After over two years of trying to return to Portugal (with the trip planned four times…and cancelled), we finally made it there! Instead of cycling and birding, the original plan, we decided to be “regular tourists” – as much as we ever are – and get to some places missed on a 2017 visit, south to north (see map below). This trip was also an opportunity to meet up with Robert’s cousins Rob and Linda from Maryland and a few of their friends.
While the other R&L opted for a shorter itinerary (and they had an impressive trip plan put together by their friend John), we arrived a week earlier and headed south first to the Algarve, staying in Sagres (near Cabo de São Vicente, the farthest southwest point of Europe). It was a bit of an adventure getting there, taking two trains from Lisbon – Tunes – Lagos; then we should/could have picked up a bus to Sagres, but wimped and called Uber for the last 25km.
Sagres is a quiet town with a surfer vibe, and we stayed in the lovely Pousada de Sagres (think paradores in Spain). We had three nights there, but probably two would have been fine. On the other hand it was a beautiful place to try to get over jet lag (haha), and the dramatic rocky coastline and empty beaches were delightful. Our planned boat trip was called off due to lack of customers, the downside to being in a quieter town, although the wind might have had something to do with it, too.
Returning to Lisbon we figured out the bus (Vamus Algarve #47), caught our two trains, and settled into our Turim hotel near the Saldanha and Picoas metro stops. The hotel was in a business district that was not touristy, but rather comfortable and quiet. Over the next several days we enjoyed a number of day trips and caught up on some sites we missed in 2017. First, we enjoyed a day out in the Belém district of Lisbon, visiting the Jerónimos Monastery with its Manueline architecture and ornate stonework, and the Maritime Museum next door (yay maps!).
Another day, when a planned wine tour of the Alentejo was cancelled (again, not enough participants), we got ourselves out to Cascais, a fancy beach town with… a lot of Brits. From there, we walked the esplanade to Estoril less than a couple miles away, having a wonderful lunch while looking over the shore.
A different day trip to the Alentejo, a history and culture tour with CoolTours, took us out to Évora. Liza first got her Outlander moment when we visited the megalithic site Cromeleque dos Almendres (older than Stonehenge!). In Évora itself, we enjoyed an olive oil tasting, and visited the Igreja de São Francisco. The church features Gothic and Baroque architecture along with the skeleton-adorned Chapel of Bones, whose inscription over the door basically says, “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait”. Nearby in the city’s historic center, we visited the ancient Roman Temple of Évora (also called the Temple of Diana) before being turned loose for free time / lunch / wine tasting.
Alas, the wine tasting fell through, because one place (despite having a sign in the window saying “tastings”) required a reservation, and another was closed for lunch and only opened 20 minutes before we were supposed to leave. But we more than made up for it with multiple visits to the Wines of Portugal tasting rooms in Lisbon and Porto, starting that evening seeing Rob, Linda, and their friends at the room on the Praça do Comércio. [Lisbon was the place to be – Liza and Linda were interviewed by the German Deutsche Welle news service (in English) there! We are near the end, at the 3:00 mark.]
The next day we went out to Sintra, to the northwest, first having a great time exploring the Moorish Castle (where we saw the others, as they were on a tour and we were winging it with our metro passes) before moving on to the much busier Disney-esque Pena Palace. It is not a coincidence that the ostentatious spending to build the palace in the 19th Century reminded us of that of the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria that also was built around that time. While we had timed-entry tickets for the interior of the Pena Palace, as it turns out nobody was checking the times anyway, and while it was interesting, really the beauty there was the structure itself (although some fresh paint wouldn’t go amiss in places), and the beautiful surrounding forest.
From Lisbon we moved on to Coimbra, the university town (first established 1290 – take that Ivy League), by train en route to Porto. Originally, Liza wanted to go to Nazaré, but it had a serious “you can’t really get there from here” problem with buses on a Sunday and we didn’t want to get stuck. Coimbra was charming, particularly the view from the bridge across the Mondego River, not to mention hilly, but it was a nice walk in fine weather, and we even saw some university students in their black capes on a photo shoot, celebrating the completion of their studies.
We arrived in Porto the next day, also by train. (We’ll note here that the train workers called strikes in advance, but only on specific days, so we managed to get by unscathed.) Liza happily got a little shopping time in, seeking out the Costa Nova pottery story (stoneware made in Portugal; Williams Sonoma has knock-offs), and Livraria Lello (“the most beautiful bookstore in the world”). It’s true you have to buy a ticket these days to get into the bookstore, but buy anything (Liza did, a couple of gorgeous little editions of Alice in Wonderland and Grimm’s Fairy Tales) and the ticket cost is subtracted from the total, and to her it was worth it to see the gorgeous interior.
Porto, of course, is all about port wine, which both of us said, eh, we don’t really like port but it’s the thing to do here, so let’s do a tour/tasting at one of the port lodges across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. Liza had chosen Graham’s, and we did a “pairing” of the ports with food – chocolate, cheese, and pastel de nata (custard tart). We both concluded that our saying we didn’t like port was because we’d never had a good, proper port. (A tasting some years ago on the central coast of California, well, those guys didn’t even begin to compare.)
The group arrived the day after we did, and we had planned a much anticipated dinner at Barão Fladgate, at Taylor’s port lodge. [“Planned” being the operative word, because at the appointed time we were greeted by someone basically asking, “why are you here?”; turns out a special event was scheduled and our reservation was in the books but not being honored. The person at the restaurant was nice enough, took us to another restaurant (Golden Catch – not quite the same ring to it, but it was good), and we were all comped dessert and a glass of port. But still…disappointing.]
Our Porto time concluded with a day trip by the group to the Douro Valley with CoolTours. (See photo at the top of this post.) There we enjoyed a relaxing boat ride on the river – nice to see the vineyards from the water with their stone terraces – and visited two quintas (vineyards), Quinta do Jalloto and Quinta de Santa Eufémia. At Jalloto, we tasted the wines and had a lovely charcuterie lunch with even more wine; at Santa Eufémia it was all about port, which by this time we had decided we liked very much, thank you!
The trip concluded back in Lisbon, where we met up with our niece Margaret and her boyfriend Micah who had just arrived. We spent part of the next day (at Linda’s suggestion) checking out the El Corte Inglés mega department store, mainly for the Gourmet Experience top floor (browsing the wines/ports and other items, and getting a piece of the famous Landeau chocolate cake), and the food court on the entry level.
Our last evening was at a Portuguese cooking class Margaret had arranged through AirBnB Experiences; frankly, we were all rather full after the appetizers of chouriço, bread, cheese, olives, and wine, but gamely all made our way through the delicious cataplana (fish stew) we prepared, ending with crème brûlée with passionfruit, and a small bottle of Santa Eufémia tawny port we’d bought on the Douro tour.
Overall this was a great trip. We had astonishingly good weather, mostly in the high 60’s to high 70s; we expected to be hot, but with the wind along the coast we found it chilly at times. The rest of Europe was sweltering and we were wearing our sweaters, although Portugal did finally heat up in early July after we’d left. Since we weren’t cycling and only casually birding, it was probably the easiest time we’ve had packing for many years. As far as the horror stories regarding summer travel went, we were almost entirely spared any strike issues – just one morning as we needed the metro in Lisbon to get to the Oriente train station, they were not running, so we just called Uber.
Unfortunately we ran into a few issues getting home as good old Air Canada at the last minute cancelled the middle flight of our three-flight itinerary, then rerouted us onto TAP Portugal out of Lisbon later that day (so we got up at 0430 for nothing…ha). The TP flight was delayed by more than our layover at Washington Dulles, and any hope we might yet make it was dashed with the Global Entry line being gummed up for no apparently good reason. A finger-pointing exercise between AC and United then ensued, and we threw in the towel and got a hotel for the night, eventually making it home the next afternoon. Oh well – could have been much worse, we didn’t lose luggage at least, only having carry-on.
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