The Alcobaça game

Alcobaça Composite

It can be hard to visit monuments with little kids, so it is always a good idea to engage them in a game. If you visit Alcobaça, a beautiful abbey in the middle of Portugal, you can ask your kids to go on a treasure hunt. They can look for stones with carved initials and photograph them. This game can turn an otherwise boring visit into a memorable one.

Masons often carved their personal marks on stones placed in the parts of the cathedral where they worked. They did it to show pride in their work but also to claim the work as theirs so they could get paid.

Centuries later, these signatures remind us of the humble people whose hard work created a legacy of enduring beauty.

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In a tuk tuk on the spice trail

Tuck Tuck

Tuk tuk is a new company that operates three-wheeled motorized rickshaws in downtown Lisbon. These fun vehicles are the perfect way to travel: slow enough to see the sights, but fast enough to cover all there is to see without getting tired.

If you smell a whiff of cinnamon, it is perfectly ok to ask the driver to follow the trail and find the pastries that are sweetening the air. After all, visitors have been coming to Lisbon in pursuit of sugar and spices for more than five centuries.

Click here for the web page of Tuk Tuk Lisboa.

Visiting the Middle Ages

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The castle of Almourol was built by the Romans and rebuilt in the 12 century by the Knights Templars. Situated on a small island in the middle of the Tagus river, it was part of the defensive structure set up by Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. The castle quickly lost its strategic importance but retained its romantic appeal. At Almourol time stands still so we can get a glimpse of the Middle Ages.

It is tempting to sit on the river bank, enjoying the view of the castle, dreaming about chivalry and courtly love. But don’t miss the chance to cross the river by boat to visit the castle. You might arrive in time to free a beautiful princess or slay a nefarious dragon.

Wild life in Mafra

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When the Portuguese kings and queens stayed at the Mafra Palace, they enjoyed hunting at a local game reserve called Tapada de Mafra. The Tapada is now a national park that offers many fun activities for kids. There are train rides, donkey rides, archery lessons, and falconry demonstrations. You can see deer, wild boar, foxes, and other animals in their natural habitat.

Our favorite activity at Tapada is taking horse-ridding lessons. A 30-minute lesson costs only 5 euros. But riding an elegant horse in the beautiful Tapada grounds, always makes us feel like royalty.

 

Click here for the Tapada’s web site. Mafra is an easy 40 km drive from Lisbon on the A8 highway. Horse-ridding lessons are offered between 9:30 am and 12:00 pm. It is a good idea to call in advance to make reservations (Tel. 261 81 4240 or reservas@tapadademafra.pt).

Sea life in Lisbon

Oceanarium

If you’re visiting Lisbon with kids, don’t forget to go to the Oceanarium. It is a beautiful aquarium where you can see up close the wonders of the sea. You’ll find a large sample of marine sea life: scary sharks, elegant manta rays, cute penguins, fragile sea horses, and much more.

The Oceanarium is located in the Park of Nations, a large public park by the river, in the north of the city. The best way to get there is to take the subway. You’ll arrive at the most elegant subway station in Lisbon, a light, airy structure designed by Santiago Calatrava, an architect who often turns to sea life for inspiration.

The Oceanarium is open every day except for New Year’s and Christmas. Click here for more information.

Kite surfing

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Daedalus, a Greek architect, designed wings so that his son Icarus could fly. This early venture into extreme sports did not work out, but great progress has been made since then.

One of the most thrilling new sports is kite surfing. Powered by large kites, surfers dance to the music of the waves and the choreography of the wind. Their feats look impossible. Surely these are Olympic athletes or Bolshoi dancers taunting us mere mortals with their effortless acrobatic elegance.

As it turns out, kite surfing is much easier than it looks. Spend a couple of weeks in one of Portugal’s many surf schools and you too will be able to glide.

An enchanted bookstore

Lello, a bookstore in Oporto founded in 1906, is famous for its exuberant neogothic architecture. In the early 1990s an English teacher called Joanne Rowling spent many hours here, in the small coffee shop on the second floor, working on a book about wizards. The book’s hero, a boy called Harry Potter, goes to Hogwarths, a school of witchcraft and wizardry whose revolving staircase and gothic motifs are likely to have been inspired by Lello’s interior.

If you visit Oporto, don’t miss the chance to visit Lello. And, if you do, please buy a book. In a world where bookstores are becoming extinct, we need to preserve places where we can still find magic.

Lello bookstore, Rua das Carmelitas 144, Porto.