Cycling in the Ruhrgebiet

When thinking of a location for a short family cycling holiday, the Ruhrgebiet – an enormous industrial region in the north-west of Germany – is not exactly the first place that springs to mind.

But look closer, and you’ll begin to realise that the Ruhrgebiet has a lot to offer. It is flat, is criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of traffic-free cycle paths and has an abundance of relatively cheap places to stay, eat and drink. On top of all this, its industrial heritage as the cradle of the powerhouse German economy makes it utterly fascinating; a refreshing break from traditional tourist areas.

Still need some convincing?

Tiger and Turtle sculpture in southern Duisburg, Ruhr

Sprawling over a vast area of some 4,500km2 (that’s nearly twice as big as Luxembourg!) and with 5.5 million inhabitants (that’s more than three times as many as Munich!), the Ruhrgebiet (let’s shorten it to “Ruhr”, shall we?) is, by some measures, the third-largest city in Europe.

So… why is it so obscure?

There are two answers to this question. First of all, Ruhr isn’t really one city at all, rather a compendium of medium-sized cities and large towns who all happen to be very close to each other. Due to this, it’s curiously lacking a focal point, a sense of identity, or even an Eiffel Tower / Big Ben-type monument that would make it instantly internationally recognisable.

Secondly – and let’s be honest here – Ruhr is not renowned for being pretty. This is a city that has grown and flourished on mining and heavy industry; quaint, it ain’t. At every turn, this landscape has been dotted, moulded, and often scarred by the very industries that created it. The striking Tiger and Turtle sculpture in Duisburg (see photo above) adorns an artificial hill created to safely bury toxic heavy metal waste from mining operations. Charming…

Yet there is something fascinating about this human-created landscape, this gritty, purposeful region that has arguably been the driving force behind what has made modern-day Germany, Germany. To find out more, Ash and I packed our bikes into Daisy the Bus and headed for the Ruhrgebiet.

Daisy the bus (Volkwagen T5 Caravelle) comfortably swallows any bicycle – perfect for family cycling holidays.

A confession: the choice of the Duisburg Sportpark Youth Hostel as our base was entirely due to a map-reading error… You see, my map showed a Radschnellweg (fast cycle path, or “bike motorway”) running all the way from the Sportpark past Essen, and I had considered this to be a good way to start our tour. Unfortunately, I had somehow failed to spot a rather important detail:

*geplant

(*planned / under construction).

Yes, yes – our cycle path hadn’t been built yet (hadn’t even been started), and so our tour started with a surprise mystery tour of the southern suburban streets of Duisberg. However, when we finally joined up with the bike motorway at Mülheim, it was an utter joy, well worth the wait.

Radschnellweg (bike motorway) in Ruhr (photo from http://www.qimby.net)

Just in case your initial suspicion needs confirming, the Radschnellweg is exactly what you think it is: an Autobahn, but for bikes. No junctions, no traffic lights, no speed limit and a great surface. All that was missing was BMWs screaming past us at over 200km/h. With Ash a disappearing dot in my distant horizon, I zipped along at a pace that I didn’t know I was even capable of. “Motorway exits” left and right of the path led to small Ruhr towns with endearingly German names – Heissen, Frohnhausen, Altendorf – whilst the kilometres to Essen ticked down rapidly. Seeing little reason to linger in Essen itself, we pedalled onwards to the UNESCO-listed industrial site of Zollverein.

Cycling through Zollverein, a UNESCO-listed industrial heritage site near Essen, Ruhr

Zollverein was impressive, but somehow predictable: this was the type of industrial landscape that we had come to Ruhr to see, and similar to the southern towns in our home country of Luxembourg. However, one thing that took us completely by surprise was just how green this mega-city is. Around the outskirts of Gelsenkirchen, it was all too easy to forget that we were now slap-bang in the centre of Europe’s third-largest metropolitan area.

Another striking difference from other major city centres was the prices. A quick lunch in Wanne (Currywurst, chips, drinks) cost us €8. Not each, for both of us. A refreshing departure from the chi-chi cafes and chain restaurant-dominated urban European centres.

Suitably refuelled, we temporarily diverted off the Industriekultur cycle route (more on that in a minute) to take a short-cut towards a BMX and skateboard park near Herne. The mines may be abandoned and the heavy machinery gone quiet, but urban parks like this seem like an intuitive way to preserve and enjoy these unique testaments to our industrial heritage.

Finding our way around Ruhr was surprisingly easy, thanks to an well-organised network of cycle paths and an innovative signpost system. The Industriekultur cycle route isn’t a loop nor a linear route, but a vast network of (mostly) traffic-free paths criss-crossing the region and connected by almost 100 “Knotenpunkte” (connecting points). Each Knotenpunkt is identified by a unique number and is situated at a major junction / point of interest. Supplementing this are plentiful maps and clear signposts, guiding the cyclist step-by-step on their discovery of the Ruhrgebiet.

Knotenpunkt 44 on the Industriekultur cycle route in Ruhr, Germany

Around Knotenpunkt 43 (Zeche Ewald) we came to the startling-but-predictable conclusion that we were rather a long way from Duisberg. Onwards we pedalled towards the briskly-setting late-autumnal sun. Knotenpunkt after Knotenpunkt, centuries of industrial heritage flashed by us in our route back to the Youth Hostel and a well-earned rest.

Cycle through the Zeche Ewald, Ruhr, Germany

If your idea of Germany is fairy-tale cuteness and imposing castles, then the Ruhrgebiet is probably not for you. But if you’re looking for an active, authentic holiday with genuine historical pedigree, then get on your bike, get down to Duisburg and connect those Knotenpunkte! Oh, and don’t miss the Currywurst either…

Yet another Currywurst

Practical info

We stayed at the pristine and modern Duisburg Sportpark Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel). Expect to pay around €25 each, including a fabulous buffet breakfast. Kruppstraße 9, Neudorf-Süd, 47055 Duisburg, Germany 

We cycled over 100km, mostly on cycle paths or quiet roads. Thanks to the Knotenpunkt system, we only got lost once (in Bottrop, and even that was probably my fault).

We recommend (1) having a paper cycle route map and a good general outdoor activity app (e.g. Outdoor Active) before setting out. The Knotenpunkt system is excellent, but the area is so vast and, inevitably, there are some deviations and ample opportunities to lose your way.

We recommend (2) a detour to the Tiger and Turtle sculpture just south of Duisberg. A weird giant jumble of metal dominating a horizon of grey suburbs and concrete factories. Park at Ehinger Straße 117, 47249 Duisburg, Germany (free).

Daisy the bus visited Ruhr in October 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Eguisheim – The stork and wine village of Alsace

Clouds hang heavy in the sky over Alsace, lending the surrounding vineyards a dull, waxy green. Ahead of us, Eguisheim, a village that I hadn’t even heard of until booking our hotel a few days earlier. I practice saying it as I drive – Eggy’s hime? Eh-geese-hime? Ayg-heese-hime? – but I can’t seem to perform the necessary tongue contortions. My eldest daughter and wife laugh at my linguistic ineptitude.

The cutest street corner in France? The “Pigeonnier” of Eguisheim.

The first thing we hear upon arrival is another weird sound, a supernatural extra-terrestrial klacking coming from the roof of our hotel. Glancing upwards we spot two huge black and white birds on a chimney pot: Storks, the symbol of Alsace. The kids are immediately enthralled; Eguisheim is already weaving its magic.

Luggage quickly deposited in our rooms, we run out to explore the village before the next downpour. Following the kids’ curiosity, we wander the streets fairly haphazardly… only to soon find ourselves exactly back where we started. Well, that was odd. Let’s try again.

Sure enough, 10 minutes later, we’re back near our hotel once again. It’s as if Eguisheim has hypnotised us with its colourful wonky houses, the flower boxes overflowing with petunias and geraniums, the ancient inscriptions on the houses, and above all – quite literally – the majestic, bizarre clacking of the storks. Eguisheim is mischievous: it tricks you into thinking you are getting somewhere, whilst the truth is that its playfully cute streets are expertly shepherding you in circles.  And there is good reason for this – look at its street map:

The story behind Eguisheim’s bizarre layout is actually very simple – defensive walls. The town originally sprung up and thrived around an ancient castle (octagonal, not round…) and was protected by a circular wall; outside this, a second wall in a larger circle provided additional security. Livestock was kept in the space between the two fortifications, and agricultural buildings erected to house and feed them. When, around the 17th century, the walls were deemed no longer necessary they weren’t completely torn down but instead used as a handy starting point to build new houses (why build four walls when three will suffice?). To make more space for the rapidly expanding town, the animals were shifted outside, and the barns and outbuildings also converted into dwellings. 

In short, Eguisheim is a fascinating place to simply wander round and appreciate the little things: the engravings and coats of arms on the door lintels, the links to a millennium-old Pope (Leon IX: he was born in the chateau), the storks on the rooftops, the inscriptions on the cartoon-pastel houses and, perhaps most of all, the excellent local wine. It may be small, but as a destination for a short break in Alsace, Eguisheim runs rings around just about everywhere else (sorry…).


Hotel Colmar Vignes

(NOT SPONSORED) We can’t leave Eguisheim without mentioning our excellent hotel, which somehow managed to successfully combine traditional Alsatian hospitality with contemporary modern design, and – most importantly – being very kid-friendly. Situated just a few metres outside the circular old town, the Hotel Colmar Vignes is a great base for exploring the village and region. We particularly liked the kids’ area, with games and activities for the younger ones and a pool table keeping our teenager entertained. Also, dinner in the restaurant was a particular treat: full of local influences, and a carefully-presented kids’ menu. A wonderful selection of local wine, private parking and free WIFI sealed the deal.

Hotel Colmar Vignes is part of the “Logis” network of small hotels across France (mostly) and other countries. Each hotel in this group is independently owned and managed, with an emphasis on local experiences and individualism. We have stayed in a few and, in our humble opinion, this is how hotels should be: a vastly preferable and more interesting alternative to bland corporate hotel chains and big, impersonal resorts.


Kids’ tip – Eguisheim stork park.

Worth a (very) short detour is a small stork park five minutes walk from Eguisheim village centre. Injured and sick storks have been cared for here for the past few decades before reintroduction back into the wild. There are some interesting panels (French-only) on the evolution of the stork population in Alsace and, of course, the kids can get close up to these magnificent birds. No entrance fee, playground nearby.

Daisy the bus visited Eguisheim in July 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Luisenpark – The most beautiful city park you’ve never heard of

Contents / quick links

Background

Our visit

Practical information


Background

What’s the number one requirement for a successful city break with kids? Museums? Attractions? Kid-friendly places to eat? Sure, these are all important factors, but we have found that children need space – green space, preferably – to let off steam and relax in between museum visits and sightseeing.

Mannheim, a buzzing metropolis in south-west Germany, surely must rank highly among major cities with the most green space. Its riverside walks, urban forests, huge parks and green squares are scattered liberally across the sprawling Rhine-Neckar region.

But the jewel in Mannheim’s sparkling crown simply must be the gorgeous Luisenpark.

Before we go any further, let’s just clarify something: unlike most city parks, entrance to the Luisenpark is not free of charge. Whereas locals can buy a very reasonably-priced jahreskarte (annual pass), visitors will pay €8 for adults (€4 for kids) to get in, and – trust us – this is money very well spent.

Entrance fee aside, the Luisenpark is otherwise a perfectly “normal” municipal park: across its 41 hectares (101 acres, around twice the size of the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris) you’ll find beautiful flower gardens, wide-open expenses of lush grass, multiple playgrounds, several cafés, hundreds of places to sit and relax and, er, penguins (but we’ll come back to that later).

The verdant landscape of the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

Nestling to the north-east of Mannheim city centre, the Luisenpark was originally laid out in the late 19th century, but its present appearance is largely thanks to a complete remodelling carried out in the early 1970s. Nowadays over 1.2 million visitors come each year to relax among the 140 species of trees and hundreds of thousands of flowers. Nevertheless, it is practically undiscovered by foreign tourists, perhaps unsurprising given that its (otherwise excellent) website is in German-only, as are all signs and explanations within the park itself. But don’t let that put you off!

Our visit to the Luisenpark

Short video of the Luisenpark. Featuring tree climbing, the Kings Indian Defence and seven eggs.

Given its size and entrance fee, the Luisenpark isn’t just a respite from the hustle and bustle of Mannheim – it is an attraction in itself. It is practically impossible to see everything in the Luisenpark in a single visit, and we sensibly didn’t try. Instead, we let our kids set the pace, wandering around the park enjoying whatever took their fancy. We were somewhat surprised to find that this didn’t involve too many playgrounds; instead they preferred to make the most of the flora and fauna, seeking out the animals, climbing the trees and playing amongst the spectacular springtime bloom.

Wildflower bloom at the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

One thing that struck me was that there is an enormous sense of getting close to nature within the park. Yes, there are animals are in caged enclosures, but others are free to roam, fly or swim around this enormous green space at will. Wild storks have built nests here, enormous pelicans patrol the banks of the lake (whilst huge fish and cute turtles swim within it), wild parakeets squawk noisily from treetops and herons stand motionless with one eye on their next meal.

Big birds. A very close encounter with pelicans at the Luisenpark, Mannheim.

Seeing penguins in captivity arouses mixed feelings in many, including me. But there is no doubt that these well looked-after little cuties were a particular highlight for my kids. As he watched the penguins devour a bucket of fresh fish, my six-year old austerely declared that he wants to work with animals when he grows up. Whatever your thoughts on zoos, this is surely exactly the sort of reaction that places like this are supposed to incite, the sort of thing that creates the future protectors of our planet.

One intriguing feature of the park is the enormous Chinese Tea House and Gardens. Built in 2001, this is apparently the largest “original” tea house of its kind in Europe. We are rather confused as to what “original” means in this context, but it is nevertheless a very impressive and beautiful structure.

“Do you think it has spotted me yet?” Mia gets close to nature at the Chinese Gardens in the Luisenpark.

Unfortunately the Teahouse itself was closed on the day of our visit, but we still spent quite some time exploring the surrounding gardens, mostly trying to get as close as possible to a rather non-plussed heron. Like I said, close to nature.

Other highlights within the park include a butterfly house (that we somehow missed), a pedagogical farm, sound sculptures, giant chess boards, gondolas plying a leisurely circuit of the Kutzerweiher lake, a 1,000-seat arena for outdoor concerts, and numerous ruhebereichen – quiet areas where visitors are encouraged to disengage from the din of the city and tune in to nature instead.

A haven of tranquility at the Luisenpark

It was probably these quiet places that we enjoyed most of all. After all, aren’t city parks supposed to be a haven for tranquility and nature? Luisenpark is not only beautiful, but it serves the citizens of Mannheim wonderfully. It is perhaps no wonder that the people in this corner of Germany don’t tell the world about their Luisenpark – they want it all for themselves. And who can blame them?

Practical info for visiting the Luisenpark

  • Website here (in German only).
  • The main entrance to the park is at Theodor-Heuss-Anlage 2
    68165 Mannheim
    .
  • Getting there by public transport: Take the number 9 tram from Mannheim train station to the “Luisenpark” stop. Number 6 also works. The number 5 tram is another possibility; get off at “Fernmeldeturm” and use the north entrance.
  • Getting there by car: No problem! Ample and free parking directly opposite the main entrance.
  • Admission prices: In summer – €8 for adults, €4 for children aged 6+. Some other concessions apply. Half-price from November to February.
  • No dogs, bicycles or micro-scooters allowed in the park: they might freak out the pelicans. Pushchairs are fine, and very German bollerwagens are available to rent.
  • Plenty of reasonably-priced eating possibilities within the park. Or bring your own picnic if you prefer.

Daisy the bus visited Mannheim in May 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Some facts and figures in this article were taken from https://web.archive.org/web/20080405195617/http://www.mannheim.de/io2/browse/Webseiten/Tourismus/english/citytour/luisenpark

“hilarystyle"

Evora – highlights for families

Contents / quick links:

Exploring Evora with kids

Evora is an ancient, sun-kissed city rising handsomely out of the cork oak forests and parched ground of the Alentejo, southern Portugal. Less than two hours from Lisbon, its compact size and wealth of sights makes it a perfect destination for a short break or, as we did it, a culture-packed and rewarding day trip.


The thermometer had already zoomed past 30°C by the time we reached Evora in mid-morning. We had lost our battle to beat the heat, so we decided to beat the crowds instead and headed straight for Evora’s most infamous tourist attraction – the gruesome Chapel of Bones.

Chapel of Bones

The Capela dos Ossos is one of a number of interesting curiosities found within the walls of the Igreja de São Francisco. It exists principally because Evora is a very old city. A very very very old city, in fact: people have been living here for over 5 millennia. Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors – just about everyone who was anyone in this part of the world has probably ruled Evora at some point in time. However, it was during the Middle Ages that the city really began to flourish, by which time quite a lot of expired Evorians were already clogging up the city’s cemeteries and, rather inconveniently, using valuable land.

The solution: dig up the cemeteries and relocate the bones to this purpose-built chapel. It was a win:win – Evora freed up more land for development, and its devout citizens obtained a place in which to reflect and meditate on the transient nature of life and the inevitability of death.

The kids’ reaction to this macabre place was understandably mixed. Ash (13) remembered reading about it in a Percy Jackson book and was intrigued and impressed in equal measures. Meanwhile the younger kids (7 and 5) didn’t really understand the scale and meaning of what was on display. By contrast, the more sensitive Mia (10) was obviously uncomfortable in the face of so much death. With my permission, she slipped out quietly to explore the remainder of the convent with her big brother… and she found an absolute gem…

Collection of Nativity Scenes

Last year in France, we stumbled across our nomination for oddball museum of the century: a collection of stick men in Champagne. Well, the Colecção De Presépios in Evora is possibly even more unusual… and arguably even better.

Imagination and humour are not exactly qualities that one would automatically associate with the rather austere subject of nativity scenes, but both were in abundance here. Reverence, by contrast, seemed to be chucked out of the stained glass window: most of the 300 dioramas on display simply either made us smile in admiration or laugh out loud with pleasure. After the doom and gloom of the Chapel of Bones, this was unexpectedly heart-warming and wonderful, regardless of any religious persuasion (or lack of it). We couldn’t drag Mia away from it.

Nativity scene in Evora

The exhibit is, in fact, only a tiny portion of a private collection of over 2,600(!) representations of the birth of Jesus, owned by the local Canha da Silva family. By sharing their extraordinary compilation with the public, the family hope to transmit “the universal message of love, peace and humility”. Well, it worked on us.

Temple of Diana

After the joyous and wholly unexpected wonder of the nativity scenes, the darling of Evora’s postcard industry – the Roman Temple of Diana – was not such a big hit with the kids. For us adults who can appreciate its clean, classical beauty and antiquity (2,000 years and counting!), it’s undoubtedly impressive. However, there understandably isn’t really much that a family can do at the Temple of Diana except gently admire it and pose for a photo or two.

Is it still too early for ice cream?

Igreja de São João Evangelista

But whilst dreaming of gelado at the Temple of Diana, Evora managed to surprised us again: directly opposite was the humble-looking Igreja de São João Evangelista, an attraction that wasn’t mentioned in any of the online guides to Evora that I had read in advance. In fact, bizarrely, this building doesn’t even appear on Apple Maps at all (still true as of May 2019!)

We are always intrigued by obscurity, so gladly handed over a few coins to peek inside and… holy Saint John the Evangelist!!! What had we stumbled into??

The spectacular azulejo-covered Igreja de São João Evangelista in Evora.

Modern tourist guide books to Portugal tend to gush about the famous “azulejo” tiles which adorn many houses, churches and monuments in the country. Well, we have been to Portugal countless times (OK, about ten) and are struggling to think of a more impressive and beautiful display of azulejos than in this church.

It’s weird, but the Google reviews of this church (yes, there are a few!) are mixed, with many “reviewers” complaining about having to pay an entrance fee. This is absurd. I entered São João with three kids, and it cost us €4. In total. That’s about the equivalent of a cup of coffee in an expensive city such as London or Paris. Personally, I am more than happy to pay a small but fair entrance fee if that money goes directly to the upkeep and preservation of beautiful places such as this.

Cathedral

The nearby Cathedral is slightly cheaper than São João (€3.50), and claims to be the biggest medieval cathedral in Portugal. It sounds like good value for money, and it is. But unless medieval religious art is your thing, the interior probably isn’t going to leave a hugely lasting impression. Cathedrals are a tough market to crack.

Rooftop of Evora Sé (Cathedral)

But Evora’s has a welcome quirk: visitors can climb up to and clamber over the massive Romanesque roof of the building, thus enjoying spectacular views over the city whilst indulging in something a little different. The adjoining cloisters are also pleasant-but-nothing-special except that – again – twisting spiral staircases take visitors up onto the roof. Running around on the roof of an ancient cloister – what more could culture-loving boys want?

But we weren’t finished with Evora yet. In fact, we had saved the best for last.

Almendres Cromlech

On our way out of the city – sweaty, dusty, exhilarated – we steered Daisy the bus down quiet dirt tracks, following signposts to the most significant megalithic monument in the Iberian Peninsula – the Almendres Cromlech.

Standing stones at the Almendres Cromlech, Evora, Portugal

Here, ninety-five massive granite menhirs eerily align with the moon, wind and stars. Sounds like Stonehenge? In a way, yes, but the Almendres Cromlech is at least 2,000 years older than its more famous English cousin, yet wonderfully off the mainstream tourist radar.

I’m going to be honest: I am extremely happy with this photo of Piko at the Almendres Cromlech standing stones.

As for many monuments of this type, the precise function and symbolic meaning of Almendres Cromlech has been lost to time, but the size and deliberate positioning of the stones testifies for its importance. As I stood in their shadow, I reflected on the astonishing similarity between these stones and the megalithic monuments in my native Ireland; what common belief inspired different people in different landscapes thousands of kilometres apart to create such similar monuments? As I pondered this, Mrs Daisy the bus was proclaiming that certain stones vibrated softly upon her touch, that she could feel the ancient, mystical energy within. I believed her.

You see, whatever your thoughts, beliefs or backgrounds, places such as Almendres Cromlech can only continue to inspire. There is, undoubtedly, something special there and I find it utterly endearing that the only access to a monument of this size and importance is via four kilometres of dirt track. I genuinely hope this never changes, that there will never be a visitor centre, an “interactive immersive experience”, a faux-chic café nor a souvenir shop here. Otherwise, amidst the overbearing noise of mass tourism, the silent magic of Almendres Cromlech may be lost forever.


PRACTICAL TIPS FOR VISITING ÉVORA, PORTUGAL

Chapel of Bones / Collection of Nativity Scenes – In the church of São Francisco, Praça 1º de Maio. A combined ticket costs €5 for adults and €3.50 for children. Family tickets available too. It does get busy, so get there early.

Temple of Diana – Largo do Marquês de Marialva. Free of charge.

Igreja de São João Evangelista – Largo do Marquês de Mariavla. €4 for adults, kids go free. Beautiful but compact; a visit of 30 minutes may suffice.

Cathedral – Largo Dom Miguel Portugal. €3.50 for adults (reductions for kids). This includes access to the rooftops which, in our opinion, is the most interesting part. Nevertheless those with vertigo can keep their feet on the ground and pay only €2.50.

Almendres Cromlech Stone Circles – Down a dirt track, but well-signposted from the main road between Evora and Montemor. Free of charge. Car park is only a couple of hundred metres from the stones. No tourist facilities.

Daisy the bus visited Evora in August 2018

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr

Fifi and Hop
 
”CulturedKids”

Concertgebouw – Culture for families in Bruges

Ah Bruges! Cute cobbled streets, picturesque canals, a fascinating history, cosy restaurants, gargantuan churches, chic chocolate shops and, well, basically, staggering beauty everywhere you look.

The problem is… absolutely none of this matters to kids.

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Bruges – very pretty, but what to DO with kids there? (p.s. possibly my worst-framed family photo ever. Sorry about that…)


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London – Smart choices with kids

We need to talk about “optimal resource management”.

That’s admittedly an unusual way to begin a family travel blog article, but making the most of what you have and taking smart decisions about you do are the keys to a successful family visit to London.

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Non-touristy Lisbon with kids

Lisbon with kids. It’s all about that oceanarium, the castle, and trundling up and down the narrow city streets on cutesy yellow trams, right? Well, no, not at all. There are many, many other kid-friendly highlights in Lisbon, most of which are much more relaxed than the more famous attractions. Here are some of our personal favourites:

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