You know that feeling of sadness that sets in when you know your vacation time in an incredible locale is about to end?
You know that feeling of sadness that sets in when you know your vacation time in an incredible locale is about to end?
Yeah, that mixed bag of feelings where you’re kind of ready to get home to your own bed, but you also can’t fathom leaving behind your days of happy wandering. I really wasn’t ready to leave Lisbon. I liked this city even more than I anticipated I would.
Determined to spend every moment I could out in the city on my last day, my friend and I headed out to check out a couple of things left on our Lisbon list (and to eat at Time Out Market one more time).
I’d read very mixed reviews of the Elevador Santa Justa. It’s a bit like the Pyramid in front of the Louvre. Some people adore it; some people despise it. The lift was opened in 1902 and was originally named Elevador do Carmo (you’ll see why in just a bit). In truth, I find the Santa Justa Lift to be a bit of an eyesore…but, it really is the most convenient way to get from the Baixa to the Barrio Alto, unless you really like walking uphill.
You can use your city travel passes or Lisboa Card to take the elevator up and down. It works like the rest of the transport in Lisbon, simply swipe your card in front of the scan pads located at the entrance of the lift.
After standing in line for about 15 minutes, we were ushered into the lift. If you’re thinking the Santa Justa Elevator looks a bit like the Eiffel
Tower, you aren’t wrong. Raul Mesnier de Ponsard was a big fan of Gustave Eiffel and used his tower as inspiration. The elevator stands only about 150 feet tall, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views at the top. (On a quirky note: 20 people can ride up in the elevator, but only 15 people at a time can come down. Expect a bit of a wait.)
At the top of the Santa Justa was one of the sites I had been waiting to see, the ruins of the Carmo Church and Convent. Perhaps the most spectacular site I saw in Lisbon – and I saw lots of spectacular sites – the ruins of this Gothic church are a cannot miss, in my opinion.
The Carmo church, built between 1389 and 1423, was THE church in Lisbon until the devastating earthquake that changed Lisbon completely struck on November 1, 1755. Attempts at restoration were eventually abandoned and the ruins were left to grace the Lisbon skyline.
The magnitude 9 earthquake rocked the city of Lisbon, brought this church to rubble and destroyed the 5,000 some books that it housed.
Carmo Ruins and Museum
Carmo Ruins and Museum
Angel on a tomb
The remains of the altar now house a small but fantastic museum and visitors are free to take their time marveling at what remains of the Gothic structure. I spent hours looking up at the striking arches, imagining what this church looked like in its glory days.
I have so many photos of these arches. Every angle brought a new gorgeous view. (I’ve posted some of them in the slideshow below).
I visited two other churches on my last day. I walked right up on Igreja da Madalena, the Church of Mary Magdalene, on my way to the Lisbon Cathedral. This little church was a lovely surprise and is actually on the historic register. Like many places in Lisbon, the church today is a product of several reconstructions. Incredibly ornate, it’s worth a stop.
Ornate detail of Igreja da Madalena
Igreja da Madalena
Altar in Igreja da Madalena
Just up the hill, you will find the Lisbon Cathedral. The Sé de Lisboa as you’ll hear it called (its official name is Santa Maria Maior) is a Romanesque structure that dates from the 12th Century. You can enter the church at no charge. Pay a small fee to see the cloisters and the church’s treasury which houses jewels and artifacts from its history.
Our last official tourist duty in Lisbon was to hop aboard one of the trams that shuttles you around the hilly city side. The tram stop for the famous Line 28 is just outside the Cathedral.
Hop aboard the yellow car and ride the loop to enjoy Lisbon’s neighborhoods without the leg workout.
If you’re looking for a day trip from your vacation base in Lisbon, I’d like to tell you about two easy options that are only approximately 30 minutes away from the city: Cascais and Sintra.
Using Lisbon’s excellent public transportation system, hop on the subway at the nearest Metro station, ride to a stop where you can connect with the commuter train system, the comboios, and you can easily and comfortably make your way to Cascais and Sintra like I did. You can also use your Viva Viagem or Lisboa Card on the commuter rails (in addition to the subway and city buses, etc.)
Located on the Atlantic coast, Cascais,a quaint seaside town and former fishing village, offers visitors stunning views, plenty of shopping, good restaurants, and lovely beaches (which in truth are better enjoyed in the summer than in November). The streets are packed with the adorable and colorful buildings and the tiled sidewalks I’ve come to love in Portugal.
Tiled walkways of Cascais
Quaint walkways in Cascais
Sculpture in Cascais
Abandoned church in Cascais
Main square in Cascais
Neighborhoods of Cascais
Front and center in Cascais is La Cidadela, a 15th Century fortress that was built to protect against invaders from neighboring Spain. The fortress now houses an exclusive hotel, bars and restaurants and several shops but still has its lovely view over the Atlantic and the mouth of the Tejo River.
Perfectly walkable is the Parque Marechal Carmona in the historic center of Cascais. The grounds are lovely and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. During my visit, it was also full of birds: peacocks and chickens are everywhere.
Casa Santa Maria, or the House of St. Mary, was built by an Irishman, Jorge O’Neill, who made a fortune in tobacco. The home conveys a sense of luxury and is full of those gorgeous Portugese azulejos. The home, built in 1902 was gifted by Mr. O’Neill to his daughter as a wedding gift. The house has changed hands a few times since then and owners have added their personal touches. Check out the amazing view from the dining room.
Casa Santa Maria
Cat at Casa Santa Maria
Casa Santa Maria
Azulejos at Casa Santa Maria
Ornate ceiling at Casa Santa Maria
Just next door is the Santa Marta Lighthouse. Built in 1868, the lighthouse stands over what was a 17th Century fort. There are some interactive exhibits here and you can climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse for a spectacular view.
Santa Marta Lighthouse
Stairs inside the Santa Marta Lighthouse
If you got your fill of ocean views in Cascais, visiting the hilly Sintra is another good day trip from Lisbon.
Sintra is filled with quirky mansions of grand design and is located up in the hills of the Serra de Sintra. The climate here can be quite a bit cooler than Lisbon, which is precisely why the well-to-do built their summer homes here. If you’re visiting during cooler months, be sure to pack a coat (and maybe even gloves and a hat).
I dramatically underestimated (a) how hilly Sintra is and (b) how many castles you could visit in a day. If I had my trip to do over again, I’d actually plan to spend a couple of nights in Sintra to really maximize what I got to see. That said, here’s how my day trip to Sintra actually went.
If you all remember from my previous posts, I was actually sick during my trip to Portugal. But, medicated with some amazing cough medicine and decongestants, I decided that I could make the trip to Sintra after all. I’m normally a planner, but being under the weather, I decided that I could just wing my day. Maybe not the best plan.
Upon arrival by train in Sintra, you’ll head out of the station and find several different options for touring the town. Now, you can walk Sintra, but it is incredibly hilly and you may not want to exert that kind of effort. There are lots of hop-on/hop-off bus tour options that drive you from castle to castle. You can hire a tuk-tuk. Or you can choose to rent an electric car.
We wandered in to the Go2Cintra electric car rental and rented an electric car (read: golf cart with cover) to hit the hills and castles of Sintra. Because I was hopped up on cold medicine, we decided my friend would drive.
Electric car rental in Sintra
Electric car rental in Sintra
The concept of these electric rental cars goes like this: rent the little car with your driver’s license and credit card. Have the agent help you add the What’s App messaging app and a Google Maps route to your phone. Head out and enjoy seeing all the castles in Sintra. (Side note: there is no way to experience all of the castles in Sintra in a single day. Cannot be done.)
Tiny electric car rented and me crammed in the back seat, we hit the hillsides of Sintra. Driving with actual cars in a glorified golf cart was interesting, especially around blind corners. Mindful that our golf cart had little acceleration and limited speed, I think we did ok. We were enjoying the scenery, making our way to the first castle, when we passed the parking for said castle and couldn’t figure out how or where to turn around to go back. No problem, we thought. We did find parking for castle two, but decided upon arrival that we’d rather save our time for a couple of other stops. We hopped back in our tiny car and headed back out on the roads and that’s when things got…interesting.
What the agent at the car rental neglected to tell us is that Google Maps can – and does – reroute you from your planned route when it thinks it knows better than you about where you are supposed to be going. Let’s just say, we were enjoying some of the off tour sites in Sintra when we got a phone call from the Go2Cintra office inquiring about our location. (Oh yeah, the office does track you via GPS, which is a good thing). After a brief call with the office, we were rerouted. At this point, we’d missed half of the castles, but what are you gonna do?
From the regular neighborhoods of everyday Sintra, we made our way to the coast and Cabo da Roca. This is the westernmost point in mainland Europe. It was cold. It was windy. And the view was totally worth it.
Ocean views from Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca
View from Cabo da Roca
Windblown and back in the car, we headed back into the hills for our first real stop: Convento dos Capuchos. CLOSED. This quiet, Franciscan monastery is definitely at the top of my list for my next trip to Sintra. As is the Quinta da Regaleira, which we also missed.
Batting a thousand for castle stops, we finally made it to admire the outside of the Castelo dos Mouros, the ruins of a 9th Century Moorish Castle. This castle was restored in the 19th Century by King Ferdinand II and is worth a look.
Taking its place in the Portugese hillsides, it’s hard to miss the multicolored Pena Palace. I’m calling this palace the Frankenstein palace as it is a grand building that contains every architectural style you possibly think of. It’s both enchanting and odd all at the same time.
The castle is built over the foundation of a Middle Ages chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. According to legend, she appeared at the site and thus, a chapel was built in her honor. A monastery soon followed and it stood for years until being damaged by lightning and fires. It, eventually, succumbed to the power of the great earthquake that shook the greater Lisbon area in 1755.
In 1838, King Ferdinand II set his sights upon the ruins in Sintra and transformed them into the royal family’s summer home. The castle stayed in royal hands and had its last royal visitor when Portugal’s Queen Amélia, the last Portugese queen, spent her last night in Portugal here before being exiled.
We spent hours wandering the lush grounds. Gorgeous and green, there are chalets, ponds, and benches everywhere. Our last stop of the day was worth a somewhat frustrating experience of missing places we really wanted to see.
If you are able, I’d highly recommend the hike up to the Cruz Alta, the highest cross in Sintra. The cross sits atop the highest point of the Serra de Sintra. The walk up the hillside renders spectacular views and shouldn’t be missed.
Day two in Lisbon I started to feel unwell. (Catch day one here). You know, just that typical congested head, coughing kind of cold virus that everyone succumbs to in the fall and winter. Not one to miss out on sightseeing, I headed out anyway.
Today’s plan was literally to get lost wandering the Alfama district. The Alfama is a maze of tiny little streets dotted with adorable homes covered in azulejos. Tiny shops and restaurants are tucked into every corner and each time you take a turn, you feel compelled to take a photo of the cutest street you’ve ever seen.
The Alfama is very hilly and you’ll get a killer leg workout in. After hopping off the Metro, I started my ascent. The Panteao Nacional or National Pantheon was first up on my list. If you’ve got a Lisboa Card, you can scan your card to get in.
You can see the massive white dome of the Pantheon from almost anywhere in the Alfama. The church itself wasn’t inaugurated until 1966 after a series of troubles in construction. Inside you’ll be blown away by the use of different stone. The church is laid out not in a typical Latin cross formation ,but in a Greek cross floor plan.
Also worth seeing here are the six cenotaphs of some of Portugal’s most notable sons and daughters and the pipe organ which was moved from the Lisbon Cathedral, the Sé, in the 1940s.
You can get a stunning view of the district from atop the Pantheon dome’s terrace.
From atop the Pantheon I could see the towers of what turned out to be the São Vicente da Fora. The monastery was founded in 1147 and was dedicated to Lisbon’s patron saint, Saint Vincent. The structure now houses a museum.
Entrance into the church is free but there is an entrance fee of 10€ for the museum. The contents are well worth the price as it contains several luxe pieces from the Catholic church as well as a close look at the architecture and tiles of the building.
Azulejo mosaics are prevalent in the cloisters. The bright blue and white tiles are in surprisingly good shape given the age of this structure. The details in each azulejo panel are fantastic.
Down a corridor, you’ll also be able to view the old monks’ refectory. The refectory became the pantheon for the Braganza family, the last rulers of Portugal. The highlight of the pantheon is a breathtaking sculpture at the tomb of King Carlos and Prince Luis Filipe, his heir. Father and son were assassinated in 1908.
And, as with many of Lisbon’s monuments, don’t miss the spectacular city views from the top.
After visiting both churches, I spend some more time wandering the streets of the Alfama and discover the most adorable cafe tucked away. You won’t really know about the shops or restaurants in the Alfama until you are literally upon them.
Rendevous was perfect for a snack of Portugal’s best meats and cheese and a glass of green wine. The Trip Advisor reviews tell you all you need to know about this charming restaurant. The food and service were excellent. And we finished the meal with our first shot of ghinja, a sour cherry liqueur served in a chocolate shot glass. Nothing wrong with that. You’ll find ghinja all over Lisbon. A shot is about 1€.
We wandered more of the Alfama and of course, had another pastel de nata, this time at Santo António bakery near the Castel de São Jorge. (We missed the last admission to the Moorish castle by about 10 minutes).
At this point in the day, I’m feeling worse, so I pop into a pharmacy. Pharmacies in Lisbon are in every neighborhood and are almost like urgent care centers. I talked with a very kind pharmacist who spoke brilliant English. (I found that most people in Lisbon spoke perfect English. They were also very patient as I mangled Portugese in an attempt to learn a bit. If you can read French or Spanish, you’ll be able to read Portugese pretty well, but Portugese does not sound anything like its Romance language cousins for the most part.) After describing my symptoms, the pharmacist whipped up two prescriptions for me. (No antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription). Back at the hotel, a take out meal of Ramen soup was on order.
Day three in Lisbon was a short one. My friend left her room early and headed out to see the Castel de São Jorge while I slept off my latest dose of cough syrup. Around noon, I took the subway back to the historic center to meet my friend. We hopped back on the tram heading to Belém.
First stop, lunch at Time Out Market. The Time Out Market is part traditional market with florists, fruits and vegetables stands, butchers and seafood vendors, but the other half is an extraordinary food hall featuring the city of Lisbon’s best dishes and drinks.
A curated food market, Time Out Market allows visitors to taste the dishes from Lisbon’s most amazing restaurants all in one sitting. Simply order what you like from a mini-restaurant (or two, or three, or ten) and sit with your friends and new acquaintances at long open seating style tables.
It’s a fantastic place to try the food that makes Lisbon what it is. We sampled everything from croquettes with goat cheese and carmelized onion to famous Portugese bacalhau à brás to garlic butter shrimp to steak sandwiches to chicken samosas. Wash it all down with a glass of wine, beer or a cocktail. Everything is amazingly delicious. If it isn’t, it’s not allowed in the Time Out Market. (We ate here several times).
Stop two, check out the Torre de Belém. Not far from the other monuments, the Belém Tower was built from 1514-1520 as part of a defense system in the Tagus River. This is another UNESCO heritage site and is a stunning medieval tower standing tall in the water. After its days defending the city, the tower became a lighthouse and even a customs center. In the tower, you can climb up the tower to view the inside, including a chapel and a gargoyle in the shape of a rhinoceros. (The first rhino set foot in Portugal in 1513.) A fee is required to enter the tower itself; or you can view the outside for free. (Note that this monument, and many of Lisbon’s monuments, are closed on Mondays).
Day four is completely lost to much needed sleep, medication and more Ramen. Several doses of cough medicine and hours of sleep later, I head out to visit Cascais and Sintra.
Paris, you’ll always be my favorite European city, but (cover your ears), Lisbon comes in a very close second.
Paris, you’ll always be my favorite European city, but (cover your ears), Lisbon comes in a very close second.
After a canceled trip a few years ago, I finally made it to Lisbon and it was everything that I’d hoped it would be. More, actually. I was a little bit worried that I’d built Lisbon up in my mind so much that I might be let down when I arrived. I’ve been thinking on Lisbon for at least three years…
So, when November came around, it was time to go. I like to travel internationally in November. It’s usually less crowded (read fewer lines at restaurants, museums) and you can get pretty good deals on flights and hotels. If you don’t mind the typical fall drizzle and cooler temperatures, I find November a great month to hop across the pond.
I found the best airfare through Seattle. A bit odd for a European fare, but in any case, I booked a ticket from Seattle through London Heathrow and then into Lisbon on British Airways for about $750. Two flights from Albuquerque to Seattle, a night at a SEATAC hotel and I was on my way – finally. (If you’re into multiple layovers, you could find airfare for $480).
I hadn’t flown British Airways before and it was fine. Nine hours in a smaller than anticipated plane, the legroom was less than I expected in my economy seat, but the flying experience to Lisbon went just fine.
I assume I don’t even have to tell you by now, but I stayed, on points collected from work travels, at the Doubletree Fontana Park in Lisbon. A quick cab ride from the airport, the hotel gets a lot of knocks on TripAdvisor for its decor and room size. The decor was a bit funky (black walls, black carpet, very industrial), but the building had been an iron factory and the staff here is fantastic. The reviews on room size, I assume, come from people that have never stayed in a hotel in Europe. If you’re expecting a grande suite, I suppose you’ll be disappointed. But in reality, the hotel was safe, clean and comfortable.
The hotel was about a 30 minute walk from the historic sites of Lisbon. I like to walk so this was just fine by me. It was also about a 3 minute walk to the nearest Metro station which quickly, cheaply and easily takes you where you want to go. The public transportation in Lisbon is fantastic. More about that later.
Day one in Lisbon:
Opting to walk from my hotel that first day down to historic Lisbon and in particular the Praça do Comércio, I kept mentioning to my friend how much the Avenida da Liberdade reminded me of Paris. (And in truth, maybe that’s why I loved Lisbon in part). As we learned more about the history of the city, there was something to my Parisian feeling. Lisbon is an old city (you can still see a Roman aqueduct here), but in 1755 the city was almost completely destroyed by a major earthquake and subsequent fires and a tsunami. The Marquis of Pombal, or Marques de Pombal, set out to redesign the city of Lisbon. (He’s kind of a big deal in Lisbon for obvious reasons. You’ll see his name and likeness all over. He even has his on Metro stop). The rebuild of the city of Lisbon is pretty interesting for several scientific reasons, but that large street in Lisbon reminded me of Paris for a reason. It was modeled after the Champs Elysées.
Avenida da Liberdade is a major thoroughfare and it’s lined with shops, restaurants,
sidewalk cafes, and outdoor markets. The sidewalks of Lisbon are gorgeous. Now that’s a weird thing to mention, right? Not after you realize that the sidewalks are made of stunning tile mosaics. You’re literally walking on art. I stopped to take photos of the sidewalks a lot. The tile work on the sidewalks and in the plazas is amazing. Nowhere more so than in the Praça do Rossio (formally the Praça Dom Pedro IV) where the tile looks like waves. Located in the Baixa, or downtown area, the plaza is a stunning place to sit and people watch or enjoy a pastry.
A note on the tiles before I get back to the pastries. The tile mosaics, while gorgeous, are uneven and when it rains, are very slick. Here I make my first recommendation to those of you going to Portugal. Wear good shoes. Wear shoes with good tread and good foot and ankle support. Leave your fancy heels and cute flats for another trip. I saw tons of women wearing combat boots, which are back in fashion, and are most probably the best shoe you could wear on these uneven and slippery walks. A good pair of trainers/sneakers/trail shoes, boots or flats with good tread work too. (American sportswear was seen all over the city. Maybe just avoid the all white sneaker trend that screams American on vacation).
Back to the important stuff. The Praça do Rossio was where I ate my first pastel de nata. I ate a large quantity of pastéis de nata while in Lisbon and you should, too. They are delicious. A warm custard tart in the flakiest of crusts, you can find these little gems all over the city. They cost about 1€ and you will see them everywhere. I tried these tarts at pretty much every bakery I passed by and still ended up losing five pounds on vacation due to all the walking you can do in Lisbon. Eat up!
As we wandered further into the historic city, past shops, restaurants, and street performers, we made our way to the Praça do Comércio or Commerce Square on the Tagus River, the square is incredibly beautiful. Pre-earthquake, it was the site of the royal palace. After its remodel, the square had a new importance in housing sites of goverment and economy. The square today also has a beautiful view of the river, several museums and restaurants, sculpture and an open space where you can take in street performers. Strangely, my first day there, a man was dressed up as a polar bear.
While at the square, I popped into the Lisboa Story Center, once of several tourist information spots throughout the city where you can purchase a Lisboa Card. I mentioned that the public transportation in Lisbon is easy to use and you can buy a Viva Viagem card to use for public transportation alone. (The card can be purchased at public transport stations and contains a chip that you scan when you hop on the subway, bus, tram or commuter trains and ferries. You can continue to load money onto the card.) The Lisboa Card contains the benefits of the Viva Viagem card plus gets you free or reduced admission into many of the museums and tourist destinations in Lisbon. The card can be purchased in one, two or three day increments. It becomes active the first time you scan it.
If you are planning to visit any of the sites and if you are planning to use public transporation to get there, the Lisboa Card was a great value for me. Public transport is equipped with scanners. You simply tap your card against the scanner, wait for it to register green and hop on. Subway, trams, buses, commuter trains and ferries – all included. Tourist destinations and museums that grant free admission with a Lisboa Card have a similar scan station at the entrance. Simply scan your card and off you go. A three day card was about $50.
After a quick bite to eat on the square and a quick trip to find a bathroom, we decided to hop the tram to Belém to see the sites. (Plan ahead. There are not a ton of public toilets in Lisbon. Restaurants and museums have them for paying customers and you’ll see them designated as WC).
Belém is about 15 minutes by crowded tram or bus from the Praça do Comércio. You’ll make several stops along the route and the route is crowded as there are many sites popular with visitors to see in Belém. Mind your bags and wallets. Pickpockets frequent the heavily crowded spots. In general, I found Lisbon to be very safe but, as with traveling anywhere, you want to be aware of your surroundings.
On the way to Belém, at the Cais do Sodré stop, you will pass the Time Out Market, a truly amazing food hall. More about that in my next post, but if you’re planning a visit to Lisbon, keep that on your radar.
Our first stop in Belém was the beautiful Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém and the UNESCO heritage site of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The Church, Igreja, can be visited for free by visitors. It features soaring ceilings that look like webs and the tombs of explorer, Vasco da Gama, and poet, Luís de Camões. There is no fee, but the number of visitors allowed into the church at one time is monitored. We waited in a short line for about 10 minutes before being allowed in. There is a small fee to visit the sacristy of the church which included a number of beautiful paintings and was well worth it.
Just next door, is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos or the Monastery of the Hieronymites. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visually stunning places I’ve had fortune to visit. The monastery sits at the entrance of the harbor of Lisbon on the Tagus River and was built in the 15th Century. The legacy of exploration and religion are intricately tied together in Lisbon. This site was commissioned by King Manuel I and was donated to the monks. In turn, the monks prayed for the King and the seafaring explorers leaving the shores of Portugal.
Structurally the monastery is just gorgeous. It’s an ornate web of arches in stunning white stone carved in the Manueline style. I spent more than 2 hours here and couldn’t stop taking photographs. Every angle was extraordinary. I couldn’t stop looking at this beautiful place.
There is a fee to visit the monastery. If you purchased a Lisboa Card, your entrance is included. Simply follow the signs for Lisboa Card and scan your card at the designated station.
If you’re up to it, you can make a short walk across a highway to the Tagus River shore to see another stunning monument, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The monument celebrates the Portugese explorers from the 15th and 16th Centuries. We forget, but Portugal really led the way in seafaring exploration. The original monument, erected for the Worlds Fair was established in 1940 but was eventually taken down. The current monument, built out of limestone, was constructed in the 1960s. Yhe massive monument pays homage to Portugal’s great explorers. There is no charge to view the monument. You can pay a nominal fee to climb up inside it. I didn’t climb, but my friend did and reported back that it wasn’t really worth her entrance fee.
After touring the monuments, I walked back into Belém to grab a pastel de nata at at Pastéis de Belém. The bakery began making the pastries in 1837 using the ancient recipe from the monks down the road at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. There is usually a healthy line for a pastry to go, but the staff has the ordering and delivering of pastéis down to a science and you’ll be in and out in no time. You can also queue up in the left hand entrance if you’d rather enjoy your pastry sitting down with a cup of coffee.
On the walk back to the bus stop, I began what is now an obsession with the Portugese tiles that cover many of the older homes in Lisbon: azulejos. These colorful tiles come in so many patterns it’s hard to believe and they render a sense of charm to the Lisbon city streets. I’ve got more photos of azulejos than I do of anything else in Lisbon.
You all know how I like to tell you about all the quirky places in the state of New Mexico? Well, about the quirkiest place you can find is perhaps the city of Roswell.
Due to no fault of its own, really, Roswell’s claim to fame is space aliens. Yep, you heard that right. In July of 1947, The Roswell Incident took place. An Unidentified Flying Object, a UFO, crashed at a ranch outside of Roswell, NM (quite a ways from Roswell, actually). Or so the story goes.
Once officials were notified, the military swooped in from Walker Air Base (the Air Force base was decommissioned in 1967), gathered up all of the evidence and the alien bodies, threatened folks to keep their mouths shut, issued a cover-up story about a weather balloon and….
Well, the mystery and stories about what really happened in Roswell have persevered. And, the city of Roswell itself has firmly grabbed hold of their alien connection and you can see it all over town. It’s a pretty spectacular example of taking the odd tidbit you’re known for and running with it.
Roswell is home to approximately 50,000 people, making it the fifth largest city in New Mexico. And the city itself has a pretty rich history. It is the county seat of Chaves County and if you’re interested in aviation or rockets, Roswell has a lot of interesting people in its past, including Charles Lindbergh, Robert Goddard and more recently, Felix Baumgartner. New Mexico Military Institute is in Roswell and there are lovely museums and restaurants and plenty of places to stay, but I’m here to talk about the aliens.
If you find yourself in Roswell, fuel up at Big D’s Downtown Dive and then throw yourself right into alien culture. Aliens are literally all over the streets of this town and they will provide you with lots of fun photo taking opportunities.
There’s perhaps no better place to start than the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Right on Main Street, the museum will provide you with a timeline of all of the action along with UFO art, stories from abductees, and some life sized alien replicas.
This was the first time that I popped into the Research Center portion of the building. Let me just say: If you want to read all things about aliens, UFOs, and etc., this is your place.
Want to up your alien experience to the next level? The City of Roswell hosts a UFO Festival every year in July.
This is the first time I’ve experienced White Sands on a cloudy and rainy day and it made for a completely different kind of beautiful out there in the sand. I ran into an Alamogordo native on the dunes who told me that it’s the first time in his life that he’d been out in the gypsum dunes when it wasn’t “sunny and hot as hell.”
Being out in the clouds and sprinkling rain was certainly nice, but when the thunder started, all I could hear was my mother’s voice telling me to get in the car.
One of the great things about Carlsbad Caverns is that you don’t really have to worry too much about the outside conditions. The caverns are always cool and damp. You do; however, have to worry about time. I arrived this time just as the last tickets were being sold for entrance. This forced me to elevator down rather than taking my preferred path – the hike down into the natural entrance of the cave.
Elevator ride aside, there was still plenty of time to explore and I was among the last people out of the caverns at closing time, which was nice. It’s very quiet when there isn’t anyone down there.
Pictures don’t do this place justice. They just don’t.
Note to self: it’s time to renew your National Parks Pass.
I’ve driven by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRA) outside of Socorro many times. The NRAO is home of the Very Large Array (VLA) or a set of giant satellites that in my mind were always aimed at space searching for alien life. That’s not exactly true and probably came more from the movie Contact than it did from any actual research on the VLA.
Let me preface this entire blog post by saying I have a very limited understanding of anything more than mildly scientific.
I’ve driven by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRA) outside of Socorro many times. The NRAO is home of the Very Large Array (VLA) or a set of giant radio telescopes that in my mind were always aimed at space searching for alien life. That’s not exactly true and probably came more from the movie Contact than it did from any actual research on the VLA.
Anyway. After having a presentation canceled, my co-worked and I decided to treat ourselves to an afternoon of not working. Neither of us ever having actually been to see the VLA we headed down to check it out.
The VLA is about 50 miles outside of Socorro and it’s pretty much in the middle of a high desert with nothing else in sight. Turns out that was an intentional decision when construction started on the very large array in 1973. The giant satellites of the NRAO collect radio waves from space and these radio waves are very faint. And, when you are trying to collect faint radio waves from space, you need to be in a quiet and open area…hello New Mexico. The flat area outside of Socorro is also surrounded by mountains which act as nature’s buffer to ambient sound.
The sounds are so faint and the telescopes so sensitive that you’ll be asked to put all electronics in airplane mode and then power them off while you are here. You are allowed to briefly power things on to take photos (while in airplane mode).
The visitor center has several interesting displays that will help people without science minded brains (like me) to understand the basics of what goes on at the VLA. In a very non-scientific nutshell: the VLA uses the giant radio telescopes to collect radio waves from space. A giant supercomputer then compiles all of the data from all of the different telescopes into composite photos that allow us to see what space looks like. It really is pretty amazing and the visitor center has several incredible photos that came from the data that’s been collected. In addition to providing insight as to what space looks like, astronomers use this data to track asteroids, watch exploding stars and investigate black holes.
That’s where my understanding ends. There is a documentary that plays in the visitor center as well as some on-demand videos in which some very science-y guys attempt to explain what goes on at the Observatory to people like me. No one answered my two burning questions: how much do these beasts cost?! My guess is somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And, has anyone ever broken one?
The best part of our visit was the walking tour. (Guided tours are available – check the website). You will have an opportunity to get outdoors and get close to one of the VLA’s radio telescopes. These 230 ton monsters can be moved on special loading trucks – provided that the winds are no more than 20 mph. Employees use jacks to lift the dishes up off of the bases. They are then lowered onto these specialized trucks that can move the radio telescopes along 40 miles of railroad tracks on the NRAO property. The telescopes travel at no more than 5 mph on the tracks to their new location. This allows the VLA to adjust the arrangement of the satellites to suit their needs. You can check out the current configuration of the VLA here: https://public.nrao.edu/vla-configurations/.
What do most people think of when they think of New Mexico? It’s always interesting to hear the opinions and, sometimes, misconceptions of the people I meet across the country.
I’ll admit, when we moved to New Mexico in 1982 I thought my mother had lost her mind and moved us to the surface of the moon. New Mexico is….different. I don’t mean that in a negative way. While the state has its challenges, just like every other state, the fact that New Mexico is different is what makes it special and there is no other place to notice the different than in the land itself.
Most people don’t realize that New Mexico contains such a wide and varied landscape. I suspect most people think of the desert when they think of New Mexico and we’ve got desert – plenty of high desert to be precise – but we also have prairies, buttes and mesas, red rocks, canyons, and mountains. New Mexico mountains are the southern end of the Rockies, you know. The sunsets in this state will blow your mind…
We’ve also got sand and rocks. Hear me out.
Last week in Southern New Mexico, I visited one National Monument where I’ve been many times before and one state park that I’d never visited. Sand and rocks.
Sand comes in the form of white gypsum at the stunning White Sands National Monument located just outside of Alamogordo. As the website claims, there really is no other place like it on Earth.
White Sands is a gypsum dunefield. Gypsum is a fine, white sand and that sand has been deposited in the Tularosa Basin over hundreds of years to form what is now the national monument. I’m no geologist so if you’re interested in actual detail of the formation of these sand dunes, check out the White Sands National Monument website.
The dunes encompass some 275 square miles and the monument preserves the majority of those dunes. You may have seen sand dunes before. The Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is beautiful, but it isn’t White Sands. As the name indicates, part of what makes White Sands so stunningly beautiful is that the sands are white – duh.
You need sunglasses while visiting – believe me. The New Mexico sun bouncing off the bright white sand is akin to being out on a snow covered mountain in the sun. You can’t squint enough so break out the giant shades before you start rolling into the park. (And water. Please take water with you.)
You can drive through the park and take in the beauty from the car, but if you really want to experience the monument you need to park the car, get out and climb a dune (yes, really!). It’s the only way to experience the magnificence of this place and it’s a great quad workout. Stand a top a dune and take it all in. Sit or lie down in the sand. It’s like the best beach in the world (minus the water). Bring a sled (or rent one at the visitor center) and hike up a dune and slide down. I had fond memories of sledding here as a kid. A friend and I visited White Sands a couple of years ago and we brought our sleds. You don’t go as fast once your butt has reached adult-sized proportions and it’s a little scary staring down the side of a dune, but we sledded any way and laughed our adult rumps off in the process. On this visit I saw an older couple with sleds, sliding slowly down a shorter dune with huge grins on their faces. That’s what it’s about. Get the sled – you won’t regret it. (There is an entrance fee of $20 a car. Or, do as I tell you and get a National Parks Pass already).
In the southwestern corner of the state, nestled between Deming and Bayard lies a little state park called The City of Rocks.
My colleague and I decided to stop on a whim after some meetings. I had heard about this place from a friend of mine who has family in the area. “Stop there,” she says. “It’s really beautiful.” Really? Rocks, beautiful?
She’s right. As you drive into this park you see….nothing. Nothing at all until you come to a small vista at the entrance of the park and then you’re pretty blown away.
The City of Rocks is just that. An outcropping of volcanic rocks standing high in an otherwise flat portion of New Mexico land. (Again, not a geologist so check out the website for in depth rock information). There is a $5.00 day pass fee here or you can camp at the site for the incredibly reasonable amount of $14.00 a day.
We took a spin through the visitors’ center and then headed out to hike among the giant rocks. You can’t really get lost as the rocks are all centered in a small area, but you can run into rattlesnakes in this area so be aware. As most places in New Mexico, please take a hat, some sunglasses and water. (I can’t tell you how many people I encounter hiking in the desert without water. Get a backpack and take it with you. Every time).
That’s the name of this funky little year-round resort town in Sierra County, New Mexico.
Famed for its hot springs, this town changed its original name, Hot Springs, to Truth or Consequences as part of a publicity campaign to advertise a game show. The story goes that a popular game show, Truth or Consequences, was looking for a way to advertise its 10th year anniversary in 1949. They decided that finding a town in America that would change its name to Truth or Consequences would be a flashy way to gain some publicity. The call went out to cities around the country and Hot Springs, New Mexico applied and won. In March of 1950 a special election was held to change the town’s name from Hot Springs to Truth or Consequences. The name change passed 1294 in favor, 295 against and the host of the popular game show flew to the newly named town to broadcast an episode of the game show – on April Fools Day. The publicity stunt worked and the name stuck.
In 2019, Truth or Consequences is known more for Elephant Butte Lake, hot springs resorts, art galleries, and the newly arrived Spaceport America. Approximately 6,000 people still live in Truth or Consequences (we call it T or C for short) and there are a surprising number of things to enjoy in this little city with the big name.
There are a number of hotels in the area, but if you find yourself in T or C, you’d be wise to check out one of the many hot springs resort hotels in the area. On this trip I stayed at the Blackstone Hot Springs lodge. This gem of a hotel from the 1930s has been remodeled with quirky themed rooms. I stayed with Spock in the Star Trek room while my colleague stayed in the Jetsons room (PS: I prefer the Spanish name Los Supersónicos) and my boss in the Superman suite.
The rooms, though themed, are modern, clean and incredibly comfortable. The property boasts a handful of hot springs tubs located in the common areas of the resort, but the best part of this hotel is that most rooms come with their own private hot springs tub. That means you can soak to your little heart’s content, in whatever bathing attire you like, in privacy.
Star Trek Room
Star Trek Room
Rates are incredibly reasonable and the Blackstone has a lodge cat: Boris.
Now I’m not sure what your thoughts are on him personally, but Ted Turner also has a resort hotel in T or C called the Sierra Grande. While we didn’t stay here, we did eat at the restaurant which features a nice selection of New Mexico beer and wine. The menu is varied and features everything from wild game to lighter fare. I enjoyed a spa bowl (red quinoa, kale, sweet potatoes, chicken and a spicy peanut sauce) and a delicious slice of chocolate cake (ok, and a couple of glasses of wine – everything in moderation, right?)
There are lots of shops to explore and a surprising array of restaurants. I’d recommend the Passion Pie Cafe for breakfast. It’s small and crowded but the food is great. And, if you’re up for something out of the ordinary, the Pacific Grill, which serves both Chinese and Mexican food alongside a salad bar, is surprisingly good.
T or C is also lake adjacent. I have fond memories of camping and boating at Elephant Butte Lake. Sadly the last several years of New Mexico’s drought have taken their toll. Here’s hoping more water starts flowing again soon!
I haven’t been yet, but Spaceport America is a stone’s throw from T or C. New Mexico is probably a really great place for a Spaceport:
For those of you that have a hard time gauging the size of states, New Mexico is the 5th largest state in land mass. The Land of Enchantment encompasses 121,365 miles. On the flip side, New Mexico is the 36th largest state when it come to population with approximately 2 million people. What that means is that there is lots of space in New Mexico and parts of the state are incredibly remote – I mean like nothing on the AM dial remote.
I’m the worst blog writer ever. Seriously. I never write. I thought about writing pretty much all of the summer and fall of 2018. Even jotted down some phrases, ideas, sentences that stuck out in my mind as pretty good and then…..insert crickets chirping here…nothing. I can’t even find the notes where I recorded my thoughts.
I spent most of the second half of 2018 figuring out my professional life, leaving one small company with a great group of coworkers to eventually return to the large company that I left three years ago. It has great coworkers too.
Business travel isn’t new to me and I knew there would come a year in my life where flying for work upwards of 4 times a week every week would get old (or I would get too old for it). It turns out that year was my 44th on the planet.
I’m still traveling but now I get to drive the great state of New Mexico more often than I’m on a plane. And that’s been nice. It also got me thinking that I rarely haul my nice (and expensive camera) out of the house. You know, the camera I bought myself as a treat several years ago with a promise that I’d indulge in (and improve) my photography habit.
My work territory is the state of New Mexico. The entire state. For those of you that have a hard time gauging the sizes of states, New Mexico is the 5th largest state in land mass. The Land of Enchantment encompasses 121,365 miles. On the flip side, New Mexico is the 36th largest state when it come to population with approximately 2 million people. What that means is that there is lots of space in New Mexico and parts of the state are incredibly remote – I mean like nothing on the AM dial remote.
Because our population is so small as compared to our land mass, the population in New Mexico is mostly concentrated along the Interstates. Albuquerque is by far the largest city followed by Las Cruces, Santa Fe and a handful of other cities. After that, the population drops off sharply and you’re left with a series of towns and villages.
In the fall of 2018, I visited all 89 of the school districts in the state (these are my customers). It took several weeks but I finally finished crisscrossing the state.
The highways of New Mexico are littered with abandoned and run down homes, farms, and towns, remnants of days gone by. Scattered along the interstates, highways and state roads are also hundreds of roadside markers. Now, I know a lot of you just go blowing by those markers, but there’s some really interesting history to be found there. I highly recommend this book: Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers. It was recommended to me by the park ranger at the Abo Ruins (worth a stop) and it gives the extended history of all the roadside markers (past and present) in New Mexico. Talk to the park rangers at your National Parks and Monuments…they know a lot of cool stuff.
Those of you that know me well know I’m fascinated with ghost towns, abandoned buildings and the like and there are plenty to see in New Mexico. In some cases, towns were left to die after I-40 overtook Route 66. Others, like Cedarvale, were farming meccas where drought eventually came, ruined the crops and drove the population out.
(Cedarvale was once home to the country’s largest pinto bean producer. All that’s left now are the remnants of a WPA school). Others stopped flourishing after the railroads came and went or the mines were exhausted.
What is even more amazing are the changes in these towns or the quirky ways they are keeping themselves on the map and what one can find in these little towns if you just look a little bit more deeply.
Let’s take the Village of of Mosquero. Mosquero, in Harding County, lies way, way, way out in the middle of….well, nothing. Depending on which census you look at, there are somewhere between 90 and 120 residents in this little village. Sitting so far off the beaten path, not much would bring your average traveler to Mosquero, but it’s a quaint little village where the residents have transformed the sides of almost all of their buildings on the main street into beautiful murals. I’m voting Mosquero the friendliest town in all of New Mexico. I think every resident of the village waved to me as I was exploring the streets and several stopped to chat with me, asking where I was from and could they help me find something – or someone.
In fact, I am starting to miss the friendliness and politeness that is present in most small towns and that sometimes feels largely absent in our bigger cities. I guess you get used the absence of niceties when you live in a larger city (and Albuquerque isn’t really that big…it’s the biggest small town you’ll ever encounter). I mean, sure, you have a handful of people in cities that are friendly and polite, but it just seems that in the smaller towns you see niceness on display in larger and more frequent ways. More kids hold school doors open for me in small towns. More kids call me ma’am in the smaller towns. (Note to small town kids: I don’t really love being called ma’am. I get it’s polite, but could we shoot for “miss” instead?) Maybe as cities grow and grow, we lose the desire to be nicer because we don’t really know our neighbors any more…
The whole point of going down that rabbit hole is to tell you that heading off the beaten path to a small town or village sometimes really pays off. And, perhaps I’m just less vigilant than some of my acquaintances, but I’ve seen some really incredible stuff in parts of my state that other people tend to avoid. “You could get killed out there.” “I never go way out there.” “That’s a weird town.” I think these are all just ways to say that the people in this town aren’t exactly like me and therefore I’m going to react with fear.
Now, I’m not advocating that you go out and behave like an idiot or intentionally put yourself in a situation that looks/smells/seems/feels dangerous, but I am saying: maybe don’t judge a book by its cover.
In addition to the friendliest village ever (Hey Mosquero, hey!), I might have missed all the following if I hadn’t ventured out a bit:
Shiprock and the graffiti art of the Navajo Nation. A lot of people I know are hesitant to visit Shiprock and/or the far Northwestern part of our state. Don’t be! If you do you will miss out on one of the world’s most interesting geologic sights and some incredible art. Shiprock is the erosional remnant of a volcano and it’s incredible. (As a side note, one of my customers told me that New Mexico has more volcanoes than anywhere else in the country. Thank goodness they’re all not actively spewing lava.) You can visit and photograph Shiprock a million times and get a stunning and totally different looking picture each time. If you’re brave and you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can drive out to the Shiprock. (Don’t go climbing it. It’s a sacred site to the Navajo people.) My other favorite thing in Shiprock (the town) is the incredible graffiti art left on some the buildings in town. I got out of my car on this past trip and really spent some time taking a good look. There’s a lot of talent on these walls.
Art is scattered around the state in some of the most unlikely places you can think of: the painted highway barriers on the Mescalero Apache land, a stilt walker in Albuquerqe, a sculpture of St. Michael that looks almost like animation in Pecos, the Basket Array in Grants, the cowboy sculpture in Jal, murals in Mosquero and Corona and on the walls of Ft. Selden, the painted burros in Carrizozo.
St. Michael and the Devil in Pecos
Mural in Mosquero
Shiprock graffiti art
Basket Array in Grants
Burning of El Kookooee
Mural at Fort Selden
Cowboy Sculpture in Jal
Mural in Corona
Also scattered across the state, merely a stone’s throw from wherever you are….old churches. Mostly Catholic (occasionally another denomination sneaks in) the old churches here in New Mexico are some of my favorite things to photograph. Many have been in use for centuries and lots of them make you feel like you’re somewhere deep in Central or South America. Whether you’re Catholic or not, religious at all or not, these little churches are always worth stopping for.
Shrine at El Santuario de Chimayo
Chapel at Fort Selden
Baptist Church in Corona
St Joseph Apache Mission
Nuestra Senora de Refugio – Puerto de Luna
Chapel of Santa Rosa de Lima
San Felipe de Neri – Old Town Albuquerque
St. Teresa del Nino Jesus – El Turquillo
St. Gertrudes – Cleveland
Our Lady of Light – Lamy
Abandoned Presbyterian Church in Taiban
And, if you’re like me and you geek out over abandoned buildings of any kind, we’ve got those too, including several grist mills. The one in Cleveland, NM has been turned into a pretty great museum.
Old trucks in Carrizozo
Freelove’s in Cuba
La Cueva Mill
Silver Creek Inn – Mogollon
Outside of Portales
Cleveland Roller Mill
Bison at Loma Parda
This year I visited two interesting (and funky) ghost towns…well, semi ghost towns. Both Loma Parda and Mogollon have a handful of eccentric, year-round residents. If you want to see the really good stuff, make friends with the locals, trust me. It turns out that the main streets in these abandoned towns are just the surface of what’s actually out there to see.
Loma Parda has a pretty seedy history. Located not too terribly far from Fort Union, it was the place that military officers most often found the men that had deserted the fort and they found them drinking and spending time in the company of “women with loose morals.” Today you can wander the streets with a herd of bison.
Mogollon is a placed I’d long wanted to visit. The road to get here is perhaps the scariest, one lane, mountain climbing roads I’ve ever driven. Watch out for the UPS driver flying up the road from the opposite direction. Mogollon was a mining town and much remains…see if you can pick out the actual abandoned buildings from those built for movie sets. The Silver Creek Inn is being worked on and you can actually stay in Mogollon in the summer months. (If anyone has stayed, let me know!)
Don’t be afraid to take the dirt road and venture out a little bit. You almost always find something worth seeing, someone worth talking to and some food worth eating.