A Travellerspoint blog

Coimbra – Portugal’s Student City

Following my parent’s path, I decided to choose Portugal for my scholarship. I applied to the famous in Portugal University of Coimbra and after four weeks of submitting my application, I was a happy Socrates Erasmus student. Even though it’s been long years since this experience, I still miss this worry-free time of my life.

I have to admit I was lucky. I arrived to Coimbra in October, after all other students have already attended a monthly course of Portuguese. So everything I would normally have to arrange myself, was already waiting for me thanks to my good friend who found us an apartment and subscribed us both to academic courses.

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Our apartment in Portugal was a student-standard place with all the basics we needed to survive. We didn’t complain until the winter came and we suddenly noticed that there was a huge gap between our balcony doors and the floor which let the cold wind into our room. In Portugal, just like in Netherlands, they do not believe in central heating systems. Even though most of people suffer from rheumatism and cough, central heating is considered needless. Blankets, thick quilts and fireplaces are some of the local solutions for surviving winter in cold apartments.
From the very first day and my first walk around the city center, I couldn’t believe I was going to live there for another six months. Nestled about 200 kilometers north of Lisbon and only 40 km from the coastline, Coimbra gained its fame as the “Portugal’s Student City”. About 23,000 of its population are students who come to this charming city to study in its historic University and to enjoy its unique ambiance.

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The University of Coimbra dates back to 1930 and is among Europe’s oldest and most prestigious schools. It was truly a pleasure to walk its ancient halls everyday and see its historic fountains ornamented with azulejos (famous porcelain tiles). Unfortunately I didn’t make it to any of Coimbra’s popular student festivals, Festa das Latas ( The Tin Can Parade) that takes place in the beginning of scholar year and Queima das Fitas (The Burning of Ribbons) which is celebrated at the end of the second semester in May. Both have great traditions and include costume parades and week-long celebrations.

Coimbra is also full of historic cathedrals, beautiful lush parks and enchanting cafes. In my memories I see Coimbra through its narrow and steep cobblestone streets, laundry hanging on every balcony, thousands of cats, lemon trees, steep and long staircases, smell of a fresh Galao (café latte) and history on every corner.

My favorite activity in Coimbra was simply walking through its narrow streets and watching the red sunset light on its old city walls. As for the places, this is my top list:

- Se Velha (Old Cathedral). It’s definitely one of the most beautiful buildings you will find in Coimbra that dates back to 1139. I used to go inside when I was passing by and sit for a bit. Very peaceful.

- Clock tower of the University of Coimbra with its renowed library, the Biblioteca Joanina and the former royal palace. (Coimbra used to be the capital of Portugal). There is a beautiful square, which we used to cross when coming back from our classes.

- Rua Ferreira Borges. It’s the main street of Coimbra full of clothing stores, cafes and little shops with women accessories (our favorite!)

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- Portugal dos Pequenitos (Little Ones’ Portugal) is Coimbra’s theme park that displays miniature versions of Portuguese houses and monuments, all from the former colonies of the country such as Macau, Angola or Brazil.

- University’s Botanical Garden – a lush park with palm trees and ponds, our favorite place to relax after classes.

To be continued…

Posted by gmarta 13:10 Archived in Portugal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Santa Barbara

Dreamy Blue Skies and Beautiful Architecture

A hundred years ago, the movers and shakers in the motion picture business sought a sunny, exotic locale to establish themselves. They discovered Santa Barbara, California. That was where they chose to launch their industry. Thus the very first movie studio, "Flying A Films," was born. Now I’ve chosen to discover this glorious area, too.

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Still a popular vacation spot for the stars, this "American Riviera" is a delight to visit at any time, with a pleasant year-round climate. What strikes the most about Santa Barbara is that it boasts an amazing blend of architectural styles. Its sunny climate lends itself to Spanish and other Mediterranean designs with stucco, wrought iron, and red roof tiles dotting the area. You will find some Moorish and Islamic forms mixed in as well. What’s great is that many of Santa Barbara hotels and homes for tourists reflect these influences, so without doing any sightseeing it’s still possible to feel Santa Barbara’s essence.

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In central Europe, blue cloudless sky is something we don’t see that much at this time of year, so Santa Barbara’s climate made me feel simply wonderful and revitalized me for the rest of the year. As far as flora goes, I was surprised to learn this region produces the most orchids in the United States. The city also boasts a variety of fauna. In fact, the Santa Barbara Channel is one of the country's richest sources of seafood.

Being in Santa Barbara, however, and not mentioning its stunning beaches is probably like traveling to New York and not visiting the Empire State Building. Stretching along the Pacific coast, they truly beckon you to leave your troubles behind for days of blissful relaxation. One of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara was simply gazing out at the sun glinting off the waves and the sails of boats dotting the water. Isn’t it the best life ever?

Posted by gmarta 13:40 Comments (3)

I am Amsterdam

Why to travel to Europe in winter

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Snowy, rainy, freezing cold and grey. Regardless of the season or weather conditions, Amsterdam is always full of people - locals on bikes and distracted tourists crashing with bikers. I was of course the second one, clumsy tourist with her nose in her map walking on bike paths instead of sidewalks. I seriously think I was being protected by some force majeure which stopped me from being run over a zillion bikes!

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This time Amsterdam welcomed me with just a few Celsius degrees above zero and a freezing drizzle. It didn’t stop me, however, from going out of the apartment I was staying at and exploring the city. What amazed me was the outstanding amount of people who, just like me, seemed not to care about these rather harsh weather conditions. I’m lucky, I thought, it’s not summer. Otherwise I would most definitely be run over by one of the million bikes locals use even more during summer months.

Winter in Amsterdam definitely has its charm. Even though my hands were freezing and I had to break icicles that grew out of my nose numerous times, I was enjoying a wintery magical scenery of Amsterdam. During my one-and-a-half-day-stay in Amsterdam, I haven’t visited many regular tourist spots, but decided to purchase a 24 hours I Am Amsterdam card which gave me several discounts on transportation, museums and tours.

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Since my trip was a last minute thing and I was driving from nearby Brussels, I wanted to book a hostel one day before. I actually found a really charming "PhilDutch" houseboat located right in the center of the city and thought it would be quintessential for my stay in a “canal city” but it wasn’t available on the last moment, so I had to call my friend from Amsterdam and convince him to let me stay in his tiny apartment. My friend ended up giving me the keys to his apartment as it surely would not fit me, my boyfriend and him.

As much as I loved his generosity of letting us stay at his place, I couldn’t believe how much people are willing to sacrifice. I guess it’s similar to New York, where people pay 1,000 dollars for a room of a size of my closet just to live in Manhattan. The apartment I stayed in consisted of one very tiny living room, kitchen slash shower and a toilet behind the sliding doors. Very steep ladder lead to a rather claustrophobic attic with a mattress and no windows.

There was also a heater which is another story. My friend educated us on how to use it and even executed this knowledge by conducting a small test. I wasn’t surprised though. To turn on the heater, you had to light up a fire by following a rather complicated procedure. It worked though and at 4 am I had to go down the steep ladder to turn it off, it was so hot! Another thing I found funny were… mice. When I told my friend that we bought bread for breakfast, he said I should guard it in the microwave; otherwise it will be consumed by mice. I actually thought he was just joking until I came back to his apartment at night and discovered his bread in a microwave. As you can imagine, I burst out laughing.

So, besides enjoying the Christmassy atmosphere of Amsterdam, we also took a night boat cruise. It ended up being a really nice experience, mostly because the boat was heated and we could learn some historic facts about the city’s architecture and canals. One of the things I remembered was the story about hooks that every Amsterdam house has to be able to place furniture in it through windows due to very steep and narrow staircase.

We took almost the whole day visiting the Van Gogh museum that I found excellent. Except of Van Gogh’s works, it also displayed several world-famous works of other impressionists. Van Gogh’s paintings were showcased along with his biography which made us understand better his inspirations and motives. The biggest attraction of the museum, however, was the weather outside. I’m guessing snow in Amsterdam is not as frequent and all the tourists gathered by the museum’s windows to take photos of this nature’s phenomenon.

We ended our stay with a visit to an Italian restaurant La Madonna which was full of hungry foreigners just like us. Service was excellent and food even better. After some Minestrone soup, garlic bread and pasta with salmon, we couldn’t wish for more. Although we were stuck in an hour-long traffic just outside Amsterdam, the beautiful image of snow-capped bikes and white cobblestone streets of this magical city had me smiling all night long.

Posted by gmarta 13:28 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

Me in San Francisco

If you're going to San Francisco...

The City by the Bay. There's only one place that could refer to - San Francisco. This historic city offers so much to see and do, I could visit it again and again without growing tired of it.

San Francisco has a lively and fascinating history. Originally settled as a fishing village, it was transformed almost overnight into a fabulous city thanks to the '49ers. No, not the football team--the delirious hopefuls who rushed here from across the country when gold was discovered in 1849. The city has been attracting folks from across the country ever since. During the Internet revolution, a number of newly minted business tycoons chose this California city as their home, particularly in the tony Nob Hill area. This change over time has resulted in a fascinating mix of modern and Victorian architecture which is so unique to San Francisco and which I simply loved photographing.

I think that the constantly growing and changing population which has helped this city evolve into a veritable melting pot of cultures makes it so similar to my favorite New York. Just like in the Big Apple, many people of different nationalities I met are pleased to call San Francisco home.

One of the best things about my stay in San Francisco was my majestic view of the Golden Gate Bridge from my window. People who visit this charming city for the first time absolutely should take a ride on one of the fabled cable cars, which happen to be the only moving National Historic Landmark. For art and history lovers, there are about 65 museums in the city, so no chance to be bored! Relaxing at the Golden Gate Recreational Area was also one of my favorite pastimes.

To be honest I think that my main problem in planning a trip to this bustling city was trying to fit everything in. There is just too much going on! As far as accommodations go, I think it’s best to use Internet and rent an apartment in San Francisco. Mine had the most excellent view and was centrally located. What more could I wish for?

Posted by gmarta 09:07 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Amazing Emerald-Green Waters of Destin

Sitting majestically along the coast of the Florida Panhandle, Destin is without doubt one of the most gorgeous stretches of beaches in the world. A relative newcomer among the popular vacation destinations of the Emerald Coast, this city is fast becoming one of the best places to go for sun, sand, and relaxation along the Gulf of Mexico. In Destin you will find not only the multitude of golf courses and the beautiful beaches but also the abundance of water activities that will keep you coming back year after year.

As a part of the Emerald Coast, Destin is blessed with the same attributes as the other cities that line the southwestern corner of the Florida Panhandle. The beaches have sugar white sand, whose color is caused by the Appalachian quartz that arrives at the coast from the mountains, that is perfect for a stroll along the water or for simply throwing down a towel and catching some sun. The most distinct feature, however, is the sparkling emerald-green water, which creates the area’s namesake hue from the sugar white sand that lies beneath the crystal blue water. Whether you want to build a sandcastle, play in the water, or work on your suntan, the beaches of Destin can accommodate your needs and look amazing doing it.

I think that one of the best places in Destin to swim and simply enjoy an all-around exciting day is Henderson Beach State Park. Located off the Emerald Coast Parkway, this park is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and lays claim to over 6,000 feet of shoreline. While swimming is the most popular activity on the beautiful beach, you can also enjoy a nice picnic lunch in the afternoon or cast out a line on one of the docks. If you want to break up your day and experience more than the water, there are nature trails for hiking and wildlife viewing is not an uncommon activity as dolphins regularly emerge from the waters this area.

Destin features some of the most breathtaking waters in the world and not to take advantage of the numerous water adventures and sports is just a crime. Snorkeling is a popular inshore option since the exceptional water quality makes it easy to catch sight of vibrant yellow angelfish, manta rays, and loggerhead sea turtles. If you want to venture offshore, rent a wave runner for some action-packed excitement on the water and to view the impeccable shoreline of Destin. For those looking for a more calm experience, rent a kayak and create your own adventure by paddling into the open waters and exploring different nooks and crannies.
The Destin area is home to some of the finest year round courses in the country, meaning the hardest part any golf enthusiast’s vacation will be deciding which courses to play.

While enjoying the beach and the emerald-green water of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s great to stay at a private Destin vacation rental. I rent one with my friends and it had a private pool, Jacuzzi and a game room which was excellent for the evenings. It was also great for an easy access to the beach and everything this amazing city has to offer.

Posted by gmarta 05:05 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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