak in some of the languages I knew and at the end of the day, I was back in my bubble that I've known and despised so much before. In my bubble, everything was perfectly fine and only the people that were more or less like me were accepted, with a minimal connection to the immediate reality. This is why I come to Berlin after all? Old habits die hard and it took me more than 30 days - the minimum amount apparently required to abandon/create a new habit - to analyse carefully what I am suppose to do next.
Before I was able to decide clearly, circumstances of all kinds dictated that my life will settle in Berlin, but if I want to be real and take my new life seriously - including for my own business purposes - I have to put my German seriously at work.
Which is exactly what I've done with all my might in the last five years. Although I'm far from being really happy with my German, and I am a couple of long row of stairs away from the moment when will be perfectly at ease with producing smoothly a creative piece of writing in this language, I am working hard toards this goal. In less than one month, I'm about to start two intensive months of 16 hours of German the week, a one-on-one course that will hopefully bring me one step further to my endeavour of being fluently at home with this language.
For those of you who are working hard their German - or any other language - I am happy to share some six tips of how to improve your language skills but without using an App. Although I personally used a couple of them myself for some of my languages - Duolingua being one of them, I've progressed the most when I decided to leave my computer or device and let my language develop freely.

1. Dare to Talk!

There may be some people that are making fun of your accent or just notice that you have one. It happens to me all the time, regardless what language I'm speaking and I just got used with that. But nothing can stop me from putting my German at hard work. At least one hour per day, I am trying to talk in German, offering myself to give directions, asking a vendor about a special product, trying to fix some issues with various authorities, calling my German friends and refusing to accept to talk with them in English. 
Through listening, trying to create a sentence in your mind and further talking in that language you are doing daily little wonders to your fluency. If you are working from home as a lonely freelancer, it might be difficult to find the partners of conversation, but every encounter with a native speaker counts and it's up to you to use it in your benefit.

2. Read Children Books!

My love for reading children books as an adult had't start since I have a little book worm at home. I've used them constantly when I was trying to improve my Spanish, Hebrew and Italian and I will always use them as a perfect basis for improving a language. A couple of years ago, I've even took a class in creative writing for children and I've wrote a draft of a book for children that I haven't published yet only because I haven't find yet that illustrator that might add the perfect visual spice to my writing. One day... 
If you are able to understand and communicate perfectly in the simple language requested by a 3-4-5-6-7 year old than you are doing really well with your language. 

3. Watch TV and Listen to the Radio

The language of the media is aimed at sending the message to a relatively medium-educated audience therefore, the language level should be simple yet comprehensive enough to explain complicated events and phenomena. If you struggle with a good prononciation - who doens't in German, with the long words that takes your breath before you finish them - and also need to work out the understanding part listening to news is a great way to advance the language knowledge.

4. Listen to Music

From the same category of learning to hear, listening to music might speed up your knowledge of some easy and sometimes useful sentences (of course, 'Alle meine Ente...' doesn't count here). 

5. Travel! Travel! Travel!

Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin
As a travel lover and travel writer, travel not only set me free and fill my brain with the expactations of travel and my heart of the love for discovering new cultures and way of thinking. It also does good for the language. The most frequent occasions when I had to use my German while during my frequent travels across the country. During my trips, I got in touch with locals and exchanged random conversations with my travel companions (as I applied the tip no.1), but I also had to ask for directions, check-in at my hotel, order food and ask for different questions about local histories and traditions (besides answering the eternal question I'am always asked as in no other country in the world: 'Where are you from?' tip: answering Berlin never counts). If you want to visit a museum, try to take a bilingual guide and keep an eye to the various descriptions of products on the market. 

6. Go to a Language School

That's the obvious, actually. Especially if you are new in a country, and you have no idea about grammar and vocabulary, a language school is the right place to start. You will get back to school, with homeworks and conversations, and you might also meet some interesting people in the classroom. 
I personally started learning for my B1 certificate in a class with around 15 people, and it was a good way to learn from the others too and get motivated. Now, when I am aiming the highest level of German knowledge, I prefer a more private ambiance, when I can using the time at maximum, with a clear agenda of topics and issues to be addressed that might be useful for my future professional endeavours - like a specific vocabulary and writing skills required for journalistic projects or for business presentations and various standard communication. 
A summer language school where the immersion into the local culture is part of the learning process is an excellent opportunity to create a direct connection to your environment. Words are acquiring a new meaning. It creates a different disposition towards learning, because the language is more than a given homework and dialogue you should learn, but becomes an useful tool mediating communication toward and within a culture.

Hopefully, those tips is helping my fellow expat readers to reach their language goals. If you are interested in some specific expat tips or just looking for motivation, don't hesitate to contact me at ilanaontheroad@gmail.com

Hope to hear from you soon! Auf Wiedersehen!

Friday, February 15, 2019

How to Spend a Walking Day in Bad Saarow

I am no stranger to Bad Saarow, that I visited several times a couple of years ago. Although this destination under 2 hour away from Berlin is famous as a spa town, I've always been here either for the architecture or for the nature walking. This time, I am back again, introducing Bad Saarow to my friends that I convinced it is worth a ride from Berlin.


The weather is mild, with only some moderate wind and no rain in sight. Go away spa temptation, we don't need you...we have everything we need to keep walking, after all those hard office business days. We start the ride near the train station, slowly checking around looking for some places where we can eventually have a lunch later. That there is no place where you can pay with card it is no surprise for any of us, but that in a place where is clumsily written in German that it is only cash accepted to see a nicely written announcement that you can pay in Bitcoins, that's really surprising. Things are moving either too fast, either too slow, it seems.


We head direction Kurpark, crossing the bright Seestraße, bordered by trees whose nakedness make the avenue even more larger. 


The architecture of Bad Saarow is a noteworthy point of attraction. Although many of the typical houses with clock-wise twitched wooden roof were destroyed during the war or thereafter consumed by fire, some of them are still used, a testimony of the work of a unique urban style. 


But if you are less into houses and design, Bad Saarow offers beautiful landscapes, starting with the peaceful Scharmützelsee. I am doing enough meditation and yoga is not always my sport of choice, but in the middle of such a landscape I let myself embraced by the silence, close my eyes and breath deeply. The best free anti-stress therapy.


Regardless if I travel or I am hard working in the city, I am trying to walk at least one hour the day. While walking I put my life together, get rid of negative energies and get back on shape. Especially when I am surrounded by nature and my steps are accompanied by the bold singing of birds, the recovery is even faster. We start the big round of the Schmeling Rundweg.


From under the clouds, the sun is smiling to us. It is a very easy walking, and no previous practice is needed. Just a pair of comfy shoes. 


Discretely placed away from the main walking road, there are still some of the houses designed by the Jewish architect Harry Rosenthal for personalities in the inter-war period that spent their weekends and summers here. Similarly with Buckow, Bad Saarow was preferred by many artists but also but the representatives of the emergent middle class. The house from the picture, was the property of the boxing champion Max Schmeling where he moved here after the marriage with the actress Anny Ondra.


Since my last trip, many more traditional houses were renovated, keeping alive a unique urban project. At the end of the war, many of those houses were occupied by the representatives of the Soviet Army, neglected thereafter because the communist Germany was often lacking the money for such investments.


When there was not enough space, local minds found a way to create them. A former electricity and water facility was turned into a small hotel, for instance, adding one more accommodation opportunity for the short or long-term visitors to Bad Saarow.


Back into the city, with our lungs refreshed by the early spring crispy air, we are ready to leave Bad Saarow. As everywhere around Berlin, new copy-pasted ad infinitum white buildings appeared here in the last years too, adding a cold, neutral white splash to the typical irregular former unique architecture. I am more tempted to love the old classical Bad Saarow, but I am also curious what the future have in sight for this place. Most probably, to check the next steps, I might bring my friends more often to this place. After so many years and many trips later, it keeps charming me. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Exploring the Bauhaus Heritage of Siemensstadt

Created around the Siemens factory in the second half of the 19th century, Siemensstadt is at the first sight nothing else than a concentration of living units for busy working people. What could it be so exciting to see here, after all, besides rows after rows of blocks of apartments, more or less lookalike?
It's partly true: indeed, Siemensstadt means mostly industrial simple architecture, plane and without a specific aesthetic appeal. However, there is a certain community spirit that is usually missing from the big neighbourhoods, but also an architectural heritage that owns a lot to the Bauhaus movement - more about it in a dedicated next post. Camera in one hand and notebook in the other, at the end of the last week I explored this relatively unknown neighbourhood, that surprised me more than once.


I started my journey at Rohrdamm station, on the U7 line, included on my list of Berlin's most beautiful metro stations. A couple of curiously-shaped constructions aimed to embelish the subway ventilation systems, reminding of native American prints, brings a splash of colour and an exotic note to the neighbourhood.


Siemensstadt was built in the Western part of Spandau, with its centers of power represented by the expanding Siemens factories. The red brownish-bricked buildings that still keep original constructions from two centuries ago are an example of industrial architecture, where simplicity and functionalism are used to send a message of prestige and clear power. 


Since its founding, Siemens permanently employed an important part of the local population, and having them close to the factory, while offering modest yet decent living conditions was part of the social planning. The Bauhaus movement, created in Weimar by Martin Gropius in the 1920s, was offering the right construction solution for the expanding working class: the emphasis on functional design while considering the social aspects. 


Gropius, together with Fred Forbat, Otto Bartning and Hans Scharoun, created at the end of the 1920s beginning of the third decade of the 20th century a so-called 'Siedlung' (translated as a 'housing development project') unique by its architectural diversity yet practical in its offer. Siemensstadt is one of the 4 such big projects in Berlin, together with Hufeisensiedlung in Britz, Weiße Stadt in Reinickendorf and Onkel-Tom Hütte in Zehlendorf. 


From outside, they look like small orderly boxes of matches. For each living unit, the learned architects - the representatives of the Bauhaus were knowledgeable not only in topics related to architecture, but Gropius encouraged the multi-disciplinary education such as knowing the physical properties of materials, painting and social sciences too - assigned around 54 sqm - 2 rooms - for a family of 4 persons.


The new living units were adapted to the challenges brought by the industrial revolution, offering to the Siemens workers access to various facilities, such as a laundry point - Wäscherei - at the end of one of the buildings. In addition, cultural and religious services, as well as childcare were part of the bigger offer of services included in the complex of buildings.


Nowadays, once you enter a specific area, you may find many announcements not only about available apartments to rent, but also about common activities, such as local historical and photography tours or just neighbourhood meetings.


If you are looking for some interesting examples of Bauhaus constructions, the best streets to explore are: Jungfernheideweg, Goebelplatz and Nonnendammallee.


My next stop is one U7 subway station away: Siemensdamm, where there are more Siemens administrative buildings and factories. In the front of the main building, a massive sculpture, signed by the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, reverses the urban dynamic of the area: The Wings.


Given its non-central location, you hardly know about it. Initially presented at the Milan Expo 2015, it is a 3-part wing-shaped aluminium structure which comes together twice as the sculpture twists upward. 


It has a high of 18.47 meters, which amounts to the year when Siemens factory was created.


The fierce struggle of the wings that seems to fight against the forces of gravitation and levitate up into the skies enters a different dynamic stage with the 5,000 small LEDS enlightening the monumental work. I've visited the place during the day, therefore I couldn't spot fully the digital activities.


There are no 'wows' to utter at every corner and Instagrammable places in Siemensstadt. The over 10,000 people living here are busy at work, many of them for generations employed by Siemens. Even my expat friends working for the German giant preferred to move here, as the long working hours do not allow too much time to cross the city to a more fancier and glamorous neighbourhood. The rents are more than bearable and the life is safe, cheap and uneventful. The easy transport connections via the Ring and fast subway connection that initially pledged for locating the factory here are still among the main advantages of living and working here.
But there is a local life which you can hardly find in the other posh areas: at the local bookstore Bücher an Nonnendamm, there is hardly place left on the main door window for the announcements of weekend common activities. More than in any other parts of Berlin, there is a high concentration of Italian restaurants, at competition with typical German kneippe, and bakeries, among which the Backusilius, a small baking workshop, also family-friendly. 
You can easily live in Siemensstadt, in Bauhaus boxes of matches, included in the UNESCO World Heritage. Your history and the history of the place are growing up as a small sequence of the history of this city.





Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Short Guide of Lichterfelde (Ost, Süd, West)

Bordered by the neighbourhoods of Steglitz, Dahlem and Zehlendorf, and at the border to Brandenburg, via Teltow, Lichterfelde - with its later sections East, South and West - started to get its noble residential outlook from the 19th century. Aimed to answer the new social status needs of the emerging Berlin middle class, this former village turned into an outstanding area of villas, whose residents were predominantly working in the financial domain or were officers of the Prussian Army.
A favorite area of the American representatives during the Cold War, the oldest villas' area of Berlin hardly changed. With its elegant villas with generous gardens and well-dressed ladies slowly heading to their favorite coffee place, walking this area is like entering a different time and social dimension. It is an image of what probably Berlin used to be in its bourgeois glory.
In the last ten years, I've been many times here, mostly to visit friends, but last year, I took a couple of long walks in various areas of Lichterfelde, eager to discover the different sides and secrets of this place.

You can easily reach Lichterfelde by S-Bahn or regional train, from, for instance, Sudkreuz train station, or by the buses crossing Dahlem-Zehlendorf area. You are still in the AB area. As it is a predominantly green area, with many houses hidden under the generous vegetation of the green yards, my recommendation is to visit this place in early spring - cherry blossom gives even more colour to the neighbourhood - or during the summer. The elegant coffees with outdoors table invites you to order a coffee and a classical piece of cake, the perfect companion for a good book. 

Lichterfelde Ost


First stop: Lichterfelde Ost S-Bahn Station.

One of my favorite time of the week to discover this part of Berlin was always on Sundays, midday. Serious people are having the weekly family lunch and you can hardly spot anyone outdoors - not that during any other times of the week you might cross path with more than 2-3 people, eventually walking their dogs. 


One of the most famous of the many beautiful residential places here is Villa Bernadotte, named after the famous WWII Swedish diplomat. A former research laboratory that was not hit during the Allies bombings during the war, it used to host a Jazz Club for the US soldiers while nowadays is a children and youth cultural center.


Walking the streets of Lichterfelde Ost always gave me the feeling of being somewhere out of the city. Quiet mews bordered by green bushes and discrete street lamposts are leading to modern residences with a small wooden bench in the front of the door. Jungfernsteig, for instance, was one of my favorite streets to walk on a peaceful Sunday, when only the heavy puffing engines of the vintage cars were troubling the overwhelming outdoor peace.


As eveywhere in Berlin, the range of restaurants covers almost every corner of the world. Once, we had a tasty stop at the welcoming Yogi Haus, serving simple Indian dishes. For the desserts, I've been more than once at Mia Gelateria, to get a spoon of icecream accompanied with some fresh warm waffles.
The area near the S-Bahn has a modest yet necessary selection of shopping, from big global retail brands to various German local brands and bio-stores. Kranoldplatz has a good offer in this respect, for instance.


But you can hardly think about going shopping, when the good weather calls you to explore the streets bordering the old villas. From Lorenzostraße to Prallelstraße, there are enough jewels of classical architecture to keep your camera busy and your mind hungry for the story of all those people that used to and still living here.

Next: Lichterfelde-Süd

Lichterfelde-Süd, situated around the area served by the S-Bahn with the same name, it is a completely different urban story. 


Similarly with the Gropius Stadt, here was built a urban colony aimed to answer the needs of the working class. Thermometersiedlung - as its parts are named after famous personalities with contributions in the field of temperature researches such as Celsius or Mercator - counts around 4,500 units in 10-floor blocks of flats organised in a compound which also includes a nursery, a church and various social institutions. 


As in the case of Gropiusstadt, the unemployment in this area is relatively higher compared with the rest of the Lichterfelde, and so is the criminality level. However, as in many such compounds, ther eis a sense of neighbourhood and community that you cannot find somewhere else. Erva's Backshop is an example in this respect and so is the local coffee place where the residents of different ages can gather together once in a while. The neighbourhood intercultural garden project is aimed to answer the new intercultural challenges of Berlin in the last years. 


Another unknown fact about Lichterfelde is that Otto Lilienthal, the pioneer of world aviation whose memorial house I've visited in Anklam a couple of years ago, lived in the area but his house doesn't exist any more. On the Fliegberg, mirroring a big carp pond with lazy ducks swimming back and forth, actually a small hill in the middle of a park, he tested some of his flying projects.


A massive monument in his memory was created with stairs integrated into the structure of the hill going on the top. 


An UFO-like structure with a big hole in the middle leaves the sun to enter the top of the monument, where a world globe made of black stone was set. The overall taste is not top, but from afar, it looks at least spectacular.


If not for the history, it is worth climbing to the top for the overview of the area, with its special industrial brutalist urban touch. Most of the buildings are relatively newly built, as the area has many abandoned places that were used by the US troops in Berlin as a training area, in the so-called Parks Range.

Last stop: Lichterfelde-West

Another S-Bahn stop, another slice of Lichterfelde. Actually, my favorite part of it, for its charming houses and tasty temptations.


Actually, I've started my journey here with a sugary stop at the Coffreez, a small place where people speak French inside the S-Bahn station - considered a Kulturalbahnhof, a cultural train station - for some salted caramel pancakes and a cappuccino. The rhythm of music resonated with the colourful painting and the coming and going of busy residents asking in different languages for their favorite type of coffee and sometimes a homemade piece of cake too.


In the front of the station, the fruits and vegetables stall surrounded by half-timbered houses add a note of small fairytale German village.


The style and decorations of the houses are one of a kind and are by far one of the most elaborated I've ever seen in Berlin. Compared to the massive opulent villas from Grunewald, for instance, in Lichterfelde West the houses are individualized by unique colours and shapes.


Walking around the area, step by step, reveals a lot of beautiful architectural creations that successfully passed the test of any time. 


The most popular villas are to be found on Baselerstraße, Potsdamerstraße, Kadettenweg and Ringstraße. If you are curious to taste some of the local cuisine - mostly classical German and Italian with a big offer of French wines - you may want to take a break on Curtiusstraße, where the gastronomic offer of Lichterfelde West is displayed in full splendor.


All of them were created in a style typical for the end of the 19th century and were aimed to offer elegant accommodation to rich families. Nowadays, even some of the inheritors of the old families are still living the same house of their ancestors, they split the space for allowing other people to come too, and eventually cover part of the big costs associated with the maintenance of such a real estate.


You can hardly find a villa similar to another, the styles covering a lot of geographical styles I've often encountered within the German-speaking realm. Wherever you turn your eyes, it looks like a never ending architectural beauty contest. Personally, I can hardly find one villa that I dislike. However, if you think about purchasing one, you need to save very hard, as the prices can elegantly reach the generous amount of 1,000,000 euro. Life is not fair, I know.


When my researches for the short guide of Lichterfelde ends and I know my time here is done, I have a little regret. After so many days spent exploring the streets and eyeing the villas, I was almost feeling as a local here. However, not local enough to afford living here. At least, I might want to come back again a couple of times, maybe for discovering some interesting restaurant and support the local shops.

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.

LISBON


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.


PORTO

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.

COIMBRA

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.

SINTRA


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!