Saturday, February 28, 2015

If I had to identify my initial reason for visiting Portugal, it would definitely be the town of Porto. It's located about 2.5-3 hours by car or by train from Lisbon, so you're going to likely have to spend the night.  Trust me, though, you're going to love the extra time!  Porto literally translates into "port" in English.  It is second to Lisbon in size and has a 2000+ year history of maritime trading, especially based on its proximity to the Douro Valley vineyards and their famous port wines.  The city is compact, albeit a wee bit hilly, so it's a very easy adventure to cram into a short amount of time.  I literally did this tour I'm about to share twice in 24 hours because the first time I accidentally left my SD memory card for my camera still in my computer from downloading photos the previous night.  Whoops!

The first stop in this counter-clockwise journey is the Luis I bridge (Ponte Luis I).  This is a double decker bridge with train and pedestrian paths on the upper level, cars and pedestrian areas on the lower level.  The city view photo above was taken from the upper level, which can be reached from Av. Vimara Pares.  There is a small park at the end of the bridge that also provides more viewpoints, however the cables from the gondola get in the way a bit there.

Crossing back over the bridge into old town, it's hard to miss the Porto Cathedral on your left.  This is one of the city's oldest buildings.  Construction on this romanesque church began in 1110A.D and was finished in the 13th century.  From the cathedral, you will have a view of the famous Porto tower sticking out of a field of red rooftops.

Porto is a city where you need to put the guidebook and map away and just look up and around. The buildings are gorgeous, albeit a little bit in need of a cleaning though it adds to the character.  For example, from the Cathedral, look downhill and you can see the beautiful blue tilework of the Igreja dos Congregados next to the train station.  Don't walk there yet, because you're going to go uphill a little more to find the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso.

The 18th century Igreja de Santo Ildefonso was my favorite example of the azulejo tilework!  It is a must see, in my opinion.

Next, I started to make my way east towards the Porto tower.  I wanted to visit the Majestic Cafe, with it's art deco style interior and exterior, but I was having a terrible time finding it.  If I was in the right spot, it looked like it was closed and under construction; however, looking on Trip Advisor, people were there dining the day before.  So confused, but now I have an excuse to come back!

Once again, the walk to the tower is a time for you to pay attention to your surroundings.  I found some great early 20th century buildings and signs!  

At the beginning of this post, I said that Porto was my reason for visiting Portugal.  More specifically, the Livraria Lello & Irmão, or the Lello Bookstore was the reason.  I was there before the 10am opening because I knew it was going to get crowded quick, and boy was it worth it!  I love bookstores, and this is one of the world's most beautiful bookstores.  

This building was erected in 1906 with an art nouveau exterior facade and a neo-gothic design for the interior.  There is plaster that is painted to imitate wood in areas and the curved stairs are the first example of reinforced concrete structures in Porto.  Of course, you can't miss the ceiling's stained glass window with the store's motto.  I've had this bookstore pinned on Pinterest for years now!

By way of the tower, or Torre dos Clérigos, head back to the train station.  The Estação de São Bento's entry room has more of the azulejo tilework that depicts Portugues history. Definitely worth visiting!

Finally walking downhill after endless uphill paths, if you make your way down Rua das Flores, your next destination should be the Palácio da Bolsa.  Sadly, there was a wine exposition going on this weekend, so the palace was closed for tourism.  If you get a chance, the interiors are supposed to be fantastic, and very gold!

Finally, finding yourself near the waterfront, see if you can spot the old trolley running!

Then make your way to the Igreja de São Francisco on the downhill side of the Palácio de Borse. The interior of the church was done in a baroque style with gold painted, or gilded, woodwork.  You can also visit the catacombs if you're into that...ew!

While you are near the river, take advantage of the pedestrian lower-level walkway of the Luis I bridge to gain a different, river-dominant view of Porto.  A great way to end the tour!  Take the funicular back uphill to return to your lodging, if needed.

And, if you remember to pay attention, you won't miss some interesting and clever street art, as well!

Here's the route I took around Porto...happy exploring!

Posted on Saturday, February 28, 2015 by Julie


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lofoten Islands in Northern Norway are a string of islands full of some of Norway's famous fjords that form a little branch off of the country's west coast.  The closest airport is Harstad/Narvik (EVE) and it is still quite a drive to the tip of the archipelago - over 280 km, which can take a lot longer than one would expect with winter driving conditions.  In our case, it took about 5 1/2 hours to get to our accommodations the first night.

Many photographers, both amateur and professional, flock to this part of the world in the winter months to not only photograph colorful fishing villages with beautiful snow covered mountain backdrops but to, obviously, capture the aurora borealis at night.  I've had this trip planned for over a year because I wanted to go with a photographer friend, Justin Reznick, who was running a workshop with his friend Antony Spencer, who has been coming to shoot Lofoten landscape for many years. I've been out with Justin two other times before this trip and have had the best time and learned a lot of skills both in the field and in processing that have, I think, really helped to improve my photography.

Unfortunately, the weather gods were not on our sides during our time in Norway.  While the east coast of the U.S. was dipping into record cold temperatures and dumping tons of snow, ironically the weather above the Arctic Circle was staying above freezing and brought in some insane storms that included, what felt like, hurricane force winds and small stinging hail that pelted our faces.  It was cloudy, raining, and/or windy most of the other time.  To give you an example, we went to the picturesque town of Reine several times to try to capture it in better conditions.  On our last day, we finally got the wind to be calm enough for some mountain reflections and the sky to be partly sunny. Compare that to the other photo below that shows the wind whipping around on the water and the mountains covered in moisture-heavy clouds.

We were really lucky to have Tony Spencer with us because he had a portfolio of landscape options to choose from that didn't require perfect weather, and actually produced some good compositions despite the grey skies, uncooperative water, and snow that had been stripped off the mountains from the strong winds.  Here are some of my favorite shots from this complicated weather week.  I'll share the story of the aurora borealis in a follow up post...spoiler alert:  it has a happy ending!

Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 by Julie


Monday, February 16, 2015

When I travel to a new city and am limited on time, I have to choose what kind of adventure I want to have.  I could go with the traditional tourist route and hit all of the museums and historical sites.  In Norway during the winter, that's not a bad option because the tourists are few and far between.  The other option is to just wander and absorb the atmosphere.  Oslo is very conducive to wandering, as most things are relatively walkable as long as you stay in the center of town, and if walking is not your thing, there is the subway or lightrail.  I'm a planner, though, and wandering for me is more directed than spontaneous -- I know the major points of interest I want to cover, and I get the surprise from everything in between my planned stops.  So, with just about a day's worth of time, after reserving some time for jet lag recovery, I put on my walking shoes and headed out to do a combo of a little bit tourist path and majority finding the real Oslo. 

First thing I must say about Oslo is how wonderful the people are there.  When they greet you, it's often with a smile and a "hihi," which made me think of the rhyme - Norwegians:  so nice they say "hi" twice!  Did I mention I did a lot of walking with lots of thinking time this weekend?  

As for lodging, I stayed in the Nationaltheatret district, which I found very convenient to everything I wanted to see.  Plus, the local train from the airport (90 NOK vs. 180 NOK on the express train that isn't that much faster) stops at Nationaltheatret right after the Central Oslo train station.  The train shares a station with a T-bane (metro) stop as well.  

My 24 hours officially started at the changing of the guards ceremony at the Royal Palace, every day at 1:30pm regardless of the weather.  For about 40 minutes, the royal guard performs the traditional routine of relieving the on-duty guards. 

My next stop was an interesting art installation that you will need to look down to find.  It's at Theatergata 9.  Several of the concrete tiles have been removed and replaced with 50,000 small bronze statues of people ranging from 3-10cm.  Some of the tiles have been placed back atop the people.  It is a really neat display that you should seek out.

Heading uphill, en route to the Old Aker Chuch, you will have the option to climb a set of stairs that end on Damestredet.  This is a perfect, picturesque place to get a feel for Oslo 150 years ago.  These wooden houses date back to 1810-1860 and are examples of how many homes were once constructed, most of which have since burned down in fires.  Oslo has one other street filled with historical homes, that happens to be Tethusbakken found just below the Old Aker Church.

Next, I headed downhill towards the Akers River to cross over into a great neighborhood for cafes and street art called Grünerløkka.  I did some research before on the popular street art to find some of the murals that appealed to me.  Behind the Mir Cafe at Toftes Gate 69, there are several pieces of wall art.  The rainbows, in particular, I really wanted to find.  I spent over an hour on Google Maps trying to locate the address.  I finally figured out that they are all in a courtyard out of view of the Google cameras.

Making the right turn on Norde Gate, I walked back towards the river to find a giant peacock mural spanning the entire front of a building (no. 25).  

The last stop of this walking tour was to Ingens Gate.  Not only are there tons of street art murals to admire, but often a small street market is set up with waffles and crafts to purchase.

After exploring the Grünerløkka neighborhood, I had a few boxes to check off of my list of tourist sites. I knew I wasn't going to go to the museums in Oslo because, if short on time, I always opt out of museums.  So that left the Opera House, Akershus Fortress, and Vigeland Statue Park within Frogner Park to finish up the next morning within my 24 hour period.  It was a pretty cold and dreary day, so the Opera House was not looking its best.  I didn't get near the fortress because the pathways were sheets of ice.  So, that left the park.  I took the T-bane to the Majorstuen stop.  It was just a short walk to the park entrance.  Vigeland Park was designed by Gustav Vigeland, and it is an 80 acre park within a park, filled with 212 sculptures created by Vigeland.  If I were to guess, Vigeland specialized in bronze nudes.  There are only so many nudes you can see before you feel like you've seen them all.  It was a nice walk though, albeit cold.  Here are some of my favorites, mostly because they made me laugh:

Everything is pretty expensive in Oslo, so be prepared for that.  Otherwise, have a great time exploring, and I hope you have as much fun finding hidden treasures like I did!

Posted on Monday, February 16, 2015 by Julie