Lovely Lisbon!

Lisbon, Portugal – Day 1 – May 28, 2013

            We were up rather early on Tuesday, May 28, because we were afraid that we would oversleep and miss our flight.  As it was, we were an hour and a half early for our 11:40 flight.  We were flying on Portugalia, which is owned by TAP Airlines and appears to fly the shorter routes with smaller planes.  Our plane was an Embraer Jet that seats 57 passengers.  As you can imagine the interior is rather small and banging your head seems to be one of its most prominent features.  The flight took off on time and in a mere seventy minutes we had made the trip from Valencia to Lisbon.

            The airport is rather large and the good news is that it is well signed.  We easily found the correct baggage carousel and fifteen minutes later we were on our way.  The cab ride to our hotel took fifteen minutes and it was our first opportunity to take a glimpse at the layout and the architecture of this capital city.  As is the case with many European cities the buildings are a mix of the old and new.  Wide avenues lead you into the city center and the old quarter of the city is a maze of narrow streets and seemingly endless hills.

            Check in was painless and we went up to our room and unpacked.  We are staying at the Hotel Heritage Avenida Libertade and we have a very nice room with a queen bed, a writing desk and a balcony.  The wooden shutters on the inside of the windows effectively shield the sound from the foot and vehicle traffic below.  The bathroom has older style tub, but a modern shower with abundant amounts of hot water and excellent water pressure.  We have discovered that the staff here is most attentive and willing to make suggestions when asked for them.  The lobby lounge is filled with sofas and comfortable chairs and it is an ideal place to have breakfast, as well as an evening nightcap. Breakfast is rather extensive and includes cereal, eggs, breakfast meats, salmon, ham, cheese, jams, yoghurt, fresh fruit and juices and a variety of breakfast rolls and pastries.

            It was close to 2:30 when we had finally put everything away and decided to go in search of lunch.  We asked for a recommendation and the front desk recommended a nearby restaurant called El Solar Dos Presuntos.  It appears to attract a business clientele judging from the number of suits we saw in the restaurant.  We were seated promptly and proceeded to study the menu.  Even before we ordered they delivered a plate of charcuterie, a plate of chees and a plate of olives.  This appears to be a tradition in most restaurants we have visited here.  In some cases they present you with choices from which you can pick and in other cases they just put them on the table.  There is a charge for these pre-meal treats.  For lunch we ordered codfish cakes that were outstanding and a shrimp curry with rice.  For dessert we shared a typical Portuguese pastry and then it was time for coffee and a glass of Port.  Since it was our first meal in Portugal we opted for a 20-year-old Port that was exquisite.

            After our meal we went back to the hotel to rest up a bit and later that afternoon we began our exploration of the city.  We walked from our hotel to the Praça do Comercio that is an enormous square that house a multiplicity of government offices and countless restaurants with outdoor tables.  We strolled along the riverfront for a bit looking at the ferries and boats that dotted the water and passed by a number of larger boats that were moored to their slips.  On our way back to the hotel we stopped for a coffee and watched the world go by.  Before retiring for the evening we stopped at the hotel lobby for a nightcap. We went to bed rather early in preparation for what would be our first full day of sightseeing.

Lisbon, Portugal – Day 2 – May 29, 2013

            After a rather delightful breakfast we followed the direction we were given that would take us to the stop for Tram 28.  Tram 28 is a star attraction for tourists since it winds its way through narrow and steep hills and gives you sort of an overview of a number of Lisbon’s neighborhoods.  The trams look exactly like the streetcars that were part of my growing year in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  My mind easily morphed into the ride along Blue Hill Avenue when I was five or six years old.  We caught the tram close to the riverfront and took it to its terminal at a rather large cemetery.  The seats on the tram were quickly filled and as we made our way up the hills the car became more and more crowded with passengers pressed tightly together.  There are signs all over the walls of the tram alerting one to be aware of pickpockets because as you stand holding on for dear life to the leather straps above, you are a prime target for having your wallet lifted.

            When we reached the terminus of the uphill trip, we looked around and boarded the very same tram for the downhill adventure.  It was less crowded on the way down and in less than fifteen minutes we had been delivered to our starting point.  Our stomachs were starting to growl and that was an obvious and clear sign that we needed to find a restaurant.  Our friend, Brian, Had recommended several to us and we decided to try one of them out.  We hopped a cab and he delivered us as close as he could to A Travessa, a restaurant housed in a former monastery.  When we walked in, we were the only diners and that did not change while we were there.

            We started the meal with a series of small plates that included marinated mussels, a little purse of goat cheese with a pumpkin jam, an octopus salad and thinly sliced pieces of pork loin.  Susan chose the lamb for her main course and I had the veal.  Alongside the mains we were served mashed turnips, new potatoes, spinach and a medley of cooked vegetables.  We enjoyed a lovely bottle of Portuguese white and we were happy campers.  After dessert, a slice of orange cake for Susan and a wicked chocolate praline for me we went on our way and headed back to hotel for some R and R.  Our evening was uneventful and once again we enjoyed a nightcap in the hotel’s lobby bar.

Lisbon, Portugal – Day 3 – May 30, 2013

            The sun is out in full force for the first time during our visit.  After breakfast we hailed a cab and had him take us to the Mostero Dos Jeronimos (Monasterio de los Jerónimos) in the Belém neighborhood of Lisbon.  Located near to the Tagus River it dates from 1502 to commemorate the voyage of Vasco da Gama thanks to the intervention of the Virgin Mary that insured the success of that most difficult voyage.  The monastery was built so that the monks could pray for the well being of the king and the safety of all sailors.  It is built in a style that is called Manueline that features a wide variety of columns, each of which appears to have a different motif.  There are a number of marine elements present in the columns most notably shells and rope similar to that used on ships.  It does have many Gothic elements and it occupies an amazing amount of acreage.  I think the most impressive part of the visit was the church, which although simply decorated conveyed a sense of peace and tranquility that one might hope to find in God’s house.  There is an amazing view of the church from the choir that sits above it.  Our visit ended a little after 2:30 and since we had more ground to cover in the Belém area, we searched for a restaurant.

            We ended up at what was a rather popular spot, judging by the fact that just about every table was occupied by both tourists and locals.  It is called Os Jeronimos and, as we discovered later, it gets high marks from Trip Advisor.  We looked briefly at the menu, but were drawn to a main dish that was being devoured by a diner across the way from us. It is called Porco a la Alentejana and is made with pieces of pork, clams, potatoes and coriander and that is what both of us ordered and thoroughly enjoyed.  We passed on dessert and coffee because we already knew where we were going for dessert.

            The Café de Pastéis de Belém was founded in the year 1837.  It is know for its pastéis de Belém, which is a very delicate shell that holds an unbelievably creamy and delicious custard.   If you so desire, you can sprinkle cinnamon and powdered sugar on it.  Our timing was perfect and we found a table and thoroughly enjoyed this newfound treat.  Many different pastries are for sale, but just about everyone is there to get the specialty of this place.  When we passed by later in the day there were about seventy-five people in line waiting to make their purchase.

            Properly fortified, we struck out again. Our first stop was The Coach Museum that displays a goodly number of the horse-drawn coaches that were used by Portuguese royalty on any number of state occasions.  The two words that come to mind when viewing them are ostentatious and obscenely expensive.  However, I guess you had to do something with all that gold that was pouring in from the New World.  There are also a couple of sedan chairs on display.  Our visit lasted thirty minutes and we had a very pleasant experience at the ticket booth.  When I asked for two tickets the gentleman selling tickets asked me how old I was.  I told him I was 72.  He then inquired why I didn’t ask for the Senior discount and I replied that I did not have my Spanish ID on me that proves I am 72.  His reply was most enlightening.  He said, “What good is the world if you cannot take someone’s word for something?” From that moment on we asked for and received the Senior discount for all our entrances.

            Our next stop was the Belém Tower that looks like the world’s biggest sandcastle as it sits on the water.  From there we made our way to the Discoveries Monument that pays tribute to the Portuguese explorers.  The figure in the forefront is of Henry The Navigator who organized and funded those voyages.  Given the fact that we had already walked some five miles, we decided to stop at a nearby oasis and have a cold drink.  That pause helped us decide that it was time to head back to Lisbon and the comforts of our hotel room.  We waited for the streetcar that would take us back to town, but we grew impatient and took a cab back to the hotel. 

            After a brief rest, we geared up again and headed out for dinner and some Fado.  Parreirinha de Alfama is one of the best know Fado houses in Lisbon and is owned by the legendary Argentina Santos.  We had an 8:00 o’clock reservation and arrived a few minutes late.  We were escorted to a small table for two at the rear of the restaurant.  As we looked around we noted that most tables were empty, but it was early and as the evening progressed the tables filled up.  We were seated next to a retired German couple that was on a seven-week holiday traveling through Spain, Portugal and France before returning back home.  They were traveling in what they called a bus and from their description it sounded like it was a Volkswagen camper.

            Brian had told us that the food at a Fado house was not the main attraction and we were not disappointed.  Susan ordered baked cod and I had a veal dish.  Both were unremarkable.  At 9:00 the first performer of the evening took the center of the room and accompanied by two musicians, one on guitar and the other on a traditional 12 string Portuguese guitar, she sang three songs.  There were twenty minutes pauses between each three-song set and that night, in addition to the first performer, a rather attractive young woman, there were two other singers, one male and the other female.  We sat through six sets and by 11:30 our energy was flagging so we paid our bill and headed out into the night. The songs we heard bore a strong resemblance to the Havaneres that we had heard in Calella a number of years ago. The songs were of sadness, love and longing for the homeland. 

Lisbon – Day 4 – May 31, 2013

We made our way to the train station by the river and bought our tickets for Cascais, a small seaside town located on the Atlantic.  The trip lasted about forty minutes on a commuter train that looked a bit tired, but got us to our destination with no problems whatsoever.  The train station in Cascais is in the center of the downtown area and there are a myriad of shops and small restaurants everywhere you look.  Some of the restaurants look out on the sea and others are a short distance away.  We wandered through the streets for a bit, but, truth be told, we are not big souvenir buyers.  There is no table space or wall space left in our home.

When it came time to look for a restaurant, I asked a local for a suggestion.  We followed his instructions and found ourselves in front of a restaurant that was absolutely empty.  Walking back down the hill and turning to the left, we spotted a nautically themed restaurant called Cervejaria Marisqueira Camoes.  There was a large aquarium filled with crab and lobster, as well as a refrigerated display case of all their freshly caught fish.  We went light on appetizers to leave room for what turned out to be an enormous stew of macaroni and all kinds of shellfish cooked in a savory tomato based broth.  We extracted dozens of peeled shrimp, clams, mussels, lobster, pieces of crab and crawfish and when we had eaten all we could the stew pot was still one-third full. 

After lunch we explored the area that is called the Boca do Inferno, but I think we missed the real deal.  The cab driver dropped us off at the top of the hill and pointed off in the distance and although we did encounter an extensive rock formation, we did not see the hole in the rocks where the ocean enters in a rather turbulent and violent cascade.  It was still a pretty view from atop the rocks.  We caught a bus back to the center of town and walked along the water stopping at an ice cream store for a cold drink.

Then it was back to the train station and the forty-minute return trip to Lisbon.  We rested a bit in our room and since we were still full from lunch we limited our dinner to a beer for me, a gin and tonic for Susan and a small bowl of mixed nuts for the two of us.

Lisbon – Day 5 – June 1, 2013

We devoted Saturday to exploring more of the old quarter of the city, specifically the Alfama that was the old Arab quarter.  We took a cab up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge for a panoramic look at the city, as well as the treasures that live within the castle itself.  Susan had lots of photo opportunities and I was able to add yet another castle to my list of castles I have visited.  From the castle we made our way down the hill stopping at a scenic overlook for yet another view of the city.  Further down on our journey we entered the Sé Cathedral built on the site of an old mosque in 1150.  Its interior is primarily Romanesque with a Gothic choir and ambulatory.  The interior is both simple and tranquil.

We had worked up quite an appetite as we discovered that going downhill could be more taxing on the knees than going uphill.  When we reached the base of the Alfama we spotted an outdoor café called Café Dos Bicos.  It was close to full and there were a lot of locals dining there.  That’s always a good sign so we took a seat and studied the menu.  We began the meal with some complimentary cod fritters and an empanada.  We shared a salad and Susan then attacked her dorade and I my swordfish.  Susan had a whole fish and I had four big pieces of a smaller Portuguese version of swordfish that resembles an eel in terms of size.  The white flesh was cooked to perfection over a wood fire and I enjoyed every single bite.  We passed on dessert, but did have a coffee.

We continued on our way to the Praça do Comercio where we stopped at an outdoor café for an ice cream concoction.  There was too much ice in the ice cream and that made it less than enjoyable.  The good news is that it was cold and went down easily.  From the plaza we made our way back to the hotel and rested up for an evening excursion.

I was having a sudden urge for a hamburger and I was not quite sure why.  I checked out possible places in town that served a good burger and the name Café do Río kept popping up and since it was rather close to the beginning of the Alfama we decided to walk there.  We arrived around 9:00 only to discover that every table was reserved, but if we wanted to check back in an hour or so there might be an open table.  We thanked the owner and continued our search.

We ended up going to a restaurant called A Travessa Do Fado, which is located right next door to the Fado Museum and is owned by the same people who own A Travessa where we dined on Wednesday.  The concept here is different.  The meal is served tapa style with shared plates in the center of the table.  We ordered some cod fritters, some clams, broad beans with sausage, goat cheese with a pumpkin jam and the Portuguese dish called an açorda, which is a riff on Garlic Soup with the difference being the use of cilantro here in Portugal. We shared a piece of cheesecake for dessert and finished our meal with coffee.  It was late so we took a cab back to the hotel.

Lisbon – Day 6 – June 2, 2013

Our goal for the day was to visit Sintra, another forty-minute train trip from Lisbon.  This train leaves from the Rossío station and we just managed to catch the 11:38 train.  We arrived a little after 12:15 and exited the station heading for the center of town.  As you make your way to the center of town there are a number of sculptures that are treats for both the eye and the soul.  When we reached the center of town, we stopped for a cold drink and then moved on to our first destination, The Sintra National Palace. It is the only surviving palace from the Middle Ages and, at the moment, is undergoing extensive exterior and interior reconstruction.

            The visit was most interesting and the palace contained what I have come to expect when visiting palaces.  I did not ice that there were not many canvases, tapestries or mosaics on the wall.  A lot of the stained glass is in the process of being replicated.  There is a great deal of Moorish influence throughout the castle and my favorite space was the kitchen with what must have been sufficient space to have five or six wood fires burning simultaneously.  Having completed out tour of palace number one, we headed off to palace number two, the Palacio da Pena.

            The palace rests atop what must be the highest point in Sintra.  It is a six- kilometer trip up a winding road that will lead you to the entrance of this palace.  There is a tram that then takes you up another winding road to the very entrance of the palace. Be prepared to do a lot of climbing to reach the various levels of this palatial beauty.  You can walk all around the castle by way of the surrounding walls and the view from the top of the castle is absolutely breathtaking. This view alone makes the trek itself worthwhile.  When we finished our visit we took a bus back to the center of town.

            It was time for lunch and we spied a restaurant called Paris that in addition to its extensive interior had a number of tables on its terrace.  We were shown to a table and proceeded to study the menu.  We started our meal with a warm goat cheese salad that was topped with a variety of fresh berries.  Susan had some baby goat for her main course and I opted for the pork and clams dish.  Both entrees were extremely tasty.  The good news is that we still had room for dessert so Susan and I shared a crepe that was topped with a raspberry coulis and a healthy scoop of pistachio ice cream.  When we finished our coffee, it was a little after 5:00, so we gathered up our stuff and walked back to the train station.

            When we got back to the hotel we collapsed.  We had walked close to 6 miles and, according to our Fitbit statistics, we had climbed the equivalent of 30 flights of stairs.  We managed to drag ourselves down to the lobby bar for some liquid refreshment and a bowl of mixed nuts.

Lisbon – Day 7 – June 3, 2013

            We were feeling the after effects of yesterdays visit to Sintra, as well as the effects of having covered close to 30 miles in the last several days, so we decided to be kind to ourselves and take one of the many tour buses that circle the city.  We found one that went to a number of places that we had yet to see.  The tour was both informative and interesting.  We got to see the site of the 1998 World Exposition and all the magnificent buildings that had been created expressly for that event.  The buildings now house a multiplicity of museums and concert venues.  The Aquarium is reputed to be one of the world’s best.  There is also a Science Center that is worth visiting.

            It was close to 2:30 when we got off the bus and we stopped for some liquid refreshment.  We then hailed a cab to take us to the spot we had chosen for lunch.  It turned out that it was closed.  We then headed for our second choice and after we were able to locate it, we discovered that it was closed, too.  It turned out that there was an Italian place close by so we lunched on some Arancini, a refreshing salad that included both smoked salmon and orange slices, and a pizza.  The meal was enjoyable and the price was right.

            Back to the hotel we went and we began to get things in order for packing our bags.  Around 9:00 we went in search of a bite to eat and discovered a small place on the Avenida de Libertade called El Café Imperial.  Our waiter was extremely personable and he recommended the steak served on a burning hot stone and we accepted his suggestion.  It was a good call.  The steak was tasty and tender and you got to cook each slice to your desired degree of doneness.  The steak was served alongside an enormous plate of fries.  Susan had rice pudding for dessert and I helped her finish it.  Then it was back to the hotel to finish the task of packing.

Lisbon – Day 8 – June 4, 2013

            We were up at 6:00 so that we could be at the airport in plenty of time for what I thought was an 8:40 flight.  Susan’s calendar alerted us to the fact that it was an 8:25 flight.  We reached the airport an hour before the flight.  We entered and searched for signs of intelligent life or just a simple sign letting you know where one had to go to check in.  We found neither.  We stumbled across a check in desk, but it turns out it was only for those travelers in possession of a frequent flyer card that was either gold or platinum.  We were directed up stairs where there should have been a sign that said PANDEMONIUM.

            It appears that check in for all airlines happens at a bank of check in desks.  There are lots of check in desks, but there are way more travelers.  We snaked our way slowly through the airport and we were still a goodly distance away from the front of the line.  I tapped a supervisor on the shoulder and asked if we were going to make our flight.  He let us break line and personally checked us in.  He then directed us to security, which would then lead us on to our gate.

            I set off the alarm and was patted down.  It was something in my wallet that set it off.  When we had repacked our things we increased our pace and headed to Gate 10.  However, before you can get to any gate you have to navigate your way through a plethora of stores and cafes that occupy the center of the airport.  We successfully slalomed our way through and kept on walking and walking and walking until we finally found Gate 10. When we arrived we were told that the flight was delayed for technical reasons.  That’s just what you want to hear when you are about to board a 57-passenger plane.

            As promised they made an announcement at 8:25 and that announcement was to board the plane.  The seventy minute flight was very smooth and without incident.  The touchdown was perfect and, to make things even better, our luggage arrived on the carousel three minutes after we walked off the plane.  It was a quick cab ride back home and we were greeted by our doorman, Antonio, as we exited the cab.  A quick trip up the elevator and a double turn of the key and we once again discovered that there’s no place like home.



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