Chasing Angels & Discovering the Supernatural in Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved a never-ending life that would invite them into a prestigious realm of supernatural wonders.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

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The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

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Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

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There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

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Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

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Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

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At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

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Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

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I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

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With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” Andrew conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon, exhausted by this final exertion of my recently acquired superhuman powers.

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If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

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More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.

Escape to Portugal: Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Few times have I experienced walking around a city in the early hours of the morning with a relaxed sense of security. No need to look over my shoulder with suspicion, to shiver into a jacket with a sudden cold rush, or feel like I was trespassing the silent empty streets at an unsaintly hour. The sun rises sleepily into the soft sky as one ambles down St. Lucia in the Alfama district of Lisbon towards the Rua de Augusta. Here waiters set up tables on the street to get ready to serve breakfast to the many tourists that will swarm this street later on. I walked into Patisserie Brasilieras to buy a cinnamon pastry and ate it on the steps of King Juan I in the Praça de Comércio. It suddenly hit me that it was the 1st of August and I pinch-punched myself to commemorate.

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Today I would be heading west towards the town of Sintra with Virág, the Hungarian girl I met on the bus down from Porto. This plan of travelling with someone else had arisen only the late evening before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What advantages and disadvantages would having company bring?

The statues in the water fountains in Rossio were still dozing in the dawn as I walked towards the train station, which I had heard could be pretty sketchy. A return ticket cost 4.80Euros and as I headed towards the barriers, a man suddenly called for us to hurry – the train was about to depart. Assuming he was correct, I hurried through the barriers with him straight behind, only to realise soon after that he had been using us to get on the train without a ticket…

A 40 minute journey away by train, Sintra is famed for its fairy-tale castles and palaces, many of which are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First however we planned to visit Cabo da Roca which is the westernmost point of continental Europe. Bus 403 will take you the 18km from Sintra station to the cape, with a hop-on-hop-off ticket costing 12Euros.  Prepare for an entertaining journey. The bus driver would navigate up steep roads and around countless hairpin bends whilst occasionally holding his phone to his ear. Every time we ascended a narrow street and an approaching car suddenly came into view, I would suck in my tummy tightly. We wound our way past lush green rainforests and through towns with large fruit markets and elderly residents chatting on café corners before arriving at the windy coast. Here the ‘land ends and the sea begins’,* the vast ocean of blue sending rippling waves crashing against the rocks. (*Luís de Camões – one of Portugal’s most highly-regarded poets)

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I quickly noticed differences between myself and Virág. I descended the sandy, rocky terrain downwards at a quick pace without giving too much thought to where I was putting my feet; she walked with more caution. She was keen to see as many palaces as possible; I was wary of spending too much money on admission fees. I was happy to walk to most places for exercise, but Virág preferred to take the bus. Virág seemed to want us to agree on the tiniest things, such as whether to go left or right, whereas this constant confirmation made things a little too rigid for my liking. She wanted to have a hot meal for lunch; I said I normally snack on cold eats when travelling.

Back in Sintra, we walked towards the town centre, passing a display of crafts laid out on top of the pavement wall with the pillars of the National Palace poking up in the background. There are various bus stops in the centre from where the 12Euro ticket can be used for most routes.

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The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) was built by Muslims in the 8th Century as a base from which to check the Atlantic ocean for incoming invaders, before coming under Christian control in the 12th Century. Hold on tight (especially to your stomach) as the 434 bus zig-zags around more hairpin bends for 3km to reach it. Costing 8Euros to get in, the castle has been reconstructed in the 20th Century, but as you squeeze up narrow stairways before dropping down into little dens, you can easily imagine soldiers crouching down to protect themselves from armed attack. Over its rigid stone walls you’ll see great views of the surrounding countryside (but more so on the right-side.)

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The National Palace of Pena is classed as a 1.5km walk from the castle, but feels like less. Don’t let the uphill gradient put you off, as you’ll likely find that by the time the bus arrives, you would have reached it by foot. Being the most popular of the palaces, this one cost 14Euros to go all the way inside. I found myself in an unfamiliar position where I had to explain my budget to someone else, and with me feeling restricted, we agreed to pay the lower fee of 10.50 for access to the grounds and onto the terrace only, although I soon learned that this was perfectly adequate. Built in 1840 as the holiday destination for the Portuguese monarchy, the palace strikes as quite gaudy with its vibrant mix of bright colours and patterned tiles. But even if it’s too kitschy for your liking, it’s still worth a look and you can’t help but be impressed by the effort that has gone into building and maintaining it.

It was while walking through the park with its various nooks and crannies that I began to realise that actually, Virág and I were more similar than I thought. Just like first impressions of the palace’s exterior might be that it is over-the-top in its appearance, I learned that Virág had more appeal to me than at first believed. We had interesting conversations and seemed to have similar outlooks towards certain issues. It made me smile when, after a moment of silence during which I began to feel grateful for her company, Virág said “I’m glad we met on that bus from Porto.”

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I found during the day that I was rubbing off on Virág, and likewise she was rubbing off on me. At one point she agreed to walk instead of take the bus, and I was persuaded to choose a hot option for lunch. A great place to eat in Sintra is at Xentra. ‘Free buffet – 8.50’ may look deceiving, but you’d be amazed at how great the value is. Drinks are priced separately but for the main, you can choose to have as much as you want of salad, chorizo sausage, chicken, pork in white wine, fried squid and bacalhau (a cake of cod, potato and white sauce), while for dessert there is the traditional treat of Serradura – whipped cream mixed with a ‘sawdust’ of crushed biscuit. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

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Virág was keen to see another palace and feeling content with my stuffed stomach, I was no longer feeling frugal. We took the smaller bus 435 to Monserrate Palace which is situated a twisty 3.5km from the town centre. After paying the 8Euro entry fee and walking along the dusty path towards the entrance, I became mesmerised by the view ahead. The palace evokes an ‘Arabian Nights’ feel alongside hints of a mansion in British India, and when I saw a wedding reception take place outside, I longed to wear a pretty dress instead of my scruffy denim shorts and trainers. Pastel pink marble pillars lined a corridor underneath an intricately decorated ceiling. In the circular music room with a grand piano I could imagine the happy couple waltzing to their first song. The stone terrace looked out over a sprawling lawn that led to a majestic oasis of botanical gardens. We explored this exotic maze hearing only the sounds of trickling water and bird song. I felt even more like I’d entered the Garden of Eden when we encountered a hippy trio singing and banging a soft drum. It almost seemed inappropriate that we were all wearing clothes…

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I envied the little girls in their white bridesmaid dresses because they must have felt like princesses here. This palace was everything one should be – authentic, classy, elegant, pure and sophisticated, but small and subtle at the same time. Everything looked so pretty, catching the late afternoon light so perfectly, that I found myself constantly getting my camera out, no longer caring that the battery was getting very low. We had definitely saved the best till last. But was it not for having company, I might not have seen it.

The day had definitely reminded me to be more open-minded when it comes to sight-seeing with other solo travellers abroad. Listening and taking into consideration the interests of a new companion had been a valuable experience. It had highlighted that two minds can be better than one. With some people, one day of their company travelling around would be sufficient, but I found myself wanting to also spend the next day with Virág too. It was not that I had suddenly lost all desire to travel alone, but I was more inclined towards the idea of giving spontaneous companionship a chance.

I walked back to my hostel from Rossio station with map-less ease, feeling more comforted and confident in the knowledge that I had the option of sharing my experience of Lisbon with a new friend.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read the final chapter from Lisbon in Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

 

Escape to Portugal: A Train Trip to Pinhão

When I woke to my alarm on my first full day in Portugal, I heard rain pattering on the balcony outside. The man at reception in my hostel said the weather was supposed to improve later, but I’d already decided I would head inland and take the recommended train journey to Pinhão.

Breakfast comes free with your booking at Magnolia Porto Hostel. I sat down with some cereal and juice and then a lady came and placed before me a plate of bread with jams and sliced ham and cheese. The only thing that would make the setting nicer was if the TV was playing traditional Portuguese music, rather than showing MTV and various scantily dressed women dancing. After filling my boots (because when it’s free, why not?) I asked the man where I could find the nearest supermarket. He said his brother at reception would show me on the map, which made me wonder if the lady who brought me the food was their mother. I hope so.

My geographical skills had not improved as I tried to find my way to São Bento station. Seeing me scrutinise my map, a man came over and pointed me the right way and with 10 minutes to go until my departure, I was in the queue for tickets. The member of staff asked if I was under 25 and when I said yes, he asked for proof. Amazing! The first time I’ve ever been asked to prove I am younger rather than older! With my age, a return ticket cost only 16.30Euros. Good on the Portuguese for offering international travellers discounts too. Telling me when the last train back would leave, the man warned me with a wink to watch out for the red wine. I found my train and asked the conductor (Jorge) if I could sit anywhere. He recommended the front carriage and sure enough it was empty so I could find a seat near the window. I liked how friendly and helpful both these men had been – if you just make some effort in the language to clarify that you don’t speak Portuguese (by asking “Fala Inglês?”) you will be helped in embarrassingly good English. Seeing him help a group of young French tourists in their own language raised an interesting point of comparison. Working on a train in England isn’t regarded as the most impressive of jobs, but over here the use of different languages makes it a very important one, alongside other hospitality and retail work.

At Campanhã station a lady got on with her teenage daughter and sat opposite me. The mum looked exactly how I’ve always imagined Portuguese women to be – curvy in a floral dress and sandals with a strong big-boned face, big brown eyes and hands that have worked. As the mother read some biblical pamphlet, the girl and I would occasionally catch eyes and with her sulky face I was reminded of those days as a teenager when your parents are the most embarrassing thing on the planet and you feel completely misunderstood and frustrated.

The cloudy skies began to disappear as we headed inland. Lush green jungle-esque vegetation strewed the landscape with a few dots of white houses with orange roofs here and there. We passed hills hosting wind turbines and then the glistening river Douro appeared, winding its way around hills zig-zagging with vines with cars slowly ascending the hairpin bends. The mum opposite would pat her daughter’s knee and encourage her to take photos, upon which the girl would unplug her earphones with a scowl.

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On this inter-regional train there were no announcements when the next station was coming so after two hours I started to check the signs at each station. Stepping onto the quiet platform in Pinhão, I instantly regretted still having leggings on from rainy Porto as the midday heat began to roast my legs. There was no bridge to cross to the other side so people would casually cross the rail track – a fine-worthy offence in England! Unable to find a washroom at the tiny station, instinct told me to turn left and along the quiet cobbled street. I needed a bathroom to change in and a cafe called Princesa do Douro looked promising. I wandered in and nobody was around, but there was a WC to the right. Hallelujah! Changing into shorts, I couldn’t decide if I was being travel-smart or being a trespasser. The pastries on the counter looked too good to resist and I wanted to say thanks in some way, so I called over to the lady mopping in the corner and chose a popular toasted ham and cheese croissant and a pastry coated in chocolate with apricot jam on the inside.

Wandering along with no idea where I was going, I noticed before a bridge  that there was an open metal gate off the side of the road. After going over curiously to inspect, found myself walking down some steps past a bunch of orange trees onto the river front. This was when I believed my traveller’s instinct had returned.

There isn’t too much to do in Pinhão and most of my afternoon was spent doing nothing apart from enjoying the quiet rural setting of a town that wasn’t overloaded with tourists. For a moment I wondered if I was bored. In London it’s hard to switch off and with so much always going on, doing nothing feels strange. I had to remind myself that I was on holiday and it was okay not be tearing around various institutions with the aim of doing something productive.

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Eventually I forced myself up from my dozing bench and wondered along the river bank, laughing and shaking my head at young boys on the water cat-calling from their kayaks. Further along the river in the busier part of the village are the boat tours and wine merchants. I remembered what the man in the station had said about the red wine here, but it was definitely too hot to be drinking. I opted for a cooler liquid and walked into a mini-mercado. It must have been obvious that I didn’t speak Portuguese because when I went to pay for my water and iced tea, the old lady got a yellow sticky note just like the ones I use at work and wrote ‘1.80’, showing it to me with a smile. I was tempted to ask to keep it as a souvenir but wasn’t convinced I would be able to make the lady understand why I wanted a scrap of paper.

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In the early evening I headed back to the train station for the journey home. Hearing a lady tell a fellow French tourist that the train for Porto was “en face”, I quickly crossed to the other platform before I found myself sleeping in the station for the night. It was reassuring to know I remembered some French! By now the midges had introduced themselves and I ignored any odd looks I got from people as I slapped my legs irritably. There was no chance of me finding a seat on this rammed train and I found myself stood in the doorway with the French group from the train here and a Portuguese family. It was hot and my mouth felt dry but there was hardly room to get water from my bag. The thought of standing for two and half hours became more bearable when some merry men in the next carriage began to play the accordion and dance around. Thankfully at the next station a few people got off but I stayed behind preparing to remain standing as the French group shot forwards to grab a seat. Then the girl of the group looked back at me and pointed at a free seat whilst one of the boys held the door for me. I sat down gratefully, only to hear the little boy next to me (also French) say “J’ai mal au ventre!” and feel less comforted…

Following their cooperation I was tempted to make conversation with the French group, but I’ve also learned during my travels when you should just accept some things as a nice gesture and not a sign of possible friendship and company. Sure it might have been nice to go for a drink with them, but did I really need their company for the evening? Instead of changing trains back to São Bento, I walked back from Campanhã past cheap quiet cafes and staring men. I was perplexed to notice that my dorm was unlocked, and a little disappointed to discover there were two new residents inside. I’d been looking forward to lounging around in private. The lights had been fixed as well…and one girl seemed to be afraid of the dark, as well as glued to her phone. I asked if she was from Portugal and she said “Sim” before saying she didn’t speak English. The other lady was Eastern European with long legs and a scary face. Suddenly I wished I’d approached the French group afterall. Luckily the festival in the park opposite had a live singer tonight which covered up the hostile silence, with my restless skin-scratching filling in the gaps.

I was glad to have visited a more rural, quieter area of the country and experienced the interaction I did with the locals in Pinhão and other tourists on the train. I was feeling like a traveller again, getting something out of every seemingly insignificant moment. I was remembering how pleasant one’s own company can be and feeling truly switched off from other commitments.

The rain had stopped and tomorrow I would explore more of Porto.

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Part Three: Exploring Porto Without a Camera

Escape to Portugal: Arrival in Porto

On July 28th 2015 I set off on my first solo trip in two years, and my first with hand-luggage only. The destination of choice was Portugal, on the basis that I wanted to visit somewhere with a warmer temperature and relaxed Latino ambience as opposed to the colder climate and outdoor pursuits-driven landscape of more northern areas of Europe which I’m better used to. I was excited to rekindle my sense of lone adventure, but felt out of practice too, and this became noticeable on arrival.

My plane touched down in Porto just before midday. My lack of preparation and the arrangement of the airport made for a muddled and delayed time there. After changing into shorts and a vest top in the washroom (and subsequently re-stuffing my small rucksack), I had to find an ATM that would accept my debit card, having been so busy that I hadn’t had time to change my currency beforehand. Then it was time to find the metro to take me into the city centre. After I wrongly approached the car parking machine on the lower level, a fellow tourist directed me back upstairs to the main level to buy metro tickets, only for me to be told by a member of staff up there that these had to be bought downstairs from the machine. (Life lesson: never take advice from an American man with long hair!) There were large queues for the three machines but there were no staff around to advise and the queues weren’t moving as confused tourists looked around helplessly. I finally reached the front and selected a ticket for zone 4, having read that the machine accepted 50Euro notes. Mine however was rejected meaning I had to walk all the way back upstairs yet again to buy some water for change. By now I was getting frustrated – I just wanted to be in the city out in the sun exploring.

20 minutes later I finally had my ticket for the violet line to Trindade at the price of 2.35Euros. Up on the platform my hands were full with change from the machine, tickets, receipts, water, a map and guidebook. I kneeled down and precariously shoved bits and bobs in various pockets, only to glance up and wonder why a man was staring at me with interest. A glance back down revealed that I was flashing a large amount of cleavage…The journey to Trindade only took about 25 minutes but because of my headless chicken-style running around in the airport, two hours had passed by the time I reached the centre. But I was finally here, it was time to think forward and that began with applying large amounts of sunscreen, ideally without involving extra exposure..!

I set off down the street noting the style of the pavements with their uneven, shiny-stoned surfaces. Câmara Municipal do Porto provides a great view down the Avenue dos Aliados towards the river Douro. People sit at tables under small trees reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I noticed a lot of beeping going on by impatient taxi drivers which seemed to contrast with the ancient tram that would laze along the streets with an occasional clang. Unlike in other cities, it seemed you could be pretty relaxed about walking in the road without fear of being squished by one. Walking up a road to the right, I had my first sighting of a Portuguese bakery…and it was love. But I forced myself to wait a little longer before making a move. 003 004 008 010 Inside the Torre dos Clérigos (Tower of Clerics), a sign stated that the top would only be open to visitors from 7pm for 5Euros. With my first and only plan of the day out of the window, I instead headed down a little cobbled side road with quiet pastry shops where stray cats dashed underneath cars, leading me to the miradouro (viewpoint) which showed a sea of orange roofs with the iconic metal bridge of Luis I in the background. It wasn’t the most outstanding view I’d seen but I remained open-minded. Some steps took me down a narrow alley between scruffy stone houses and as I passed neighbours gossiping across to each other I felt almost invasive. Soon after this hushed local area of modesty came the Cais de Ribeira which was heaving with packed restaurants, but rather than the menus, I was attracted by the beautiful detail on the tall buildings, with their vintage look of tiled decoration and the balconies painted with corresponding colours. It’s this ancient beauty, combined with the collection of traditional wooden boats on the water, that probably influenced UNESCO to declare the Praça da Ribeira (riverside square) a World Heritage Site. My stomach was starting to rumble but I didn’t fancy dining alone in this touristy section. I dropped 50 cents into the case of two young boys playing guitar before wandering on towards the bridge. A long set of steps led me up past another poorer area where washing hung off lines attached to houses with paint peeling off the walls as young girls sat in a doorway playing games. 016 018 032 035 036 039 040 041 042 052 Crossing the top half of the Ponte de Luis I to the south side of the Douro, things get quieter. I felt more confident of finding a supermarket here and sure enough, quickly found a local fruit and veg shop, my mouth watering at the sight of fresh produce. Moments after walking in it became obvious that this was very much a place where a local few went, namely old women. “Desculpe!” I would say as I accidentally knocked one with my bag, but they never seemed to notice. The younger lady at the till would chat away with them as she weighed their bags stuffed with pears, nectarines, cherries and plums. As she weighed mine, I saw her glance quickly at my Oyster card holder which I was using to store notes (to save the space a purse would take up in my bag). Recognising the English words, she cleared her throat, looked me nervously in the eyes and slowly but profoundly said: “1.80.” Seeing her pride put a smile on my face and I walked out of the shop in a happy day dream, before almost flattening a girl stood right outside holding her hands out for money. 054 056 058 060 Settling down in the green space of Jardim do Morro, the view of the town was much prettier, the river now more visible and glittering in the sun. I bit into a succulent peach and watched a young teenage couple on a bench in front of me look at each other with tentative excitement before locking their hands together. A few minutes later they walked off hand-in-hand giggling shyly and a busty girl in tight jeans who looked about six years older sauntered past them to sit on the wall. Then a motorbike revved past and her boyfriend pulled up beside her and rested his arms on her lap. It was a five-minute scenario that highlighted the phases of growing up and growing in love. At first there are the sweet, fragile romantic moments of making eye contact and feeling butterflies when you hold hands, then there’s the sexual excitement and physical comfortability as you spend more time together and grow more familiar with each other. I spent most of the afternoon resting here, enjoying the lack of visible tourists around, until around 5.30 p.m. I decided I should find my hostel. A steep cobbled street led down to the lower half of the bridge, where a group of young boys attracted applause as they jumped into the water. I was tempted to join; it was hot and I was still getting accustomed, the parts of my back that I hadn’t been able to reach starting to redden (one downside of travelling alone!)    061 062 066 Walking up past São Bento station, the looks and comments from local men began to increase. Of course I had no idea what was being said, but could tell the comments were pretty indecent. With my blonde hair I had expected to stand out, but was still surprised by just how ‘odd’ I appeared to be. The attention wasn’t perturbing and I didn’t feel unsafe; I just ignored the men and walked on. One thing I’ve learned from travelling alone is the art of bluffing. Even if you are completely lost or scared or uncertain about something, you have to put on a brave face, otherwise you make yourself more vulnerable to unwanted attention. I find that when in a foreign country, it feels easier to stand up for myself against harassment, perhaps because when one doesn’t understand the language it’s harder to get upset by the verbal reply, and also because since I know nobody else I’m less concerned about what people might think of me. This meant therefore that when the old homeless man came over with his hand held out and started poking me, I could look at him square in the eyes, firmly say “Não” and walk away with no further attempts being made by him.

After a few wrong turns I finally found Avenue Rodrigues de Freitas where Magnolia Porto Hostel is located, to the east of the city centre. I knocked on the big red door of number 387 and a lady signed me in and showed me to my dorm, which I would have to myself that night. The room had a homely ambience unlike that I’ve experienced in most hostels. It’s as if the owners have put more thought into the rooms than ‘You need a bed for the night – here it is.’ I washed my smelly feet and let them dry near the window, as I’d declined to bring a towel for the sake of luggage space.

At 8 p.m. I set off out again, glad to have only my camera bag on me. I wanted to watch the sun go down at the nice spot across the river from earlier. A grey cat sat looking vain on the walls of the Muralha Fernandina. Runners passed me down a flight of dusty steps from which I could peep into people’s kitchens through the open windows. The runners turned left to run alongside the river and for a moment I regretted not bringing my trainers.

Serra do Pillar is a nice viewpoint, and probably best enjoyed with a glass of local port (which, despite its fame and heritage here, I definitely was not fussed about sampling). With the setting sun in the background I wanted to finally feature in one of my photos but it was difficult to find people to ask (another downside of travelling alone!) The green space adjacent was busier now, but with locals rather than tourists. I was glad to have come across the place – popular tourists areas rarely do it for me. By 9 p.m. it was getting chilly and I headed back across the bridge, pausing to admire the softening glow of the sun on the river and buildings, before wandering through random areas of the town map-less. Porto hadn’t overwhelmed me yet, but it definitely seemed to be a good city for just rambling around, finding interesting little things here and there such as the Sé Cathedral. 069 076 079 083 093 095 Again, I got confused on the way back to my hostel. In the park nearby a sign read ‘Festival das Francesinhas’ and I translated the words ‘free entry’, but there didn’t seem to be much going on. I later discovered that ‘francesinha’ is a popular dish here – a thick sandwich filled with cheese, egg, sausage and other meats in a rich sauce. However in this heat the only food I felt like eating was the juicy fresh local fruit. This time a man welcomed me inside the hostel and I felt like I was returning home as I entered my quiet dorm. The lights didn’t seem to be working but I didn’t mind – it made things more cosy and I could crawl into bed tired from the heat and just wait for the impending darkness to come and send me to sleep.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPhone or iPad by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read about day two in A Train Trip to Pinhão

My Year of 2014

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In the spirit of good old Queenie with her annual Christmas speech (which involved no abdication contrary to some predictions), I’ve looked back on the year about to end and thought about the key issues that provided inspiration for some of my blog posts.

I’m blessed to be able to say that 2014 has been a pretty awesome year for me. In late May, just before my 22nd birthday, I finished three years of hard work and early starts in the library to come out with a high 2:1 in my History degree. Sticking to what I wrote in my post this time last year about New Year Resolutions, there was no way I was delving straight into full-time work. Instead came a long summer and the joy of freedom. Sunny days in June swapped between being spent lounging lazily in Regents Park with friends or alone, and working at cricket matches getting immersed in the buzz of summer sport. Then at the end of that month, I jumped on the Piccadilly line and surprised a friend at Heathrow airport who I hadn’t seen for three years. It was during those 10 days together in London that I, ironically, had my best experience ever of the city in three years, alongside the realisation that my love for it had decreased. It was time for some fresh air, literally and metaphorically.

So after surviving my graduation ceremony and moving out of my box of a London flat at the end of July, I was super excited to pack my bags for six weeks of North America. I realised how much I had ‘grown’ as a traveller when I boarded my plane to Vancouver. I also realised, this being my first big trip that wasn’t either solo or with family, how special travelling with a companion can be.

It’s been a tough year for the aviation industry, particularly that in Asia, following the recent AirAsia flight loss. Three separate crashes were covered in the news during July and I remember feeling nervous before I flew to Canada, fearing something similar might happen to me. But the reality is that one is just as likely to have an accident whilst out driving. There are so many planes flying all around the world every day which arrive at their destinations safely. It’s because of their rarity that any flying accidents receive more media attention. At the end of the day, flying connects us to so many places and people, and that’s what we should remember above all.

Another wonderful thing that allows people to connect when travel can’t is Skype. It allows friendships and relationships to be maintained (for free!) which otherwise may have dwindled. I saw two separate foreign friends again this year who I keep in touch with using this tool. Facebook is also brilliant for maintaining travel connections; it’s been useful in allowing me to get to know better and re-meet quite a few people met whilst travelling. The internet can of course, also facilitate generous favours, making travel easier and cheaper for those involved.

Nevertheless, the relationship between social media/digital technology and travel has become a point of greater concern to me over the year. This is partly because of the impact it can have both on nature we see and on the nature of travel itself. Too much formation of stereotypes based on themes and discussions on social media can influence decisions made whilst travelling that might be regretted, or deter people from travelling altogether. It can also work the other way, with online discussion about travel destinations and experiences having the potential to build expectations too high, leading to disappointment when hopes aren’t fulfilled. Furthermore, too much sharing online raises questions about the value of privacy.

This said, travel can be beneficial in regards to the effects of social media use. Even if its use is intended to promote and support charity causes such as cancer research with the #nomakeupselfie or the ALS charity with the ice bucket challenge, too much social media exposure can narrow people’s perspectives and damage their expectations of reality. Travel has the potential to prevent or turn this around by placing individuals in isolated circumstances where they are temporarily cut off from civilisation. However, as the rise of the digital age leads to Wi-Fi access on coaches becoming a necessity and the encouragement of tagging Instagram snaps with a company’s name for promotion, even this capability is under threat.

Alas, despite all these travel-affecting issues, there are also those elements of travel that are truly heart-warming in their positivity. Certain scenarios can bring out a side in someone that it wasn’t realised was had, which can then be built on in order to become more permanent. There are always examples of the kindness of strangers, so many of which I have yet to record, and moments of coincidence when travellers meet again and then leave, not necessarily with a name and contact details, but with a smile worth far more than a million ‘likes’ on Facebook.

Towards the end of the year, job-hunting was getting me down and, not ready to return to London permanently just yet, I looked for a way to distract myself and travel some more. Au pairing has been a rocky but rewarding experience, with two weeks left of it to go after the new year commences. After this I’m doing what I had accepted would probably have to happen, and heading back to London for a job. But after September, who knows..?

Thanks for reading and have a happy and adventurous 2015 🙂

 

Why is Sunset Beautiful?

The title of this blog post comes from a question that someone I know once randomly posed – a question that I’ve never really thought about before. Being an everyday phenomenon, sunset is something we are so accustomed to that we don’t bother questioning why we value it so much.  Here are some thoughts.

Watching a sunset, we see a blend of soft colours ooze into a relaxing haven of warmth. This calms our minds and comforts our bodies, and the sensual gratification that we receive in turn creates a sense of romance, which everybody at one stage or another desires. People wish to be happy, and a sunset sources the chemicals that grant this. When we ourselves feel happy, we have a more positive outlook towards life, which makes us more likely to regard the things around us as being of beauty.

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Hawaii

The changing of colours that come with a sunset- from yellow to orange to red to violet – is unusual in that we are not used to seeing these colours during most of the day. The element of being unique can contribute to notions of beauty. Strong colours in the sky cast a glow over the land which we become immersed in, leading to a sense of escapism as if we are in a different world. When the colours reflect on water, a sparkling path invites us closer to the warm sun, which leads onto my next point…

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Vancouver Island

Changing colours around the Gulf Islands

We rely on the sun to live, because light is our planet’s main source of energy. Without photosynthesis, we and the other wonderful organisms that decorate the Earth wouldn’t be alive. A factor that contributes to visions of human beauty is health – healthy skin, healthy teeth, healthy hair. The health benefits of the sun therefore give it a saintly status; we regard it as beautiful because its physical effects make us as individuals feel beautiful. But it is only at sunset when we are safe to look at the sun and really appreciate its features and what it does for us. Just like we can describe a generous human as having ‘a beautiful soul’, describing the setting sun as beautiful is a (perhaps subconscious) way to express gratitude for yet another day of preserving and nurturing life.

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Tofino

Sunset may also be regarded as beautiful because of its accessibility.  Some people see it more than others depending on their country’s climate and location. To those ‘others’, the lesser ease of access to the sun’s company makes sunset seem more pure and beautiful in its value – like a holy temple that one must undertake a pilgrimage to see, or a highly-renowned hidden jewel that grants the power of immortality.

Sunset softens the surrounding landscape and gives it a new dimension that we may not have noticed in the daytime. It can add charm and character to a prairie landscape or bland city and help define key features. The silhouettes a sunset creates cause contrast, arousing a sense of mystery.  A sunset highlights patterns in the clouds which capture our imagination, as we try to trace recognisable shapes.  Ripples in the water off Vancouver Island become more noticeable in their neatness, as if each has been carefully crafted by hand.  Sunset stimulates our visual and emotional creativity.

Sunset in the Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Grand Tetons

…and after

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Vancouver Island

Sunset is also something that we have no control over, and that aspect, whether you believe it to be caused by science or a religious being, captivates and fascinates us. From certain places such as the Grand View Point Overlook in Utah’s Canyonlands, one can’t tell where the sun is disappearing to. It looks like it will simply merge into the ground and flow out in all directions like lava. When it doesn’t, we often think nothing of it and do something else now that the show is over. But when you really think further than all the prettiness, our planet has just rotated without us even realising – a significant and yet minor process when one considers that this activity occurs alongside the other under-acknowledged activity in our huge solar system, which itself is just one of billions of galaxies. If you take a moment to really consider what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s a pretty beautiful thought.

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Early sunset in Canyonlands

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Goodnight from the Grand View Point Overlook

On a road trip, the sun’s slow setting encourages us to carry on going, teasing and taunting us so that we feel inclined to chase it. The sun can keep us company and out of boredom, we hope that its remaining light will lead us to our final destination for the day, somewhere interesting. It really can be ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.

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Sunset even seems to make the surrounding environment and wildlife appear peaceful. We associate it with sweet bird song and the chatter of insects. It signals the winding-down of the day, with its slow process helping us to de-stress from a busy day. Psychologically, we can associate it with having accomplished something in the daytime and subsequently earned rest.

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Serenity in the Black Forest, Germany

Sometimes, the setting sun might make us feel sombre, as it symbolises the final hours of a beautiful journey and the closing of another chapter of life. But is any strong emotion that is inspired by something physical not beautiful in some way?

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Vancouver Island

To sum up, sunset is perhaps beautiful not necessarily just because of the visual aesthetics, but because of the secondary emotional, mental and physical associations that it stimulates.