Rome Italy

Being the hub of ancient empire and home to numerous significant prehistoric and historic archaeological remains, no doubt the beautiful Rome is among the top ten on travellers’ list of must-see. Overall experience of the trip, however, was just fair, due to the fact that we could not get used to the traditional Italian culture such as queue-jumping and dangerous driving. Transportation network of Rome is not advanced enough compared to those in Paris, London, and Madrid, but better than the one in Lisbon. Worst of all, a few Italians whom we came across were dishonest and unpleasant. For example, someone from the hotel told me that there was no public transportation available at late night from FCO airport to the city and I would also have difficulty finding a taxi and so he would be happy to arrange a transfer service for us at EUR70. I am glad I did not believe a word he said. There is a bus departing at 00:30 at EUR6 per person, another at 01:15 at EUR7, and there are taxis available around the airport at a fixed rate of EUR48. What’s more, an unfriendly staff member in Basilique St Pierre directed us 1km east for Sistine Chapel, which actually is in the north right next to the Basilique.


The very first stop of this beautiful Saturday was Vatican City, where we were able to take some really good shots of the crowded Piazza S. Pietro under the azure sky, before going on a huge queue for entrance to the Basilique. With lots of people queue-jumping, of course, we finally arrived at the entrance only to be told I needed to cover the little part of my shoulders not covered by my sleeveless dress. I would have been fine with that and happy to respect the rules of a religious monument, only if the others of white skin in low-cut dresses were asked to do the same. I was truly sad, but then got ready and excited to go all the way up to the panoramic viewpoint. We made a great decision to pay EUR2 more to go up by elevator, because we still had to walk a lot up after getting off the elevator. That was exhausting, but worthwhile. We continued to sightsee Rome by walking after lunch. Attractions included Castel Sant’ Angelo, Piazza Novona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Spagna, Pincio, Piazza del Popolo, and Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen. It was super-crowded at Trevi Fountain. We could hardly move in the crowd. I liked the panoramic viewpoint at Pincio but it was also where we got attacked by a little kid, who intentionally threw us a bunch of little rocks. I would have been hurt if he had the strength of an 8-year-old. We did spend a good day though, sightseeing this pretty city and enjoying delicious Italian pizzas and gelato.


We started the day by visiting the Colosseum, our most favorite attraction in Rome. Time for queuing, and witnessing queue-jumping, again. This impressive archaeological site is almost 2000 years old. Quite a big part has fallen and replaced by contemporary construction. Some Italian tourists stepped on those dying pieces in the site just to take pictures but got scolded by security guards. How sad. People should be aware that it is important to protect prehistoric and historic archaeological remains. Next, we visited the Roman Forums, a rectangular plaza surrounded by ruins of several important ancient government buildings and for centuries the center of Roman public life. It was already 14:30 and we were so tired and hungry. Luckily we were able to had a yummy lasagna lunch nearby, before heading to other attractions including Milizie, Piazza Venezia, Terrazza delle Quadrighe, and Capitol Hill. Dinner was pasta, another must-try Italian cuisine, and then we were energetic again to take a walk to see a part of Rome at night. Got some nice shots at Castel Sant’ Angelo and the Vatican.


We were so thankful we had all three days under sunshine. First, we walked from the hotel to The Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Again it is a bascilica with grand exterior and interior. I would call Rome “the city of bascilicas”. We then took the tram to reach Porta Maggiore which is by far the best urban site to visit for an understanding and view of the ancient aqueducts. Grasped our last opportunity to enjoy some more pizzas and heavenly gelato at lunch time. The rest of the day we travelled by metro and on foot to Basilica of St. John Lateran, Roseto di Roma Capitale (The Rose Garden), Mouth of Truth, Giardino degli Aranci, etc. People were queuing to put their hands into the Mouth of Truth for a shot. Instead of queuing, we just took a picture from outside the gate. It was just too time-consuming to queue at all times. We planned to take the train from Termini station to FCO airport. It was so chaotic at Termini. There was not even one staff member around available for answering queries. To ask one question we needed to go on that huge queue. No way! We did not bother, but take a taxi. Never risk missing the plane!


Lisbon Portugal

The trip to Madrid in Spain and this one to Lisbon in Portugal should have been equally good, but the overall experience of the latter was exceptional because of perfect weather, the very beautiful castles and palaces in Sintra, and a personal preference for Portuguese food such as salads, seafood and various choices of baked goods. Sunshine and blue sky really count. We were also impressed by the Portuguese’s ability to speak English, compared to those in Spain and France, for example, who were almost illiterate in English. Unlike Madrid, unfortunately, concern for safety travelling around Lisbon must have been significant among tourists. There were drug dealers all along Rua Augusta and all over Praca do Comercio selling drugs to everyone including diners in open restaurants overtly as if they were selling candies. We encountered more than five on the first day, and then we just lost count. Hard sell of a variety of goods in the same area to tourists and diners was also commonplace. Moreover, there was a con at Rossio train station that targeted tourists.

DAY 1 - Belem District

It was convenient, fast and cheap enough to travel by metro from the airport to downtown Lisbon where we dropped our luggage off at the hotel near Baixa Chiado station. However, we made a good decision to take a taxi to get to the historical Belem as the tiny tram was arriving in 25 minutes to pick up the big crowd in the queue. It costed around EUR9 which we found acceptable when we wanted to make the most of our 3-day weekend to sightsee Lisbon. We visited Belem Tower, Discoveries Monument, and Jeronimos Monastery but not the National Coach Museum, which would have been a nice stop if we had enough time. In the evening we walked along the seaside towards Santo Amaro Docks for a romantic dinner full of delicious Portuguese specialities and seafood together with a spectacular night view of the 25 de Abril Bridge just above the docks.

DAY 2 - Sintra

It was an easy task to go to and from Sintra by train because both Rossio and Sintra are final stops on the line, but it can be tricky to go around Sintra. First, do not even think about walking uphill to Castle of the Moors and National Palace of Pena. Those are just not places you should go on foot. Second, you can take either the Sintra Tourist Bus 434 or Hop-on-Hop-off Tourist Bus. The former costs EUR5 and it runs every 40 minutes, i.e. you need to go in the very long queue and wait for long again after visiting each attraction. Third, you can take a taxi to go up, but very likely you will not find any taxi waiting outside the attraction to pick you up when you are done. Right after stepping out of Sintra train station, there were some guys carrying a board selling tours by private van to those castles and palaces. We made a deal with one of them, who drove us to Castle of the Moors, National Palace of Pena, and Quinta da Regaleira. He was waiting for us outside each attraction while we were enjoying a visit, and brought us to the next stop once we were done with one. As a local or some kind of tour guide, he was able to help us cut the queue at ticket offices. At the end of the day we paid him a total of EUR15 per person. It seems nobody talks about these private van tours in Sintra in online tourist information. Also, most tourists were not attracted to those boards showing only some pictures and the term “private tours” without any price indicated. It was such a poor marketing strategy. For the attractions, Pena and Regaleira are must-enter. From both you can have nice views of the Moors.

DAY 3 - Downtown Lisbon

We did a full-day sightseeing in the area of Baixa all on foot. Here’s our route: Rua Augusta -> Triumphal Arch -> Praca do Comercio -> Casa Dos Bicos-> Lisbon Cathedral -> Miradouro (viewpoint) das Portas Do Sol -> Miradouro da Graca -> Miradouro da Senhora do Monte -> Castle of S. Jorge.

Little Tips about Eating:

There can be quite a difference in price between restaurants providing same kind of food in the same area. Check the menu first!

You would really like to have lots of fruits and try different fruits juice in Portugal. Most restaurants provide a variety of fruits juice, but very often only orange juice is freshly squeezed. I ordered strawberry juice twice throughout the trip. The first one was obviously syrup-added and I doubted if it was freshly made. The second one was 100% strawberry juice with no sugar added. You really have to ask before you sit down. Waiters in tourists areas were nice and happy to help according to our experience.

We were looking for a very late lunch on the last day at around 16:00. A waiter from one of the restaurants was showing us a variety of expensive traditional Portuguese dishes available on his menu and he added that all restaurants were closing so soon and his would also be closing later. Glad that I did not believe him and we walked away. No restaurants close at that time, not around that area (Rua Augusta)! People lie! As tourists we can just be more careful.


Madrid Spain in Spring


Landed in Madrid at around 13h we headed straight to the hotel in Sol, the very center of the city surrounded by tourist attractions located within walking distance. We were quite happy with the efficient and tourist-friendly metro network of which regular trains run not only from the airport to central but also extensively in the city of Madrid and, more importantly, fare of Madrid metro is almost half-priced compared to London Underground, for example. We did some sightseeing in this afternoon all on foot. Interesting attractions included Plaza Mayor, Arco de Cuchilleros, Plaza de la Villa, San Francisco el Grande Basilica, Temple of Debod, etc. We had a nice but overpriced lunch just by the Arco de Cuchilleros. In any restaurants in the center that serve mainly tourists, do NOT consume any bread brought automatically to your table as it costs at least 1 euro per a tiny piece, and do NOT order any drinks without looking at the menu as we paid 16 euro for a jar of Sangria that should cost 13 euro or less. Also, do NOT expect smooth communication with waiters and waitresses, even in tourist areas. Although they are not illiterate in English, their ability to handle basic conversation is in doubt. The last activity of the day was a spectacular one - a Flamenco show at Corral De La Moreria at dinner time. Great show, and of course, good food!


This was a day’s excursion to Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. We just needed to take the train operated by renfe running via Sol directly to El Escorial. Buying a train ticket, however, was such a pain. Surprisingly ticket machines are not designed for use by the English-speaking, i.e. international tourists. Everyone went on a queue seeking help from one staff member, who then helped buy tickets from the machine. Don’t bother speaking. Just show the staff the written name of your destination, and, use some body language if necessary. After a 50-minute train journey we arrived at El Escorial. Unlike the others who got on a bus right there, we took a 20-minute walk to reach this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The visit into the Monastery was nothing extraordinary, compared to a scenic walk in its gardens which were free. We should have lunched back in city of Madrid, because international tourists are not that welcomed there in El Escorial. Spanish customers enjoy the privilege to be seated in a nicer table, and to order first, even if they arrive later than international customers like us. It was almost 17h when we got back in city of Madrid. We went sightseeing again but to the east of Sol this time. There were Plaza de Cibeles and Puerta de Alcalá. Palacio de Comunicaciones stood right in the former is particularly spectacular. We also entered for free the Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain’s premier art gallery, housing the finest works of art Spain has ever produced (Free entry Mon-Sat 18:00-20:00 and Sun & holidays 17:00-19:00). By the end of Day 2 we had this dinner full of tasty tapas in one of the restaurants around Calle Cava Alta and Calle Cava Baja.


This was a day’s excursion to Royal Palace of Aranjuez. Trains of the same line run via Sol to the opposite direction to Aranjuez in the south instead of El Escorial in the north. It was so convenient to travel from Sol both for day’s excursion and around the city. For ease of transportation, we recommend accommodation around Sol. Aranjuez is a nicer place than El Escorial, which is comparatively touristic. There were mainly Spanish tourists. Most shops were closed on a Sunday. We spent most of the day to visit the palace, the gardens, as well as The Iglesia Real de San Antonio. Back in city of Madrid it was almost 17h, time for a late teatime with some splendid Spanish cakes and cookies among which meringue desserts seem to be a speciality. We then walked further along Calle Gran Vía, the busy shopping main street, to see another face of the city. We were searching for paella as dinner this night at Plaza de Mayor. It was fine to pay 20 eur for the yummy paella with lobster, but we would never opt for the one next door that said “only 10 eur for a paella”. Think about that, 10 eur for a paella in Plaza de Mayor. You don’t want to give it a try.


It had been sunny the first three days, even though temperature had dropped from 28C to 12C, but Day 4 was pretty tough because of a full-day raining. Fortunately Day 4 was scheduled for indoor activity, and we had already taken nice pictures with blue sky of the Cathedral and Palace on Day 1 when we walked passed them. The first stop was Almudena Cathedral, which looks gorgeous outside but is not at all interesting inside, contrary to the San Francisco el Grande Basilica visited on Day 1. The next stop was Royal Palace of Madrid just opposite the Cathedral. This is much more a popular attraction. Unlike those in El Escorial and Aranjuez, written English descriptions and signs are generally available in each room and hall. It is definitely a must-see in Madrid. We grasped our last chance on this last day to enjoy one more time a delicious seafood paella nearby. Before heading to the airport, the last stop of the trip was Museo de Thyssen-Bornemisza, an Art museum with the best private collection of classic and modern art in Spain. It was again, free, at our time of visit, i.e. Monday 12:00-16:00.


Muotka Lapland Finland

Our quest to search for the aurora borealis has been a failure, the one-week Valentine’s holiday in Muotka, a wilderness reserve in Lapland, however, was still a great one. Husky safari, snowmobile safari, snowshoe hike, visit to reindeer farm, etc. were all fun things to do there in the Arctic Circle. Local Finnish guides were not only professional, but also very kind. Most importantly, they communicated fluently in English. Food was just fine, while we found the soup made by Finnish exceptional. On the entire Day One we had no fun but flew from Heathrow to Helsinki and then from Helsinki to Ivalo thanks to the long wait for the domestic flight from Helsinki. The holiday ended on Day Seven when we departed from the Muotka Wilderness Lodge at 10am and arrived in Heathrow at 5pm.

Husky Safari + Aurora Workshop + Night Snowshoeing

On Day Two after breakfast we were transferred to the husky farm to meet lots of lovely huskies that could not wait any longer to run! There was a full safety briefing before the safari. The only thing the driver should and could do was to control the brake. Simple enough! Each two persons took charge of their own team of six huskies. The passenger sat in the sledge, while the driver stood just behind. The huskies were so excited that they rushed to take off and continued to run so fast. As the huskies disliked stopping, it was not an easy task to brake. At some point I wondered whether there could have been a crash into the sledge in the front! It was such good fun especially on bumpy snow! There was a break en route for those who wished to swap drivers before heading back to the farm. This husky safari is definitely a must-do! 

In the evening there was the aurora workshop during which videos about aurora borealis were shown. Honestly, there are a load of videos as such on YouTube. For those who know very well about the science behind the Lights, this is absolutely redundant. The guide did explain some of the local myths and legends which are inspired by the Aurora, but we did not find anything extraordinary. At the end of the session the guide gave some tips about how to set individual cameras in order to capture the Lights as much as possible.

Snowshoeing has always been our favorite activity, but this was the first time snowshoeing at night. On the way to some great Northern Lights vantage points the guide talked about wildlife around the area. The snow covered trees looked like unique sculptures in the beam of head torches and the absolute silence when we stopped was something we rarely got to experience. Failed to see a wonderful display, the group settled in a lavvu, i.e. Finnish Tipi, where the guide made a fire on which a kettle of berries juice was hanged and pancakes cooking on a frying pan. A cup of hot berries juice was perfect out there in the cold! 

Snowshoeing + Snowmobiling Lesson + Night Snowmobiling

This morning we headed out into the forest on a snowshoe trek. There were quite a lot of places there we could not explore without snowshoes so they allowed us real freedom to get around the area. We did see a reindeer but nothing else on this trip. It was lovely snowshoeing again though. We then had lunch back at the lodge before having a snowmobiling lesson in the afternoon.

Driving a snowmobile did not seem that hard. Drivers must possess a full driving license. The guide took us through all of the instructions and safety requirements for driving a snowmobile. The lesson lasted less than 15 minutes. Everyone had the chance to practice their own skills on the trails around the lodge before heading off in convoy for a short scenic safari. Again, we loved travelling on bumpy snow! Going up and down hill were exciting too. Night snowmobiling was equally fun. As the drivers got used to the driving, we had a longer and smoother safari this night. We did not have a chance to experience another Tipi time but the guide did serve us some hot drinks and snacks on the way.

Snowmobile Safari to a Reindeer Farm

This was the third and the last time we travelled on a snowmobile. It seemed to be a lot, but believe me, everyone wanted a fourth time. We enjoyed this long safari and get to explore further afield. It was certainly an exhilarating way to travel and as we journeyed along the marked trails we felt a million miles away from our normal day to day routine! Again we travelled two persons per snowmobile and our destination was a reindeer farm around 20km from Nellim. Everyone had a chance to take a 5-minute ride on a reindeer sledge. This had nothing to do with husky safari, since the one reindeer carrying two persons on a sledge did not run at all. It walked in a relaxing way… I loved it. This ride made some kinds of fairy-tale dreams come true. Reindeer herding has been an inherent part of life in Lapland for many hundreds of years. We learnt a little about the fascinating history of herding and its importance to the local culture. After having some tasty fish soup with bread, coffee and tea as lunch, we headed back to the lodge on snowmobiles. It was a long day out, and we really loved travelling a long way on the snowmobile.

Visit to Inari Sami Siida + Aurora by Car

It took more than one hour by coach to go from the lodge to the small village of Inari to visit the Sami Siida Museum which is the center for Sami culture. The museum has several permanent exhibits detailing the history of the Sami people and the region’s wildlife. Since we are not big fans of museums especially this kind of little ones, touring around the museum for one hour and a half was more than enough for us. We also had lunch there in the museum before heading to fish on the frozen river nearby. Of course we knew we would not catch any fish, but it was so much fun drilling holes in the snow/ice through which some in the group hoped to catch a fish for dinner. We were out for most of the day thanks to the almost 3 hours spent in the coach.
After dinner back in the lodge there was another dedicated search for the Aurora as we headed out in a minibus to try and track down a display. The mobility provided by the minibus did allow the guide to utilise the weather and Aurora forecasts to determine the best route to take to avoid any potential cloud cover, it was, however, too cloudy like every other nights throughout our stay and so we failed to see any Lights. We stopped somewhere and this time settled in a cabin instead of Tipi. We had some hot berries juice and cookies. Time spent with the group around a fire in Tipi or cabin with hot drinks was one of the most remarkable in this Lapland trip. 

Cross Country Skiing + Aurora Camp

This was the last day of the trip. We were provided with cross country ski’s and after a 15-minute lesson we headed out to explore one of the many cross country ski trails in the area. These trails around Muotka are popular with the locals and we saw people out enjoying the pretty landscape. Even though cross country skiing seemed easier than skiing, it was very tiring and I could hardly make it! The others in the group were fine. Some liked it quite much.

This evening we headed out on a snowmobile pulled sleigh. This was our very last chance of Aurora hunt. The guide drove us to one of the best locations in the area some hundreds meters away from the lodge. It was just too cloudy all the time. No way we could have seen anything in the sky. We spent some time in a Tipi the last time and mourned the failure of Aurora hunt.


White Christmas in France and Switzerland

I mistakenly believed that I should avoid traveling in winter when days were shortest and weather was coldest, until I started to realize how wonderful it could be to have a white Christmas, not to mention my current location’s proximity to all those all-white ski resorts in the beautiful Switzerland, one of my favorite countries. We journeyed from Geneva, where we picked up the car, to Megève and Chamonix in France, and then to Crans-Montana, Leukerbad, Saas Fee, and Zermatt in Switzerland where lots of pretty Swiss chalets stood on complete snow white amid magnificent mountains, and finally back to Geneva via Montreux along Lake Geneva. We also made a detour to visit the French medieval village called Yvoire, because we had some free time before catching the flight back home from Geneva International Airport.


Megève was not that white when we were there on 22 and 23 December. Apart from sledging and snowshoeing, we spent a full day simply hiking under the clear blue sky and of course there was enough snow only on summits. The village itself was an attraction, especially when Christmas trees and Christmas lights were all there shining. There were cozy restaurants and bars all around the town square. Most importantly, we did not forget to grab some patisserie as we were still in France. Opera cake, for example, may be easily accessible for most, but we had a hard time to find one in London. 

Chamonix Mont Blanc

This was a 1-day stop on the way to Switzerland. Weather was so nice, but unfortunately cable cars to Aiguille du Midi were closed due to wind condition. We took the cable car up to Le Brévent instead. That was awesome! Even though we missed Aiguille du Midi, the panorama up there of layers of mountains from afar together with Mont Blanc on a sunny day was still my most favorite of this trip. There were lots of shops and restaurants in the village but most were closed on the Christmas Eve, and it was not at all as pretty as the one in Megève. Here it was our very last chance to grab some tasty Christmas-styled patisserie again before leaving France.


We intentionally spent three full days in Crans-Montana just to maximize the chance of doing hot air ballooning, an activity highly dependent on very nice weather condition. The person in charge of probably the only one hot air ballooning operator in the entire region of Valais claimed that the weather was unfavorable throughout our stay and also the coming days and so the pilot had cancelled all flights ahead. However, the weather on 27 Dec was perfect and without wind. If that kind of weather is unfavorable for hot air ballooning, then I am sure her hot air balloon can never fly. Obviously she lied to us, not to mention she rudely ignored all my English inquiries until my husband wrote to her in French. Not only did she discriminate against non-French speaking tourists, she never replied promptly and have us tried so hard to contact her over and over again. Regardless of disappointment, we did spend lots of nice times in Crans-Montana. As it snowed the first night, there were deep snow everywhere and trees were all white! Town centers were definitely not any attractions. In fact it was quite “dead”.


We planned to visit both Albinen and Leukerbad, but then we realized there was not really any Albinen town center for tourists to hang around. Albinen seemed purely residential. The view at twilight from afar of densely populated chalets surrounded by white mountains was stunning though. We did spend a night there for a good sleep after a long day in Crans-Montana, before heading to the neighboring Leukerbad the next day for a relaxing bath in one of the most beautiful thermal baths in Switzerland - Walliser Alpentherme & Spa Leukerbad. The bath was awesome! The village itself was a nice one too. 28 Dec was not a public holiday. With the Swiss people’s relatively relaxing lifestyle, however, most shops and restaurants were closed. We had a hard time searching for our dinner. 

Saas Fee and Saas Grund

We experienced a dramatic drop of temperature. Saas Fee was the coldest destination of this trip. It was between -10C in the village and -20C on summits. We wrapped ourselves so well before enjoying the activity of the day - snowshoeing on deep snow. Pine trees, mountains, Swiss chalets in snow white under a clear blue sky… what a wonderful day! The next day we stayed right where our hotel was. We were so lucky to have perfect weather again and had lots of fun simply hiking in this place called Saas Grund where tracks for skiing, walking, and sledging were very well-made. That impressive sledging track went from the summit and then all the way down to the village.


If you do not read German, you will probably get fooled here driving directly into Zermatt where you will be told you need to drive all the way back to the neighboring Täsch as cars are not allowed in Zermatt. Most people enter Zermatt by train while some arrange shuttle service themselves. We took the tram all the way up to the summit. After some sightseeing we had some fun on a relatively short sledging track that ran from Rotenboden to the next train station. We then walked around the pretty snowy village before departing for Montreux, a small stop on the way back to Geneva for car return and international departure on 1st of January.

Montreux and Yvoire

We do not usually go for fancy hotels, but this Best Western Eurotel Riviera in Montreux was quite a nice one for a peaceful and romantic New Year Eve. Our hotel room overlooked east end of Lake Geneva. We could have enjoyed our dinner out on the balcony but it did not seem a good idea when it was 3 degree outside. On the 1st we revisited Château de Chillon and then continued our journey back to Geneva along the Lake. It was still early when we arrived in Geneva, and so we decided to make a detour to Yvoire, a French medieval village. Of course almost everything was closed, but this popular destination was not at all short of tourists.