Sintra – A Portuguese Fairytale City


On June 21, early morning we walked from our hotel to Rossio Railway station to catch a train to Sintra, a picturesque town that boasts of extravagant palaces, ancient castles and stunning scenery. Located about 25km West of Lisbon, is connected by a regular train service.


The trains to Sintra are operated by the national train company of Portugal –  Comboios de Portugal (CP).  The train passes through non-descript residential housing areas that surround Lisbon


As we alighted from the train and exited the station, we were swarmed by touts selling tuk-tuk tours, guided tours, and other means of transport to explore the hills of Sintra.  We opted to catch the 434-tourist bus.

From where the bus dropped us, we could visit the Pena Palace and Moors Castle, but we decided to visit only the castle as we had planned to visit Quinta da Regaleira.


Pena Palace boasts of painted terraces, decorative battlements and mythological statues.  The restored palace reflects its decor of 1910, when the Portuguese nobility fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. The palace sits atop a rocky outcrop surrounded by forested grounds. The base structure of the palace is formed around an abandoned monastery, and remnants of the original structure is still visible.  In 1996 the palace underwent an extensive restoration and its exterior walls were restored to its original colours.


Moors Castle is located atop the hills of the Serra de Sintra and is a very challenging up-hill hike to reach its top.  It is a classic ruined castle with high fortified stone walls, treacherous ramparts and massive battlements.


The vantage points of the castle offers wonderful panoramic views over the hills of the Serra De Sintra and the plains stretching West to the Atlantic Ocean.

The castle dates back to the 8th century and was built by the invading Muslim Moors from North Africa. The castle dominated the area as it provided a suitable vantage point over the River Tagus and offered protection to the town of Sintra.

During the Crusades in 1903, King Alfonso VI managed to capture the castle, but held on to it for a year only.  The castle flourished between the first and second Christian crusade and this was regarded as the high point of the castle’s history.  The fortifications of the castle were greatly enhanced but were not tough enough to repel the second much larger Christian crusade of 1147.


Significance and importance of the Sintra castle reduced over the centuries and by the 15th Century the Jewish settlers were the only inhabitants. When the Jews were expelled from Portugal,  the castle was completely abandoned. In 1636 a lightning bolt caused a massive fire that wrecked the central keep while in 1755 the devastating earthquake leveled much of the walls and battlements. The Moors castle in this era was so insignificant that it was not even considered in the plans to rebuild after the earthquake.

King Ferdinand II, King of Portugal, obsessed by art, drama and the good life, transformed the entire Sintra region.  The castle was reconstructed in 1840 so that he could view it from his beloved Pena Palace.


As we climbed up the pathway to the castle, out first stop was at the Silos.  These are secret caves cut into the rocks to store grains and pulses.  These silos were built by the Moors who built the castle.


We then stopped at the site of Islamic Houses.  These remains are of the foundation of houses and silos on the South-Eastern slopes of the hill occupied by the Muslims.  During excavations, typical artifacts from 10th to 12th Century Islamic culture were discovered.  Some remains of Neolithic (5000 BC) occupation were also identified during the excavation.


We then climbed up to the Church of St Pedro.  This was the first parish church of Sintra constructed by King Afonso Henriques on recapturing the castle in 1147.  In 1840, King Ferdinand II transformed this church into a romantic ruin.  It now houses the Interpretation Centre of History of the Castle and houses artifacts recovered during the archeological excavations.


In the process of transforming the church in 1840, the cemetery was damaged.  King Ferdinand II built this tomb to lay the remains that had been unearthed.  Its headstone bore the engravings of a Cross and a Crescent with an epitaph ‘What man has assembled only God can set apart‘ meaning that it was impossible to distinguish whether the human remains were that of a Christian or a Muslim.


We then climbed up to another excavation site.  This was a Christian tomb excavated from granite alongside a Muslim silo.


Our next halt was at the Cistern of the castle.  This vaulted reservoir had a storage capacity of 600 cubic meters of waters.  The masonry signs on the granite blocks indicate that construction commenced in the 13th Century.  The water in this cistern has not dried up ever as per records.  The myth has it that a Moorish King is buried underneath this cistern.


We then moved to the Castle Keep, the strategic centre of the castle.  As it stands on one of the high points, it is visible from the surrounding plains and also from the Atlantic Ocean.


We walked  to the Door of Betrayal – a small gate that allowed discreet access to the exterior during a conflict or to be used as an escape route.


After five minutes of steep uphill climb, we reached the Royal Tower.  This tower offered a privileged view of Pena Palace and would have been one of the favourite locations of the art-lover King Ferdinand II.


From the Royal Tower we commenced our descent to the base of the hill.  On our way  we came across the Second Circle of Walls, much below the main castle walls.  As the castle offered security to the locals from invaders, many settled on the slopes of the hill.  In order to protect the people, their animals and crops, this second wall of defence was built.  The extent of the wall indicates that a sizeable population inhabited these hill slopes.

From the second wall we walked 15 minutes to the bus stop to take the bus to Sintara and further to Quinta da Regaleira Palace.

Lisbon: Lisboa – Meaning a ‘Safe Harbour’


On June 20 we landed at Lisbon Airport and drove off to our hotel.  After lunch we decided to explore various landmarks of Lisbon on foot.  Our first stop was Rossio Square.


On reaching Rossio Square we were greeted by Tuk-Tuk (Auto-Rickshaw) drivers who carry passengers through the cobblestone paved narrow twisting alleys of Lisbon.  From 2017, by law, all Tuk-Tuks had to be electric and could operate only until 9 PM.  Obviously, they are unpopular with the city’s taxi drivers who see them as a threat to their livelihood.


Rossio is the liveliest square in the city, where people stop to sit and relax, or for a drink at the several cafés with outdoor seating.  The Praça dom Pedro IV is the official name of the square after the inauguration of the statue of Dom Pedro IV in 1874 but Lisbon’s residents have never taken to the name and still refer to the square as Rossio meaning ‘common land.’


On either side of the square are two baroque fountains, and in the center is a 27 meters high monument.  It consists of a pedestal with marble allegories of Justice, Wisdom, Strength, and Moderation – qualities attributed to Dom Pedro IV – whose statue stands on top of the monument.   It is widely believed that the statue in the centre of Rossio is of Dom Pedro IV but legend has it that the statue is that of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Maximilian was assassinated soon after completion of the statue and the unwanted statue was sold to Lisbon at a fraction of the cost as both Dom Pedro IV and Maximilian were near lookalikes.


On the North side of the square is the Dona Maria II National Theater, a monumental neoclassical building built in the 1840s. The portico has six Ionic columns (originally from the Church of St. Francis, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake), and crowning the pediment is a statue of playwright Gil Vicente.  The theatre was built in 1846 on the site of the old Palácio dos Estaus palace, initially constructed in 1450 and was used by the Portuguese royal family to host foreign dignitaries.

The wave pattern stone paving was added to Rossio during the 19th century and was designed to resemble the oceans but more often disorientates late night revelers. The two baroque fountains, imported from France, were installed at the same time as the statue of King Pedro IV (1870).


From Rossio we walked to Praça do Comércio, (Commerce Square), Lisbon’s central point. It was built on the site where the old Royal Palace destroyed by the 1755 earthquake stod.  It is said that one of the motivations for the monumental sculpture’s prominent location was to honour King Joseph’s reconstruction efforts after the earthquake of 1755.

The 14-meter-high monument consisting of a bronze equestrian statue that depicts King Joseph I riding his horse, with several snakes at its feet on a large, richly decorated, lime stone pedestal.  The statue is the first cast bronze statue in Portugal and is the oldest public statue of Portugal.


The King’s statue stands on a pediment, flanked by sculptures of Triumph and Fame, which symbolise the submission of four continents to the Portuguese.  On the left is Fame driving an elephant – representing  Asia – over a human figure – representing Africa.  On the right is Triumph, leading a horse – depicting Europe –  over a human figure – depicting America. The depiction is strongly suggestive of Portuguese domination of the world during the middle ages.

The southern end of the plaza is open and looks out onto the Tagus River. The other three sides have yellow-coloured buildings with arcades all along the façade. When the square was first built,  commercial ships would unload their goods directly onto this square, as it was considered the ‘door’ to Lisbon.


Our next destination was Santa Maria Maior or Se Cathedral, a twelfth century Cathedral.  Surprisingly it survived the 1755 earthquake, which left only a part of it in ruins. The solid and imposing Se Cathedral is Lisbon’s most important and iconic religious building. The exterior of the grand old church resembles more that of a military fortress than that of a church, with massive solid walls and two imposing clock towers.

Inside Gothic arches extend to the faulted ceilings and medieval statues and decorative altars fill the alcoves. To the rear  are the ancient cloisters, which were constructed directly on top of a ruined mosque built by Arabs, dating back to the period of the Crusades.


Every year in June, Lisbon honours St. Anthony of Padua, the city’s patron saint.  Lisbon almost entirely shuts down for one month, with locals decorating the street and plazas in bright colours.  In rest of Portugal however, he is considered the ‘matchmaker’ – a patron saint for singles.  Some people also call it the Festival of Sardines.

In the month of June, the smoky scent of grilled sardines fills the Lisbon air and in every corner one will find someone cooking a batch of sardines on a grill.  People also gift pots of basil to their beloveds.

We were lucky to witness the horse parade of over fifty well manicured horses, with men and women riders dressed in traditional Portuguese attire.


Our final destination for the evening was The Miradouro de Santa Luzia (Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint), one of the best places to view the city on a clear day.  We enjoyed the view caressed by a cool breeze from the Tagus River. Shady trellises and bougainvillea  provide protection from the intense sun.


The red-tiled roofs of the old downtown area below us, in the backdrop of the Tagus River meeting the Atlantic Ocean and visiting cruise ships provide a picturesque setting.


Near the viewpoint is the Church of Santa Luzia with blue pictorial tiles depicting the city’s Praça do Comerçio (Commerce Square) dating back to the 1755 earthquake.

From Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint, we walked for about 25 minutes to reach our hotel for a much deserved rest and dinner and also to prepare for a long journey to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 30 km North-West of Lisbon.

The Journey of Port


In this travel episode let me take you into the intricacies of the fascinating world of port wine. Let me submerge you in wine as it were. For the wine buffs amongst you, it would be particularly interesting.

On reaching Pinhão, we drove straight to Croft Winery founded in 1588.  It is the oldest firm still active today as a Port wine producer. The company is renowned for its Vintage Ports as well as for its range of wood aged wines.


We were ushered into one of the ‘Lagares’ where a Croft Associate briefed us about Port and how it is bottled from grapes that grow on their vines. A ‘lagar’ is simply a wine press.

The grapes are harvested by hand in the second half of September.  They are carried to the winery where they are crushed to allow the fermentation to start. Fermentation is the process whereby the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol by yeast.


Once fermentation is under way, care is taken to ensure that the grape skins are kept in contact with the fermenting juice so that their colour, tannin and flavour are released into the wine.  Traditionally this is achieved by treading the wine by foot in wide granite tanks called ‘Lagares’.  Foot stomping to tread wine is employed nowadays only by some wineries like Croft. In most others, foot treading has been replaced by mechanical methods.


Foot stomping ensures that the grape seeds do not get crushed.  Pressure from human foot is gentle enough so that the seeds do not break, which can adversely affect the taste of the wine.  In the most wineries around the world, foot stomping grapes for wine production is not resorted to as they do not seem to like mixing feet with wine. However, during various festivals, foot stomping of grapes is resorted to, but the end product is not used for wine production.   When about half of the natural sugar in the grape juice has been turned into alcohol, the treading stops and the skins are allowed to float to the surface of the ‘lagar’.

The fermenting wine is then drawn from under the skins into a vat.  As the fermenting wine runs into the vat, grape spirit – a colourless, neutral spirit distilled from wine – is added to it. This raises the strength of the wine and stops fermentation. As a result, much of the natural grape sugar is preserved in the finished Port.   This technique of adding a small amount of grape spirit at some point in the wine making process is called fortification.  Hence, Port is a fortified wine. When you want the wine sweet, the spirit is added earlier and when the desired product is required to be ‘dry’ the spirit is added later so that there is little or no residual sugar.


Port houses own cool dark ageing warehouses called ‘lodges’.  In Pinhão, the temperate climate of the coast ensures that the wines age slowly and harmoniously. One of the unique properties of Port is its ability to gain in richness and flavour over very long periods of ageing in wood. This is partly because it is fortified and partly because it is a wine of extraordinary concentration and aromatic potential.


Broadly, Port falls into two categories: Wood-aged and bottle-aged. The vast majority of Ports are wood-aged, meaning that they are fully matured in oak casks or vats and are ready to drink when bottled. Bottle-aged Ports, are those that spend only a short time in wood and then continue to age in bottle. Vintage Port is by far the most important category of bottle-aged Port, as it represents only the finest wines of the best years and the amount produced is very limited.


Vintage Port is the finest and rarest of all Ports, the most sought after by wine lovers, collectors and investors. It is a selection of the very best wine from a single exceptional year and represents only a very small proportion of the crop. A bottle of Vintage Port must always be stored lying down so that the cork is in contact with the wine and does not dry out.

Port is declared a ‘Vintage’ by the wine regulator Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) when they feel that the wines which were produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port.  IVDP ensures that the wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.

Vintage port remains in wood for only two years, usually in a large vat. It is then bottled and continues to age for many years or decades in bottle, gradually developing the aromas which are the hallmark of a great mature Vintage Port.

During the ageing process a sediment or crust will form in the bottle. Before serving a Vintage Port it is often necessary to decant it to separate the wine from the crust. Decanting also brings the wine in contact with the air, allowing the aromas of the wine to open out after the long period during which the wine has been enclosed in the bottle.


The tradition of ‘laying down’, or putting away some bottles of Vintage Port for a child when it is born derives from the fact that a declared Vintage will last for the child’s entire lifetime, reaching maturity when the child is old enough to appreciate and enjoy it.

A bottle of wood aged Port must be stored upright in a dark, cool place, if possible away from direct light.  There is no need to decant a wood aged Port. It will remain in good condition for six weeks or more after the bottle has been uncorked for the first time.


After the briefing, we were ushered outside to the egg shaped concrete vats.  These vats provide temperature consistency for fermentation.  Fermenting grape juice in concrete is a pretty ancient practice.  The minuscule little air pockets across the surface of concrete allows the fermenting juice to breathe much in the same way that oak does, but without borrowing any flavors.


We were then taken to the wine tasting gallery to devour three special Port wines: Croft Pink, Ruby Reserve and a Ten-Year-Old Tawny.  Even though none of us were wine connoisseurs, we learnt a lot about wine and had lots of fun.


We then drove to the jetty on Douro River for a cruise in a small boat.  The boat sailed under Pinhão’s famous bridge, designed by renowned French architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower.  We sailed along admiring the patterns weaved by the vineyards on the terraced hill slopes.

We returned to Porto by late evening, had dinner and retreated to our hotel room to prepare for our early morning flight out of Porto to Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.

Vineyards of Douro Valley


Day 2 of our Portugal trip, June 19, early morning we set out from Porto to visit Douro Valley, in Northern Portugal,  It is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world (1756), known mainly for Port.  The name Port is obviously derived from their homeland Portugal.  Port is a sweet, red, fortified wine most commonly enjoyed as a dessert wine because it is rich and sweet. Wine production in Douro Valley is regulated by Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP).  They control the quality and quantity of Port wines, regulating the production process.  This region also produces some of the best wines in the world, other than Port, and also olives.


On our drive to Douro Valley, we halted at picturesque Amarante town, on the banks of River Tâmega, known for the São Gonçalo  (Saint Gonzalo) Church.  Amar in Portuguese means ‘to love.’

The granite bridge above was built over the Tâmega River in the late 18th Century. The original bridge, believed to have been built in the 13th Century, collapsed in a flood in 1763.  The present one was completed in 1790. A plaque on one of the obelisks (in Greek meaning a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top) guarding the bridge entrance on the left bank commemorates the victorious resistance of General Silveirea, on the 2 May 1809, when he confronted Napoleon’s troops led by General Loison.


This Church, built in 1540 houses the tomb of São Gonçalo who died in 1259.  São Gonçalo, the patron saint of Amarante, is believed to be a wedding facilitator for older women. As per legend, in order to find the love of one’s  life, one must touch the statue of São Gonçalo on New Year’s Eve.


This lady was selling ‘Doces Falicos‘ or ‘phallic sweets’, a sugar  glazed phallus shaped cake, also known as ‘Little Gonzalves.’  This phallus cake originated in from pre-Catholic times, with roots in pagan fertility rituals. The cakes are handed out together with locally-harvested dried figs at ceremonies held each January (on the anniversary of São Gonçalo’s death) to usher in a ‘fertile and favorable’ year.  It is also used in June street parties, by local singletons who believe that it could bring them true love and a happy family.   The cakes are much sought after by old spinsters in search of a husband, where the ‘old spinster’ are often single woman in their late twenties or early thirties, keen to settle down and start a family.

In the 1930s, Portugal’s fascist Second Republic outlawed the cakes as being obscene, but the villagers of Amarante continued to make and exchange them secretly. After the dictatorship fell in 1974, the Bolos de São Gonçalo came back out of the closet.

From Amarante we drove crossing the Marão ranges through a tunnel to Douro Valley.,


The Douro Valley lies about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and is protected from the influence of the Atlantic winds by the Marão mountain ranges.  The oldest vineyards are planted on traditional terraces supported by dry stone walls. These walls were built by hand on the steep hillsides and then filled with soil.  Most of them are narrow, often bearing only one or two rows of vines.  These historic walled terraces rise up the rocky slopes like the steps of the Pyramids.  Today, they form one of the world’s most dramatic and inspiring vineyard landscapes.  A vineyard estate in Portugal is known as a ‘Quinta’.

Vines of Douro Valley are not artificially irrigated.  The vineyard soil is very stony and is rich in nutrients but is free draining.  The roots sink deep down in to the soil in search of water and the grapes produced by such vines is said to be of better quality to produce Port.


The art of creating a terrace has died down due to hard work and costly labour involved and also availability of earth moving equipment.  The cost of terracing has become prohibitive and they are no longer built today. Only the old vines grow on terraces.  These wines are planted in closer rows as no tractors are used.


Patamares
are modern terraces cut into the mountainsides using earth moving equipment.  They are not supported by walls but are separated by tall earth banks.  Near the vines, they grow lavenders and roses.  The health of the flowers of these plants are indicators of the quality of grapes growing on the vines.


Relatively inexpensive and quick to build, Patamares may cause soil erosion.  Many vineyards plant olive trees to bind the soil.  The vines are planted in rows with a wider gap to allow tractors to move between the rows.


In places where the gradient allows, terracing is replaced by vertical rows of vines running perpendicularly up the hillside.  Vertical planting also provides better leaf canopy exposure.


After about thirty minutes, we reached Pinhão, a small sleepy town near Spanish border, the heart of Port wine country on the banks of Douro River.  From here we set out to visit Croft Winery followed by a cruise on Douro River.

Portugal: A Land of Explorers

But Portugal has a peaceful feel about it. I sit on the terrace overlooking the vineyard there and I feel cut off from the world. You need that sort of thing. – Cliff Richard

Physical Location Map of the Area around 39° 30' 19" N, 7° 34' 30" W

It was Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who first sailed from Europe to Kozhikode (Calicut) in Kerala in 1498.  Under the leadership of Prince Henry, the Navigator, the Portuguese accumulated a wealth of knowledge about navigation, geography of the Atlantic Ocean and had monopoly on spice trade with Kerala, during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Christopher Columbus who inadvertently discovered a new continent was neither Portuguese-born nor sponsored, but was Portuguese trained. He married a Portuguese woman; obtained navigation charts and related information from his father-in-law, Bartholomew Perestrelo.  He also collected maritime intelligence from returning explorers and sailors.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese born explorer, is known to be the first to first circumnavigate the globe, an exploration sponsored by Spain. He sailed around South America, discovering the Strait of Magellan, and across the Pacific.


On June 18, we flew into the Northern city of Porto – home to Port wine and a beautiful old city centre which UNESCO recognised as a World Heritage Site.  It was a rainy and cloudy summer day and in the evening we set out on foot to explore the city.

Clérigos Tower and Sé Catedral do Porto are the two prominent buildings on the Porto skyline, a must-see location for all those who visit the city of Porto.


From our hotel we walked to Sé Catedral do Porto (Porto Cathedral), built in Romanesque style construction which began in the twelfth century.   The paintings by Nasoni, the carved gilded wood altarpiece and the silver altar of the Blessed Sacrament are all worth a glimpse.


The beautiful blue (azulejo) tiles that cover its galleries, as well as the chapel are from the Gothic period.


The church offers a panoramic view of Ribeiro, is one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Porto. True to its name, the district is situated on the riverbank (Ribeira in Portuguese stems from the word river).


Clérigos Tower is considered a National Monument since 1910. The Tower built in the 18th century, is now a museum, open to the public.


From the church, we walked to the Ribeira, a riverside historic neighbourhood that retains all its medieval charm.  Its colourful and wonderfully decorated façades and many restaurants that line up will please any visitor.


Walking through the Ribeira, along the Douro River, we reached Dom Luis bridge, dating from 1886.  The upper level is used by metro-rail and the lower level by automobiles.  We walked along the walkways on the lower level and reached the wine lodges of Porto.  On one end of the bridge is the former Monastery of Serra do Pilar, characterised by its circular church and cloister.


Port Wine Lodges are located in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite side of the Douro River.  Sandeman’s and Croft’s are two of the best well-known lodges.  Most buildings had red tiled roof, akin to old building’s roof of Kerala, which must be from Portuguese influence.


Below the monastery we found many love locks which couples lock to a steel bridge, and throw away the keys into the river, to symbolise their unbreakable love.  The city authorities are not pleased by such display of love as they consider them as vandalism due to the damage they cause and the cost of removing them.


From the Ribeira, we walked through the rain to São Bento Station, made of glass and wrought iron.  Built in 1900, this beautiful station was named after a Benedictine monastery that once occupied this space in the 16th century.


Inside, twenty thousand azulejos (hand-painted Portuguese blue tiles) cover the grand entrance hall depicting Portugal’s history, its royalty, its wars, and its transportation history. The blue and white tiles were placed over a period of 11 years (1905–1916) by artist Jorge Colaço.


Next to the station stood the Santo Antonio dos Congregates Church built between 1662 and 1680.  During the Siege of Porto (1832-33) by the Liberals, this church became a military hospital and army storage facility.


Our next stop was at the Praça da Liberdade, the commercial hub of Porto, built in 1920s. At the top of the square is the Câmara Municipal (City Hall), with its distinctive clock tower.


Walking through Rua Santa Catarina, a cobblestone paved pedestrian only shopping street, packed on either side with international stores and numerous restaurants, street vendors and coffee shops, we came to a shopping plaza.  My eyes caught on to the Indian made Bajaj Scooter on display in a clothing store.


We continued walking along Rua Santa Catarina and reached the Chapel of Santa Catarina, also called Chapel of Souls. This unique shrine dates back to the 18th century and is completely covered in the typical blue Portuguese tiles.

A bit tired after a long walk through the rain with jet-lag hanging on our eyelids, we dined at a roadside restaurant with entrée being Bacalhau (salted cod fish).  It is the most popular base commodity in Portuguese cooking.  Traditionally there are more than 365 different dishes, one for each day of the year, and the country has a love affair with the pungent smelling fish.

We then returned to our hotel to prepare for the Wine Tour of Douro Valley for the next day

Arequipa – The White City of Peru


After the wedding at Piura, Peru, we flew to Lima, early morning on January 06.  We were joined by Stephens, our travel companions.  The party consisted of Vijas, Ranga, Aravazhi with their better-halves and Mrs. Anita Chandramouli.  Our trip was organised by JourneYou, a travel company founded in 2011 by a team of travel professionals.  Their agent received us at Lima Airport and facilitated our check-in for the Arequipa flight. After an hour, we landed at Rodriguez Ballon International Airport at Arequipa.


Arequipa in Southern Peru is the second most populated city in Peru. It is considered one of the most fascinating areas in the country, due to its architecture, varied gastronomy, impressive landscapes, imposing volcanoes, and the deepest canyon in the world. The most prominent feature of the landscape of Arequipa is undoubtedly the majestic Misti volcano, which sits at 5,825m above sea level. ‘El Misti’ comes from the Quechua language (language of Incan Empire), meaning ‘The Gentleman.’

Prior to exiting Arequipa Airport, all our baggage was thoroughly scanned by Animal and Plant Health Service of Peru to detect if we were in possession of any fruit – a rare inspection, that too when flying within the country!  It is to ensure that no fruit flies, its larvae or eggs are brought into this region.  Passengers who were in possession of any fruit had to either consume it or discard it there.

Southern Peru has managed to eradicate fruit flies by means of the area-wide integrated application of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), a nuclear technology package developed by a joint division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  These pests used to cause annual losses of up to US$12 million to the farmers and fruit growers in Peru.


Arequipa is named the “White City” (Ciudad Blanca) due to the whiteness of the houses and buildings made using white ashlar, a volcanic stone abundantly found in the area. In the background of the photograph above is the Misti Volcano on the Left and Pichu Pichu Volcano (5,669m) to the Right.

On arrival at the Airport, we were greeted by our travel guide from JourneYou, who escorted us to our hotel.  After lunch we set out to explore the city with our travel guide.  Our first stop was Santa Catalina Monastery.


Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena was built in 1579 and it served as a cloister for Dominican nuns from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and it still houses a small religious community today. The complex is built from volcanic Sillar stone and is organized into cloisters, living quarters, a plaza, a gallery, and a chapel.  The Monastery was founded by Maria de Guzman, a rich widow, who only accepted nuns from the rich Spanish families. Traditionally, the second daughter of upper-class families entered a nunnery, supposedly to live in poverty and renounce the material world.  They had to pay a dowry on entry and they lived in luxury with servants or slaves.


In addition to the dowry, the nuns also had to bring 25 listed items which included a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. In the case of the wealthiest nuns, these included the finest English china and wonderful silk curtains and rugs.


The Orange Tree Cloister (Claustro los Naranjos) in the Monastery have three crosses set among the orange trees and these constitute the center of the Passion of the Christ ceremonies, a dramatic presentation of the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ, carried out during Lent.


Apart from daily prayer and meals, the nuns took time to bake (mostly bread) which was then either eaten communally or sold to the public.  This photograph depicts what was once their kitchen with a stone water filter on the Right.


We then visited an old chapel, now converted into an art museum with over 400 restored paintings.


This is Calle Toledo, a long boulevard with a communal laundry at its end, where the nuns (probably their servants) washed their clothes in halved earthenware shell like basins.  The laundry area is surrounded by a colourful garden.  Water was diverted from the channel in the center to the washing pot by blocking it with the hand.  Everyone tried their hand at this.


Walking out from the convent through its lanes and by-lanes, we headed straight to the city-center.


When the city was founded in 1540, it all begun with the square – Plaza de Armas.  Surrounded by the Cathedral and various portals.  In the center is a fountain with a beautiful bronze statue of a soldier.


On the Northern side of the Square is the majestic Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, the most important Catholic church of the city.  Its construction started in 1540, the same year that the city of Arequipa was founded, built in ashlars (white volcanic stone) and brick vaults.  Throughout its history the church was destroyed many times by fire, earthquakes and volcanic explosions, restored after each destruction, the latest in 2001.


On January 6 Peruvians, just as many other Christians, commemorate the arrival of the Three Wise Men or Three Kings at Jesus’ manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  A large crowd had assembled at the Cathedral, with many occupying the roads  to celebrate the event.  Thus we decided not to get into the church.


Our next stop was Jesuit Church of Company, located on the South-East corner of the Square.  Its facade is an intricately carved masterpiece in ashlars.  The design of the church is Spanish, but the carvings in these stones are filled with relief and the motifs which are mostly Incan.  Construction of this church commenced in 1578, but was destroyed many times over due to various earthquakes.


Inside the church is the high altar which houses a painting of Mother Mary with child Jesus by Italian painter Bernardo Bitti, who had come to Peru in 1575.


On the either sides of the main alter there are two more beautiful altars, carved with gilded wood. It is called the “Altar of the Founders,” as it holds many images of several founders of the Jesuit order.

After the long and tiring walking tour of Arequipa city, we had dinner and returned to our hotel for a well deserved rest.

The Last Evening in Heraklion


As the night set in, we walked from our hotel to the 25th August Street.  It is now a paved pedestrian street, and boasts the most beautiful Neoclassical buildings that house banks, travel agencies and tourist shops.   This street may have been first cut by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century, the main thoroughfare of Heraklion, linking the town centre to the harbour. During the Venetian period it was called the Ruga Maistra (Main Street), while in Ottoman times it was known as Vezir Tsarsi (Vizir’s Market) after the Vezir Mosque. The modern name of the street relates to a tragic event. On the 25th of August 1898, during the feast of St Titus, fanatic Muslim mob slaughtered many Christians, including 17 British soldiers and the British Consul.


Walking down the street, we came to the Lions Square.  It holds the ornate Venetian fountain of four lions with water gushing from their mouths. The fountain is officially in ‘Eleftheriou Venizelou’ Square in the centre of Heraklion, but the inhabitants of the city never use the official name, usually referring to it as the Lions Square or the Lions for short. The Venetians built it in 1629 as a solution to the problem of supplying Heraklion with water, providing 1,000 barrels of water a day.


Opposite the Lions Square is one of the first and most important works of the Venetian settlers, the St Mark Church.    Next to the church on the South-West corner was a high bell tower with a clock. During the long Turkish siege of the city, the bell was used as a bomb alarm, resulting in the bell tower becoming the target of the Turkish cannons. When the Turks took over the city, the church was converted into a mosque.  The bell tower was demolished and in its place they built a minaret.  Restoration of the building commenced in 1956 and today it houses the Municipal Art Gallery.


Down the street is the Loggia (noblemen’s club), constructed in 1626-28 AD by Francesco Morosini, the same man who built the Lions Fountain. This is the fourth and final Loggia built during the period of Venetian rule. Very little information is available on the first three.  Venetian political and social customs demanded the construction of a public building in Heraklion, as a meeting-place for the nobles, rulers and feudal lords, where economic and commercial decisions were made. It was also a place for them to relax.   The building is a faithful reproduction of Palladio’s famous Basilica in Vincenza, demonstrating the significance the Venetians attached to the city of Heraklion.  . Today the Loggia has been restored to its former glory and houses the Town Hall.


In 961 AD, the Arabs were driven out from Crete, bringing the island back under Byzantine Empire. This is when the first Orthodox church of St Titus (Agios Titos in Greek) must have been built, to rekindle the Christian faith and tradition in Crete, which had declined due to the Arab conquest of the island.  Saint Titus was a disciple of the Apostle Paul and the first Bishop of Crete.  At the fall of Heraklion to the Turks, all relics were removed to Venice, where they still remain today. The single exception is the skull of St Titus, which was returned to Heraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in the church.  During the Turkish rule, the church was converted into a mosque known as the Vezir Mosque.  The great earthquake of 1856 totally destroyed the church. It was rebuilt in its present form as an Ottoman mosque.  The minaret of the church was demolished in the 1920s, when the last Muslims left Heraklion   The church was further modified in 1925.


Heraklion, a city well known for its intense and vibrant nightlife, offers many a chance for a night out.  The night entertainment consists of modern and traditional spots to choose from. There is an interesting variety of bars and clubs and they stay open till 3 o’clock in the morning. These bars play lounge or loud music and on some live bands perform.   Many taverns host bands which play live traditional music, with dancing.  One can enjoy a dinner at the many taverns which offer delicious local Cretan delicacies, local wine and salads.


We observed that almost all restaurants had many tables outside, especially after the sunset.  Taverns and bars serve traditional local drinks like ‘tsikoudia’ and ‘ouzo’ and special snacks.


The beautiful narrow streets with its narrower lanes and by-lanes, are brimming with tourists and locals all through the night.  It may well be the most ‘fashion oriented’ city in the Greek islands.


Crete has one of the oldest and perhaps the most delicious gastronomic traditions in the world with Cretan olive oil as one of the basic ingredients of Cretan cuisine.  Archaeological excavations indicate that the ancient Cretans used to consume almost the same products as the contemporary islanders. Large jars for storing olive oil, cereals, pulses and honey we saw at Knossos palace possibly stand testimony to this tradition.   This storage habit would have helped them to survive many sieges the island experienced, mainly by the Arabs, the Venetians and the Ottomans.


We dined at a restaurant next to the Lions Square. The Menu was Greek Mussaka –  Oven baked Greek dish with layers of eggplant, zucchini, potato and minced meat; Shrimps Saganaki – shrimps with white Feta cheese cooked in spicy tomato sauce; slowly cooked goat with citrus fruits served with sautéed Cretan greens, carrot jello, Greek yogurt and tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds.)

On 17 June 2016, we took the Air Canada flight from Athens to return home. At the end of the journey I would like quote Douglas Noel Adams, an English author, humourist and satirist who said ” I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”