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My European Favourites – Rome, Italy

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My European Favourites – Rome, Italy

Rome’s history spans three millennia and is one of Europe’s oldest occupied cities. The Eternal City was initially settled by a mix of Etruscans, Latins and Sabines. During it’s highest point, it became the capital of the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and Roman Empire. When Rome had a vast Empire, it gained the nickname “Caput Mundi” or “Capital of the World.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the city came under control of the Papacy and it became the capital of the Papal States until 1870. The following year Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy which, in 1946, became the Italian Republic.

With close to 3 million residents in the city proper, Rome is the third most populous city in the European Union. The city’s culture, landmarks, monuments and myths have drawn visitors from every corner of the world.

The Vatican, the centre of the Catholic Church for billions of followers, is an independent state situated inside of Rome. The Vatican’s vast square, impressive museums, Sistine chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica require a full day of exploration.

The impressive ruins of Ancient Rome, which include Trajan’s Forums, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum are essential for any visitor of Rome. If you do a tour of Ancient Rome, be sure that you enter into the Colosseum. It’s an unforgettable experience.

We always include guided tours of the Vatican and of Ancient Rome on all of our Azorcan tours to Rome. Once we have completed those great tours, our travelers enjoy a free day in Rome to sightsee, shop and explore the city on their own. This story outlines a walk that we suggest to see some of central Rome’s great landmarks and squares at their leisure. You can find a google map of our walk at www.azorcan.net/media

Piazza del Popolo from Pincio Park, the two churches on the south and the north gate.

Piazza del Popolo

Our walk starts at the Piazza del Popolo, or the “People’s Square.” The large oval square is located inside the northern gate to the city (Porta Flaminia). Just inside the gate you should pop in to the Santa Maria del Popolo basilica to see two magnificent canvases by Caravaggio.

At the centre of the square is an Egyptian obelisk dedicated to Ramesses II. The obelisk was once located in the Circus Maximus, where Romans enjoyed chariot races. By climbing the stairs on the east side of the square, you will reach the Pincio Hill Terrace (Terrazza del Pincio) and have a great panoramic view of the square and beyond.

On the south side of the square there are two churches, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the Santa Maria in Montesanto. They look identical from the outside although they have different interiors. There are three main streets leading from the Piazza del Popolo. The two churches are separated by the main shopping street, the Via del Corso. The other two streets are located on either side of the churches.  On the right is the Via di Ripetta and on the left is the Via del Babuino. We will leave the square on the Via del Babuino and walk for about 600 meters until we arrive at the Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps on Piazza di Spagna, the Church of Trinità dei Monti and the Boat Fountain.

Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps

The Piazza di Spagna, or “Spanish Square” is named after the Palazzo di Spagna (Spanish Palace) which has been on the square since the 17th century and operates as the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican.

The center of the square has the Boat Fountain (Fontana della Barcaccia). The fountain was designed by Pietro Bernini, the father of the famous artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for Pope Urban VIII in 1623. The fountain features the Pope’s family (Barberini) emblem with suns and bees.

Looking up from the square is the Church of Trinità dei Monti. The famous 135 steps connecting the square to the church were built in the 18th century. The Spanish Steps are a favourite place for tourists to sit, relax and enjoy the square.

A hundred meters south from the Spanish Square is the smaller Piazza Mignanelli. The square has a 19th century Marian column named, the Column of the Immaculate Conception. The ancient Roman column is topped with a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary with a crown of 12 stars standing on a globe. The interesting column has the symbols of the evangelists on the globe and statues of Moses, David, Ezekiel and Isaiah at the base. Worth the quick stop.

From the Piazza Mignanelli, we can take the Via Frattina back to the main Via del Corso to peruse the shops until we reach the Via delle Muratte and go left to the Piazza di Trevi.

The Trevi fountain and the Neptune statue at the centre. The colorful Galleria Sciarra.

Trevi Fountain and Galleria Sciarra

The Trevi fountain is probably the most famous fountain in the world. It’s actually the end point of the only ancient Roman aqueduct that is in continuous use today, the Vergine aqueduct. Architect Nicols Savi won the design competition commissioned by Pop Clement XII in 1732 but died before it was built.

The travertine stone fountain was completed in 1762 against the Palazzo Poli (Poli Palace) with the water cascading down three rocky cliffs that are decorated with plant sculptures. The water flows down each cliff into the large, 65 foot wide, fountain basin. At the center of the fountain is the ocean god Neptune in a shell shaped chariot that is being pulled by two horses. One horse is calm and the other angry. Each horse is being guided by a triton.

Placed into the façade on either side of Neptune are a statue of a virgin girl, who legend says, showed Roman soldiers the source of the water, and a statue of Agrippa ordering the construction of the aqueduct.

Ancient Romans threw coins into fountains so that the water gods would give them a safe journey or a safe return to Rome. Today, tourists throw coins into the fountain over their shoulder to ensure a return to Rome. A second coin is for love, and a third for marriage. About 3000 Euros is collected very day from the fountain and given to a charity that provides prepaid supermarket cards for the needy.

After throwing your coins into the fountain, walk to the left on the Via delle Muratte for about 120 meters and turn left onto Via Santa Maria in Via. A block in, you will be directly in front of the Galleria Sciarra. Enter into the amazing interior courtyard with a glass and iron roof, called an arcade. The richly Art Nouveau decorated walls, in celebration of women, were painted in the late 1800s by Giuseppe Cellini using a unique painting method using pigments and Punic wax called “encaustic painting.” I like to stand in the centre of the galleria and gaze upwards, admiring the brilliant colors. The intensity and shade of the colors change depending on the time of day and the intensity of the light spilling in through the glass ceiling.

Leaving the galleria, go back to the Via delle Muratte and turn left. A block away you will cross the Via del Corso to the Via di Pietra that will take you to the Piazza di Pietra (Rock Square). Traverse the rectangular Piazza di Pietra, and staying on the left of the square, take the Via dei Pastini until you reach the Rotonda Square and the Pantheon.

The Rotonda Square and the entrance to the Pantheon. The interior of the Pantheon.

The Pantheon and the Ides of March  

The Rotonda Square (Piazza della Rotonda) has a marble fountain with an obelisk at its centre. The fountain was constructed in 1575 and the Egyptian obelisk, one of 13 found throughout Rome, was added in 1711. The main attraction of the square is the magnificent Pantheon.

The Pantheon of Agrippa, or just the Pantheon, is an architectural wonder and one of the best preserved buildings from Ancient Rome. In 27 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa commissioned the building of a circular temple to “all the Roman gods.” The temple burned down, but in the early 2nd century, the Pantheon underwent a reconstruction by Hadrian. Interestingly, the inscription to Agrippa still remains on the front portico of the temple.  After the fall of Rome in the mid 4th century, and attacks by barbarians, the Pantheon endured many years of neglect.

In 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas donated the building to Pope Boniface the IV. The Pope consecrated it and dedicated it as the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs (Santa Maria ad Martyres). It is more commonly called Santa Maria Rotonda. As a church, it was saved from the decay and destruction that many Ancient Roman buildings suffered during the middle ages. In 1625 Pope Urban VIII, the guy with his family crest on the boat fountain at the Spanish Steps, removed many of the bronze coatings that used to be on the Pantheon’s porticos. He used the bronze to create the canopy of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica and for fabrication of canons for the Sant’Angelo Castle.

In 1870, still a church, the Pantheon was turned into a memorial for famous kings of Italy and some famous artists. Amongst others, the tomb of Vittorio Emanuel II, the first King of a unified Italy, is in the Pantheon along with Italian Queen Margherita of Savoy and famous artist Raphael.

The Pantheon is most famous for its hemispherical concrete dome that is larger than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The dome is supported by eight large pylons and has an 8.92 meter opening in the centre, called an oculus, that allows natural light. The 43 meter height of the building is equal to the diameter of the dome. Two thousand years after it was built, it remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

The Pantheon’s oculus and church alter. The Elephant statue in the Piazza della Minerva.

The Ides of March 

Taking the Via della Minerva on the east side of the Pantheon, you will quickly arrive at the Piazza della Minerva. The interesting statue of the Elephant carrying an obelisk is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667. The obelisk was discovered in 1665 when excavations were taking place for the building of the nearby church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The Egyptian obelisk was brought to Rome possibly in the 1st century for the temple that once stood there for the Egyptian goddess Isis.

We continue on the Via della Minerva until we reach the Largo di Torre Argentina on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. You will see Roman ruins that were unexpectedly discovered in the 1920s during the demolition of old buildings. The square contains the remains of four temples from the era of the Roman Republic in the 2nd and 3rd century BC and remains of the Theatre of Pompey that was built later in 55 BC. The curia in the Theatre of Pompey was the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated by being stabbed 23 times on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The Largo di Torre Argentina site is also famous for having quite a few cats wandering the ruins. Mice beware!

After checking out the ruins, go west long the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II for about 350 meters and go south on Via Dei Baullari until you reach the Campo de’ Fiori.

The bustling Campo de’ Fiori market and a fresh flower vendor.

Campo de’ Fiori

Campo de’ Fiori means “field of flowers’ as it was a meadow during the middle ages. Over the centuries, the Campo de’ Fiori was notorious as the place for public executions. At the centre of the rectangular square is a statue of Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno, a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, that was burned alive for heresy at this very spot on the square in 1600. His statue, completed in 1889, looks defiantly in the direction of the Vatican, who placed his works on the “list of forbidden books.”

During the day since 1869, the Campo de’ Fiori has been a bustling market with stands selling flowers, fruit, vegetables and fish. The historic streets surrounding the square are named for various trades include Via dei Balestrari (crossbow makers), Via dei Baullari (coffer makers), Via dei Cappellari (hat makers), Via dei Chiavari (key makers) and Via dei Giubbonari (tailors).

Leaving Campo de’ Fiori, walk back to the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II where you will see the small Piazza di San Pantaleo across the street. Located at the back of the square is the  Museum of Rome in the Palazzo Braschi. Take the street on the right of the palace, Via della Cuccagna, which will lead you to the Piazza Novonna.

Piazza Navona’s Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone and colorful buildings with restaurant patios.

Piazza Navona

The Piazza Navona’s elongated shape is a result of it being built on the former site of a stadium whose remains sit about six meters below the square. The Stadium of Domitian, built in 86 AD, was used for games and horse races. Some of the stadium’s ruins can be seen underneath some of the surrounding buildings.

Over many years, the Piazza Navona has been a centre for markets, festivals, races, and theatrical performances. On weekends in August from the 17th to the mid 19th century, when the square had a concave bottom, it was partially flooded to offer Romans a cool place to congregate and enjoy the summer. In recent times, a Christmas market is held annually on the square.

The Piazza Navona is dwarfed by the 17th century Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. The church is named after St. Agnes, who was martyred in the Stadium of Domitian. The white church is situated on the west side of the square, and is one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Rome. Located at the south end of the square, the Palazzo Pamphilj and the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart are other notable buildings.

The Moor Fountain, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, and the Neptune Fountain.

The Piazza Navona has three impressive fountains. The Fontana dei Fumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini in 1651, located at the centre of the square, has statues representing four major rivers (Nile, Danube, Ganges, Rio de la Plata) on four continents. Above the statues, sits a copy of an Egyptian obelisk topped with the emblem of the Pope’s family, a dove carrying an olive branch.

Completed in 1575 by Giacomo della Porta, the Fontana del Moro (Moor Fountain) is located at the south end of the square. It features a Moor standing in a conch shell, wrestling a dolphin and surrounded by four tritons.

One the north side, the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain) was originally designed by Giacomo della Porta at the same time as he designed the Moor Fountain. The initial fountain was just the basin without any statutes. In 1878, Antonio della Bitta, added the central sculpture of Neptune fighting with an octopus. A few year later, artist Gregorio Zappalà, was commissioned to add surrounding sculptures of sea nymphs, cupids and walruses.

From the Piazza Navona, you can continue north on the Via Giuseppe Zanardelli and across the River Tiber on the Ponte Umberto I (Umberto I Bridge) to the front of the massive Supreme Court building. From the bridge you will see the Castel Sant’Angelo on your left. That is our final destination on our walk.

Castel Sant’ Angelo, the bronze statue of Michael the Archangel and angel holding a cross.

Castel Sant’ Angelo

The round structure on a square pedestal wasn’t originally intended to be a castle but was built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian in 139 AD. The burial chamber at the center of the mausoleum contains an urn with the ashes of Hadrian plus those of future emperors from the Antonin and Severi families. The mausoleum was turned in to a military fortress in 401. When the fortress was besieged and sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD, the ashes were scattered by looters. When the Goths attacked in 537 AD, the tomb statues and decorations were destroyed.

Later, in the 14th century the castle’s walls were fortified and towers were added. A secret fortified passage from Castel Sant’ Angelo to the Vatican was added to protect the papal community. The castle has also been used as a prison where many were tortured, starved and even executed in the courtyard. The Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno, who was burnt to death in the Campo de’ Fiori, was a prisoner here for six years.

Since 1753, the Castel Sant’ Angelo has been topped by a bronze statue of Michael the Archangel sheathing his sword. The Castel Sant’ Angelo bridge has ten angel statues holding up instruments of the passion of Christ including a pillar, whips, a crown of thorns, Veronica’s veil, his garment and dice, nails, the cross, the superscription INRI, the sponge and the lance.

The Castel Sant’ Angelo is located in the Parco Adriano (Hadrian’s Park) and is now a museum that is visited by more than a million people each year.

Let’s Go To Rome

Rome is full of historic buildings, squares and ruins. There are places we could have easily added during our walk, but just as “Rome was not built in a day,” it is also true that “Rome can not be seen in a day.” I included the most interesting and significant stops in Rome’s Centro Storico.

In the evening, I suggest going to the medieval Trastevere neighborhood located just south of Campo de Fiori by crossing the River Tiber at the Pont Sisto. Partake in the evening walk or promenade (passeggiata) while checking out the artisan shops. After working up an appetite, there is no shortage of trattorias, restaurants, beer pubs and bars to enjoy “la dolce vita” late into the night.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters, listen to our podcasts and view maps related tour all of our ‘My European Favourites” stories.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

My European Favourites – Tallinn, Estonia

Read more of Paul’s stories on Todayville by clicking here.

I have been in sports management and the sports tour business since 1994 when I created my company, Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing tours. Please visit our website at azorcan.net for more information on our company, our tours and our destinations. We are European group tour experts specializing in custom sightseeing tours, sport tours (hockey, soccer, ringette, school academies) and fan tours (World Juniors). Check out our newsletters, and listen to our podcasts at azorcan.net/media.

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My European Favourites – Lisbon’s Belem District

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The Belem district of Lisbon is where you will find the most famous buildings and monuments from what is called the Age of Exploration or Age of Discovery as well as numerous parks and museums. It is located along the coast at the mouth of the Tagus river about 4 kilometers west of Lisbon’s city center. Belem, which is Bethlehem in Portuguese, used to be a small fishing village before it became the shipyard and docks at the center of the discoveries. It remained a separate town until recently when it became a parish district of the city of Lisbon. To better understand the Belem district and its monuments requires a brief history of the Age of Discovery, Prince Henry the Navigator and the Order of Christ.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese sailors were at the forefront of the Age of Discovery. They recorded information about places they visited, and they mapped the coasts of Africa, Asia, Brazil and even Newfoundland. The expeditions were started in 1419 along the west coast of Africa under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, who at the time, was Grand Master of the Order of Christ.

Historical figures from the Age of Discovery on the Monument of the Discoveries

The Order of Christ’s origins in Portugal lie with the Knights Templar that were founded around 1119. The Templars were best known as Christian warriors, but the majority of their membership were not combatants; they managed the economies in Europe and formed an early form of banking and finance. The Templars, who had become wealthy and powerful, were abolished on the 22nd of March 1312 by Pope Clement V under pressure from the French King Philip IV. The French king had many debts with the Templars, so he was motivated by an opportunity to erase those debts and remove the Templar threat to his power and influence.

The Templars were pursued, persecuted and annihilated throughout Europe with the help of political influence from the Pope as head of the Catholic Church. Portugal’s King Denis refused to go after the Templars and in 1319, he negotiated with Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, to establish the Order of Christ, which were granted the right to inherit the assets and property of the Templars. So, with the support of the order’s Grand Master, Prince Henry, the emblematic cross of the Order of Christ was emblazoned on Portuguese sails during the discoveries.

The cross is seen on various emblems today including on the logo of the Portuguese national soccer team and on that of the Brazilian national soccer team. If you are interested in the Knights Templar and Order of Christ, there are various sites of interest throughout Portugal.

Compass Rose with a World Map of Portuguese explorations

To conduct the exploration of northern Africa, the Portuguese needed a vessel that could be easily maneuvered, so they developed a small boat called a caravel. The caravel had lateen sails, so it could reach good speed on the open water with the wind at its back, but just as important, it could also be sailed into the wind.  Using the caravel, the Portuguese worked their way along the African coast and set up trade posts.

Eventually, in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope and rounded the southern tip of Africa and into the Pacific Ocean. Probably the most famous Portuguese discoverer, Vasco da Gama, followed the same path and reached India in 1498 setting up the spice trading route. By cutting out the “middle men,” which at that time were Arab, Turkish and Italian merchants, the Portuguese Crown became very wealthy.

In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral set sail for India but sailed far west into the Atlantic to take advantage of the trade winds. He spotted the northeastern part of South America which would become a Portuguese colony and the only Portuguese speaking country in the Americas, Brazil.

The Portuguese continued setting up trade routes to other parts of Asia, including Japan in 1542. The immense wealth from the discoveries and subsequent trade laid the foundation for the Portuguese Empire.

Manueline style architecture, a caravel and the Order of Christ cross on the Portuguese national soccer team logo

With wealth, came great building projects. Portugal has a unique architectural style called Manueline or sometimes referred to as Portuguese late Gothic. The Manueline style originated during the 16th century and depicts maritime elements paying tribute to the discoveries made at that time and financed by the resulting lucrative spice trade. Some of the most prominent features of the Manueline style include armillary spheres, sea shells, the cross of the Order of Christ, rope columns and botanical motifs like laurel branches, oak leaves and acorns. Many Manueline buildings were destroyed in the great earthquake in 1755, but the Tower of Belem and Hieronymites Monastery, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are two of the best examples we can see today.

Belem Tower wall, view of the Tower from the Discoveries Monument and the Santa Cruz sea biplane

The Belem Tower, officially named the Tower of St. Vincent, is a four story 16th century fortification that guarded the entrance into Lisbon. It was the last and first thing explorers saw as they left and returned from their voyages. When it was first built in 1520, the tower stood on an island in the middle of the Tagus river, about 200 meters from the northern shore. The tower has been rebuilt various times and its current style combines Manueline, Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance features. It has also been used as a prison and is one of the most recognizable and photographed landmarks of Lisbon and Portugal. For a fee, you can enter the tower.

At the corner of the Belem Tower Park, you will see the Santa Cruz biplane monument dedicated to Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral who were the first pilots to cross the South Atlantic ocean in 1922. The seaplane was followed by a support ship as they didn’t have the fuel capacity to make the entire voyage. It was a perilous 79 day journey from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and the plane was ditched along the Brazil coast after an engine failure in bad weather. It’s quite the story. You can see a replica of the actual plane in the Maritime Museum. From the monument walk around the Bom Sucessso docks and along a nice waterfront walkway. You will pass the Old Belem Lighthouse on the way to our next stop, the Monument of the Discoveries.

Monument of the Discoveries, Compase Rose and Prince Henry the Navigator

The 52 meter Monument of the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos), completed in 1960, celebrates the Age of Discovery and is designed to look like a caravel. The monument commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, depicted at the front of the monument holding a caravel. The monument has sixteen statues on each side of Prince Henry depicting notable people from that era including monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, poets, scientists, and missionaries. The square in front of the monument, donated by South Africa, has a compass rose and a world map detailing the Portuguese explorations. Inside, there are exhibition halls and an auditorium plus a lift to the top of the monument that offers great views of the Tagus river, the 25th of April Bridge, the statue of Cristo Rei on the other side of the river, the world map on the square below and the Hieronymites Monastery.

Hieronymites Monastery from the Monument of the Discoveries

The Hieronymites Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos), started by King Manuel I in 1501, and took 100 years to complete, is the former monastery of the Order of Saint Jerome. The monks’ role was to provide spiritual guidance to the sailors and to pray for the king’s soul. In front of the monastery, there is a nice park with hedges and a fountain decorated with the coats of arms.

The Santa Maria de Belem church and the monastery cloisters are great examples of Manueline architecture. The entrance to the church is free while there is a charge to see the monastery cloisters. Once you enter the cloisters, you can enter the vault of the Santa Maria church for a great view of the columns and nave. Some kings and great figures in Portuguese history are buried here including Vasco da Gama, whose tomb you can see at the entrance, along with the poet Luis de Camões, who wrote the epic, “The Lusiads,” detailing the exploits of Gama and his compatriots.

Hieronymites Moanstery fountain, Santa Maria de Belem church interior and the tomb of Vasco da Gama

In the western wing of the Hieronymites Monastery, you will find two museums. The Maritime Museum (Museu da Marinha) is administered by the Navy and offers more details about the explorations and all other aspects of the Portuguese history of navigation. You can see scale models of ships, maps, paintings, navigation instruments, royal barges and sea planes.

The Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Museum of Archaeology), founded in 1893, contains ancient art and artifacts from throughout the Iberian Peninsula. In the Belem Cultural Centre, located near the monastery, there is the Coleção Berardo, which is a modern and contemporary art gallery.

The Pastéis de Belém busy counter, a peek at the production and the beautiful tarts

After a busy morning, you might need a snack. The Pastel de Nata is a Portuguese custard tart with a flaky crust that is dusted with cinnamon. It was invented by Catholic monks in Belem at the Hieronymites Monastery before the 18th century. Why the monks, you ask? Convents and monasteries used egg whites in those days to starch clothes, so the leftover yokes were used to make cakes and pastries. Today, the nearby Pastéis de Belém café is a must stop while you are in Belem to taste the authentically made pastry. There are sometimes long line ups outside, but they are customers waiting to buy “to go” sleeves of the treat.

There are many seats inside, in various rooms, where you can sit and order your tarts and coffee. As you go deeper inside, there are windows where you can see the custard tart operation at work. Every few minutes you will see a staff member emerge from the bakery carrying multiple trays of the tarts to restock the front counter as they constantly fly off the shelf. Every self-respecting Portuguese bakery in the world makes their version, but the monks’ original recipe is a closely guarded secret and is held by just a few people. They have all memorized the recipe as there can be no written version.

Just further down the street, you will see the Pink Palace, which is the official residence of the Portuguese President. Next to the palace is the 18th century Royal Riding School, which used to house the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coaches Museum). The Royal Riding School can still be visited and will have some coaches on display. The museum’s new location, which is only a few meters away, has a much larger space to show off one of the world’s finest collections of horse drawn carriages the from 16th to the 19th century.

The 5 hectare Jardim Botânico Tropical (Tropical Botanical Garden), which was laid out in 1912 by Hieronymites Monastery, is one of Lisbon’s best green spaces. The park has flora from all over the world, principally from Portugal’s former colonies. Some of the art and architecture with colonial themes date back to the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition. The grounds have 18th century marble statues by Italian artists, an Arch of Macau, an Oriental garden, greenhouses, and the 17th century baroque Calheta Palace, which is now a library and is used for exhibitions. Visitors enjoy seeing the ducks, swans, geese and peacocks who are found throughout the garden and its ponds. It is a good place to take a break from a busy day in Belem.

In the evening, you may consider a short walk along the waterfront, maybe while enjoying a beautiful sunset, to the Doca de Santo Amaro (Dock of St. Amaro). The dock is located next to the foot of the 25th of April Bridge. Here, you will find a variety of restaurants to have a nice dinner. As you enjoy your wine, you can reflect on the courage of the great explorers who left these shores to explore the world.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

My European Favourites – One Day In The Bavarian Alps

 

 

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My European Favourites – Day Trip From Amsterdam

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The Netherlands is a great place to visit either as a main destination or as a stopover for a couple of days. I have always enjoyed flying KLM and use them often for our many groups travelling throughout Europe. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is an east hub to fly into from North America, and I like the airport layout over other big and busy European airports.

Amsterdam itself has many interesting places to visit and explore. The city is full of history, great architecture, canals, bridges, museums, great shopping, cyclists, interesting cafes, the Anne Frank House, the Heineken Brewery, and yes, the notorious red light district. Not many people venture outside the city during a stopover, but one of our favourite day trips is from Amsterdam. We always try to do it on a Wednesday, so we catch the Edam cheese market show.

De Huisman Windmill exterior and interior grinding spices. Clog machine at work and the final products.

Zaanse Schans

Our twenty minute early morning trip to Zaandam starts after a good breakfast at our centrally located hotel in Amsterdam. On the way, you can enjoy the beautiful Dutch countryside including dikes and plots of land reclaimed from the water, called polders. Starting in the late 16th century, the Zaandam and the Zaan river area were important wood milling regions during the “Dutch Golden Age” with thousands of saw windmills. In the 19th century, the area became a leader of the “Industrial Age” in the Netherlands.

Starting in 1961, the Zaanse Schans was turned into an open air museum with windmills and buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Various wooden houses, barns, shops, warehouses and windmills were transported here starting in 1961. The buildings along with traditional farmsteads, paths, ditches and fields depict how village life was like during that prosperous time.

When we arrive at the Zaanse Schans parking lot, you will undoubtably smell chocolate from the nearby cacao processing factories. Entrance to the Zaansee Schans is free, but some of the workshops and windmills located throughout the grounds are museums and require an entrance fee. You can purchase a ticket to have access to all the museums.

One of the first buildings you will see on arrival is the Kooijman Souvenirs & Clogs Wooden Shoe Workshop. Here you can see a wooden clog machine demonstration. Afterwards, wander throughout the site checking out the bakery, fisherman’s house, weavers house, clock house, merchant house, cheese house, pewter house, pancake house and see how vats and barrels are made at the cooperage. With a little breeze, you can see the sails of the windmills slowly turning while the inner workings churn away. The windmills saw wood or mill oil, flower, spices or pigments to dye cloth. Some windmills allow visitors to climb up to the deck via narrow stairs for a nice view of the river and the area.

The Zaans Museum, located by the parking area, opened in 1998, and contains clothing and artifacts from the area. At its Verkade Experience you can see original chocolate and biscuit factory machines from the early 20th century at work. The museum also has a café and shop.

Traditional houses that are now workshops and museums. Like the Catharina Hoeve Cheese House.

Edam

Another short 20 minute drive, and we reach Edam, which is famous for its cheese market that started in1520. Edam cheese is round with a flattened top and bottom and is coated with a red paraffin wax which allowed it to age well and not spoil on long voyages. Its unique taste plus the lack of spoilage made it extremely attractive for exporting throughout the world. The market was closed in 1922 when cheese began to be made in factories rather than by local farms.

At the original market, farmers would bring their cheese using horse drawn cart or by boat. Once they arrived, the cheese carriers, who wore different colored hats depending on which cheese guild they belonged to, would load the product onto wooden barrows. Once the barrow was loaded, the carriers placed carry straps over their shoulders and walked the precious cargo to the cheese tasters. The tasters would drill a core sample from the cheese and based on the exterior wax, smell, taste and other factors began to bargain the price with the seller using a series of shouts and hand claps. When the price was settled the cheese was taken to the weighing house to determine the final amount to be paid.

Every Wednesday in the summer from 10:30 to 12:30, the town re-enacts the hustle, and bustle of the market at the Jan van Nieuwenhuizen Square. The colorful market includes many family members, including children, wearing traditional costumes, dresses and clogs plus kiosks selling cheese. Throughout the performance, horse carts and boats arrive, cheese carriers scurry at a comical pace and bargain shouts and hand slaps can be heard. So visitors understand everything that is happening, there is a person on a microphone explaining the entire process. It’s quite interesting and fun to witness.

The Edam cheese market square, unloading the boats, cheese carriers and girls in traditional costumes.

Smoked Eels

Next, we will travel from Edam to the seaside fishing village of Volendam to visit a local smokehouse that was founded in 1856.  Smoked eels at one time were an important staple food in the Netherlands but recently a drop in the eel population and the resulting price increase has made it a delicacy. Today, the 5th and 6th generations of the Smits’ family keep their family’s secret fish smoking process and traditions alive. The smoked eel is their specialty and during the eel fishing season the entire family is involved in the cutting, gouging, skinning, digging and filleting of the eels. The Paviljoen Smit-Bokkum offers private tours of the smokehouse to introduce people to the traditional eel fishing, processing and smoking activities. In addition to eel, they smoke salmon, dorado and sea bass using pine wood. The eel is delicious and at their restaurant you can try various local dishes. The location also has a shop and a small Palingsound (eel sound) Museum dedicated to Volendam’s unique and famous pop music.

The Paviljoen Smit-Bokkum, our guide with smoked eels, smoked fish and a fish display in Volendam.

Volendam

Volendam, once a simple catholic fishing village, is now Holland’s best-known seaside town and is visited by millions annually. The Volendam Catholic fishermen had their own typical costumes and dialect. The town’s boardwalk, once home to fishermen’s wooden shacks, is now adorned with colorful wooden houses, tourist shops, cafes and restaurants. As you walk through the town and its shops, you will see locals wearing the traditional clothing. If you explore the village’s narrow lanes in the old neighborhoods, you can still see some of the old fishermens’ houses.

There used to be hundreds of vessels at one time when Volendam’s fishing fleet had access to the North Sea, but after closing its access, the harbour contains only a few fishing vessels doing fresh water fishing on Markermeer lake. Nowadays, leisure boats and the ferries that go to the nearby island of Marken occupy the majority of the harbour space.

Some restaurants offer tasty local seafood dishes and cool drinks on patios overlooking the harbour. For a quick lunch, food stands and take away restaurants sell kibbeling (battered and fried fish nuggets), herring, shrimp and of course smoked eel.

A visit to the Volendams Museum provides an interesting look into the town’s history, costumes, traditions and art. If you have time, you may consider taking the Volendam Marken Express boat to Marken.

Volendam’s boardwalk with shops and restaurants. The harbour area with leisure and ferry boats.

Cheese Farm

On the way back to Amsterdam, and a short distance from Volendam, we will stop at the Henri Willig Jacob’s Hoeve cheese farm. The staff wear traditional clothing, and they give a short introduction and demonstration of the cheese making process. The number of cow goat and sheep cheese varieties is quite overwhelming but very interesting to sample. Some flavours you might encounter include truffle, cumin, pesto, red chili pepper, coconut, pepper, rosemary and garlic. They are all for sale in various sizes along with other Dutch souvenirs and foods. You can also see the cows in their new stable especially designed for the organic farm’s herd of Jerseys.

Henri Willig Jacob’s Hoeve entrance, the cheese making demonstration and the many cheeses for sale.

It is only twenty minutes back to Amsterdam and as you enjoy the countryside you can decide on what great restaurant you will go to tonight. I think an authentic Indonesian “rijsttafel” or rice table would be a great way to end the day. The rice table was brought back to the Netherlands from the Dutch East Indies where it was created by the Dutch as a festive way to showcase their colony’s diverse and multi-ethnic Indonesian cuisine. The rice is accompanied by a multitude of small meat, vegetarian and condiment dishes that may include spring rolls, satay meat skewers, curries, fish, boiled eggs, spicy sauces, peanut sauces, vegetables, and fried bananas. It is great for sampling different tastes and for sharing. You can find Indonesian fast food and restaurants throughout Amsterdam, but a place like Tujuh Maret or Ron Gastrobar Indonesia offering a rice table is definitely something you should experience.

Explore Europe With Us

Azorcan Global Sport, School and Sightseeing Tours have taken thousands to Europe on their custom group tours since 1994. Visit azorcan.net to see all our custom tour possibilities for your group of 26 or more. Individuals can join our “open” signature sport, sightseeing and sport fan tours including our popular Canada hockey fan tours to the World Juniors. At azorcan.net/media you can read our newsletters and listen to our podcasts.

Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours. This article was original published in March 2021. 

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