Part 1, Lisbon and Sintra
Ever since I studied the early European explorers in grade school, I have been drawn to Spain and Portugal. I managed to get to Spain during my early days in Europe before I became fascinated with Asia and trekking in the Himalayas, but there has always been a subliminal longing for Portugal that has hung over me all these years. Here was a country about the size of Indiana, which had ruled the waves and sent out explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries long before the New World, as we know it, had been discovered. Portuguese explorers led the way in European overseas exploration. They reached India, established multiple trading posts in Africa and Asia, and settled what would become Brazil. It’s hard to believe that the peaceful little country I wandered around had at one time created one of the most powerful empires in human history.
When Covid finally lifted her heavy veil, my daughter, Martha, and I leapt in. Hooray, we made it! On May 6 we settled into the Dom Sancho Hotel in the center of Lisbon for the first four days of our two-week exploration of Portugal. After that it was Airbnb’s all the way.
How changed travel had become. I felt that I had just emerged from the Middle Ages and there was no going back. Everything, including the search for restaurants, could be done on the phone (I guess the expression is “digitized”). This is something we spent hours doing, since I’m allergic to fish and we had to find places that served interesting alternatives to seafood. All you needed was the $10/day purchase of data, and you were good to go. You could buy tickets to a funicular, tour bus, river trip, or train, and just show the ticket on your phone to enter. As long as you were a technical genius, the world was at your feet. Well, I should say Martha’s, because I just tagged along and let her do the work. How on earth did I circle the globe three times solo those many years ago with only a backpack and a camera…no internet or cell phone?!
This, my first overseas trip in three long years, was one of exploration, discovery, and appreciation. I was immersed in a land of friendly, happy people, who savored their ancient landmarks and thrived on beauty, both natural and creative. An atmosphere of relaxation prevailed. It was palpable! If we misjudged the time of a castle or a palacio opening, we laughed at our mistake and sat on a bench or the grass and watched the sea, talked, and grooved on the gorgeous balmy weather and lush scenery. We did not rush, we set no strict caveats. If we dawdled and missed a tour bus, we explored the town and took the next one. Seldom have I felt so free, so unburdened by schedules, and so at ease.
Imagine emerging from your hotel on the first day, still jet lagged at 10 am, just as most restaurants or cafes are opening for breakfast, and walking onto a magnificent boulevard lined with apartments, many of which were brightly painted or decorated with colorful tiles (azulejos), a famous specialty of Portugal. Some facades told a story in murals while others specialized in mosaic or neoclassical designs. Our eyes were popping as we walked down the elaborately-tiled sidewalks and roofs, past busy outdoor cafes…yearning for our morning cup of coffee.
(Click on picture to enlarge)
We noticed that the buildings in Lisbon are mostly limited to five floors, each floor with a different style of window, uniformly artistic whether oval, square, rectangular, curved, or tapered. Sometimes the top floor looked like a series of single dormer rooms. The variety was intriguing and the artistry stellar. Beauty reigned. And with the buildings so low, this gave us a chance to walk around town and groove on the sun, clouds, and blue sky.
Lisbon has an elaborate system of walk and don’t walk signs regulating its labyrinth of streets and boulevards, which takes a bit of getting used to. But after a few days we became free spirits like the rest of the populace ignoring the signs when it was safe!
After a sumptuous breakfast (my favorite was a poached egg dish called avocado smash served on nut bread and accompanied by a large latte), we wandered the back streets, and made our way to the Central City. It was amazing to me how many different sizes of tile and designs and colors were used as pavement. Here is just one example.
Thus began four days of our love affair with Lisbon. Naturally, we had to get used to the difference in eating habits in Portugal. It reminded me of Spain. Meals were slow and casual. Never a rush. They were a social experience. A time for conversation and connecting. Breakfast started around 10 am, which was hard for us. The only help for early morning coffee was from Google, whose information was often not up-to-date, one of our only frustrations. We sometimes skipped lunch due to getting immersed in a bus tour or other activity, so that by 6 pm we were desparate for dinner. It didn’t take more than a day to realize that most restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 7 pm, so we’d better grab something at lunchtime (2-3 pm) if we wanted to survive. Each night was a new gustatory adventure and chance to reach out and connect with others, and each day was the unfolding of a new area to explore.
The remainder of our first day was spent roaming the boulevards and side streets, walking along the river, and enjoying the numerous wide staircases leading from one street to another.
By 5 o’clock we started to look, with great urgency, for any restaurant open for dinner. We ducked into a small bistro and were greeted by a jolly bartender and an hospitable waitress who sat us down by the front window and proceeded to set the table. How lucky can you get? It seems that they had just finished a big party, which is why they were open for business. The bartender brought two medium-sized bottles of white wine and in perfect English said, “You will like this!” He wasn’t kidding. And here began our romance with Portuguese wine! As Martha put it, “I never used to drink white wine, but this goes down soooo smooth….” We didn’t even ask the price and it was incredibly reasonable. Best fish in years and a special salad for me.
It’s interesting that the wine in Portugal is identified by the region where it’s grown, not its type, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or Riesling. And each region has its specialty. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of the most famous, Vinho Verde (from the Vinho Verde [Green Wine] region in northern Portugal), and Douro, centered near the Douro River Valley. And when we got to Porto it didn’t take us long to discover where Port wine is from. Nor how powerful it is!
As I’ve mentioned, we could buy tickets at many locations for whatever mode of transportation we desired. Here we are waiting in the center of town for the popular 28 tram to take us on a steep and winding journey to the Alfama district, overlooking the ocean, where we got off to view the Costa de Lisboa, the varied and extensive coast of Lisbon. At any stop along the way we could get off the tram and get back on when the next one came along, thus giving us a chance to explore a variety of interesting neighborhoods. Whenever we got onto any tram, bus, train or taxi we were required to wear a mask and this was strictly enforced.
Take a look at some of the glorious views from our walk, beginning in the historical Alfama area.
On our wanderings we came upon Largo de Carmo Square with the entrance to Carmen Convent and the famous Archaeological Museum, the gothic ruins of the 14th century Igreja (church) Convento do Carmo. It is a lively square, known for its terraces and full of happy people and historic landmarks. It is also a very important place in Portuguese history where, on April 25, 1974, Arcela Coetano, the replacement for former dictator Antonio de Olveira Salazar, was defeated in a bloodless coup called the Carnation Revolution, which introduced democracy to Portugal. He stepped down after taking refuge in the main Lisbon military police station in the square, and General Spinola took over. After 50 years of Salazar’s rule, a democratic government was finally installed.
After we came out of the ruins we were greeted by lively break dancers in the square.
For me, the highlight of the Lisbon area was Sintra, a World Heritage site with majestic forests and amazing wildlife. On our third morning, we took an Uber from the center of town and in no time arrived in Sintra. We were able to grab an open-air tuk-tuk to take us to the famous Palacio Nacional da Pena, which included an extensive park. The ride, alone, would have made our day! A steep road winding through what seemed like miles of lush forests, deep and dark…a forest primeval right out of Longfellow’s Evangeline. And we were being blown by the wind as we bounced over the rugged road, laughing with our fellow passengers and hanging on for dear life.
How could such a fancy edifice be hidden so deep in the forest? Check out the color and artwork. Hard to believe!
Unfortunately, we stayed too long in the palace so arrived too late to enter the park grounds. But that would come another day. We had to return to Sintra!
We took a leisurely walk down the road, enjoying all the sights we couldn’t see on our bumpy drive up the hill.
Near the middle of town we happened upon the Lawrence’s Hotel, the oldest hotel on the Iberian Peninsula. And there was a charming outdoor restaurant open for dinner. Here we discovered another specialty of Portugal…Sangria, red or white, fashioned by the delightful manager, Carlos, and served by charming Joana. It was not to be believed and fit perfectly with the accompanying Magret de Canard and seafood dishes.
I never knew that a true sangria included not only wine but Cointreau and brandy!
On our final day in Lisbon we concentrated on the beautiful area of Belem, one of Portugal’s most historic districts, filled with monuments and located on the bank of the Tejo Estuary to the west of Lisbon. It’s the location of Lisbon’s shipyards and docks, and it was here that the 16th century explorers set sail and discovered the sea routes to East Africa, Brazil, and India, routes that brought incredible wealth to Portugal.
The Belem Tower and fort was closed but we had a wonderful time lounging around on the grass and people watching.
Belem is also the home of the Pastel de Belem, the original Pastel de Nata custard tart. We stopped in a cafe and bakery known for serving this Portuguese specialty, and waited, patiently, with other curious tourists who longed for a taste of the famous confection. And it was definitely worth the wait! The outer layer was a flakey crust that we had watched being made, and inside was a creamy, but not-too-sweet custard unlike any I’ve ever tasted. Superb! There is a lot of folklore around this delicacy. Seems that only three people in the world are allowed to know the recipe. It’s a fascinating story.
Jeronimo’s Monastery is one of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon. It was classified a UNESCO World Heritage site. We walked all around it, but it was on a Monday, and we didn’t get to see the famous cloisters. Next time.
By late afternoon we had already walked our usual 6-8 miles up and down tiled sidewalks, and finally found a restaurant that was open. As so often happens in these cozy outdoor restaurants, we connected with people from many countries, swapping stories and broadening our horizons. This evening it was a most congenial couple from Germany, Hildegard and Siegfried, and Margaret, a woman from Bend, Oregon. What fun we had getting acquainted! Coincidentally, they were all celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversaries. Margaret’s husband became ill and couldn’t come, so she was seeing Portugal for both of them. What a great way to spend our last evening in Lisbon before leaving for Porto the next morning.
In my next post, we visit Porto and Nazare, and then return to Sintra to roam through the spectacular Quinta da Regaleira for our last day.