Category Archives: Portugal

Sintra and More rain….Lisbon, Portugal

We had considered renting a car in Porto and driving south, stopping in a few places along the way and then dropping it off in Lisbon.  Despite rental cars being dirt cheap in Portugal, we heard too many horror stories about bad driving and disreputable car rental companies.  What sealed the deal was finding first class train tickets for only a few Euro more than regular ones – pays to book ahead.  We brought a picnic along and enjoyed our almost empty car for the three hour journey from Porto to Lisbon.

Arriving in Lisbon,  we walked in light rain to our apartment in the Alfama neighborhood.  Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and one of the oldest cities in the world, with Pre-Celtic and Phoenician roots.  Unfortunately, in 1755 a huge earthquake, tsunami and ensuing fires destroyed a huge portion of the city.  The new part was built in a grid using more flexible methods to withstand future quakes.  The Alfama is the oldest district and comes from the Arabic word meaning baths.  It was the Moors’ whole city and is a labyrinth of walking streets and small cobbled plazas.  It reminded me of the Albayzín in Granada, Spain – also with Moorish roots.

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1905 Santa Justo lift. Originally steam powered

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On our first full day, we opted to get a public transit day pass, partially because of the immense blisters on the bottoms of my toes, and partly because of the pouring rain.  Our first stop was the Museu Nacional do Azulejos, which is a great collection of the painted tiles typical of the area.  Riki took a ton of photos, which I assume will manifest themselves in some of his art in the future.  The incredible patterns still adorn so many buildings in Portugal and the museum explains the process and history of the tiles.

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Azulejos in the museum

From the museum, we took an incredibly packed tram to Belém, which translates to Bethlehem, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Lisbon.  It is home to a number of national monuments and public spaces.  The Belém tower is a UNESCO site from the 16th century.  It was used as protection of the estuary and the gateway to Lisbon.

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Belém Tower

Just upriver from the tower is a monument commemorating the Portuguese discoverers.  It shows Henry the Navigator and is made to look kind of like the front of a boat.  Behind it in the plaza is a world map showing the routes the Portuguese took.

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Monument to the Discoveries
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World map in the plaza

Since it was still pouring, we ventured into the free Berardo Museum of Modern Art.  And while you can encounter some interesting artists here, like Picasso, Dali and Warhol, there are a plethora of pieces I just don’t get.  The solid black canvas for instance.  But that’s just me, and Riki.  Those rooms we cruised through.

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Berardo Museum of Modern Art and me

Still in the rain, we walked to the Jerónimos Monastery, where upon discovering the 10 Euro entrance fee, opted for the free church next door, which sported some amazing Gothic features, and the tombs of Vasco de Gama and a poet, Luís de Camões.

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Luís de Camões tomb
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Igreja Santa Maria de Belém at the Jerónimos Monastery

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The most amazing escalator ever. We had to go down and come back up again. Levels out halfway through and then goes up/down again.

The weather was looking a bit better on our second full day, so we decided to take the train to Sintra.  Sintra is an old resort town just outside of Lisbon.  It is scattered with palaces and villas and was probably the highlight of our trip.  The Pena Palace, a 19th century UNESCO site is probably the most iconic palace in Sintra.  The palace is a converted monastery and was the summer residence of the kings.  It is brightly painted with  incredible Portuguese Romanticism architecture.   Despite arriving just in time for the Pena Palace opening, we had to ride a very packed bus up the hill.  Luckily, we were still able to beat the crowds and Riki got some amazing pictures without too many people.

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Pena Palace
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Main facade of Pena Palace with geometric Moorish pattern (blue part)
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View from Pena Palace
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Lower Entrance with King Ferdinand II’s coat of arms above
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Cabinet inside Pena Palace
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Pena Palace clock tower – the red part is the original monastery and the yellow was added later to create the palace
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Triton gateway – half man half fish

After touring the palace, we used what little sun was left to explore the neighboring gardens and park.  There is a microclimate in Sintra and the surrounding forests were lush and green.  And in true Riki fashion, we went in search of good views.

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And we found them, after climbing up rocks and through trees.

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Pena Palace selfie
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Pena Palace
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Shot of Pena Palace through a hole in a stone cross. My only photographic contribution.
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Moss covered wall @ the Lake of the Shell in the Pena Palace gardens
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Riki stone hopping
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Lake of the Shell, Pena Palace gardens
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Camellias in the moss
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Queen’s Fern Valley, Pena Palace gardens
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Palm in the Queen’s Fern Valley, Pena Palace gardens
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Queen’s Fern Valley, Pena Palace gardens
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Art installation in Pena Palace gardens

We then walked back up hill to the Moorish castle, a 10th century Muslim fort.  It was an outpost for Lisbon and a control tower for the Atlantic and the north.  The sun had pretty much disappeared by the time we got here.  Though the views were nice, it should probably be visited before the Pena Palace, because it is not much more than a pile of rocks in comparison.  There is an interesting archaeological site and the free binoculars let you check out the neighboring palaces.

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We spent the following two days wandering Lisbon, eating octopus (Riki) and Pastels de Nata(me), a delicious mini custard found almost everywhere.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Alfama

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Rossio train station entrance
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Parque Eduardo VII
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Guys filming flips in the Parque Eduardo VII

On our last day we discovered a market near Cais do Sodré where 20-something of the best restaurants are invited to have booths.  You can order a dish (octopus if your name is Riki) from any of the booths and then sit casually at long tables.  They even have a bunch of bars, so you can mix and match from all over.  This is especially useful if not everyone wants just octopus.

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TimeOut Market

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The coolest free thing we discovered was the Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros.  A bank sponsors a guided tour, in English, under their building where you can see remnants from the 5th-3rd centuries BC.  They explained the history of Lisbon providing fish for the Romans, the Islamic occupation and how the earthquake changed the way Lisbon’s buildings were constructed.  They even have a 5th-9th century skeleton displayed in his final resting place.  And the whole time you are walking around in the basement of a modern bank, trying not to hit your head as you wander through layers of history.

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Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros

For our last meal, we went back to the Time Out market, so someone could have more octopus.  The next morning we took a 10 Euro taxi to the airport, an unheard of thing for us, but when your $50 round trip flight leaves at 7:05 am, public transit is not an option.

Stay tuned for our Moroccan adventures.

A Rainy Porto and Guimarães….Northern Portugal

Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there.  And no warmth.  But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind.  And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures.  I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.

Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception.  I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted.  This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag.  But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked.  And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer.  But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.

We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip.  Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food.  Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come.  We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating.  And very good.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River.  Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors.  One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings.  Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine.  And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.

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Porto @ night
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Two story bridge with pedestrians and cars on the bottom and trams on the top
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Favorite balcony in town

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Porto streets
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Train station disappears into a tunnel

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Amazing Azulejos tiles in the São Bento train station

Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip.  And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation.  The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations.  So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket.  Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around.  We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.

Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here.  We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.

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Medieval castle and a break in the clouds
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Palace of the Dukes of Braganza and its many chimneys
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Palace and pigeon

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We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.

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Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.

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Porto beyond the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia

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That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full.  But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.

The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar.  Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden.  And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.”  Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything.  And roosters.

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Crystal Palace
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Inside the Crystal Palace

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Videos @ Peacock fight and Peacock Dance

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The males shake their feathers which makes an incredible noise, like a metallic hum – see video above

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Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.

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Mercado do Bolhão

The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings.  First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves.  Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise.  As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.

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Cormorants on traditional port delivery boats

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Huge barrels for tawny port making

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Getting artsy with our tastings, who knew they had white port?

On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever.  After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.

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Me with the double umbrellas

We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.

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Back in Porto and completely drenched, we continued back to our favorite spot, Ramos Pinto cellars to taste some more port.  They had the most casual set up and reasonable prices – 2 Euro and up per tasting.  We even splurged and tried a 6 Euro port.  Since they closed at 6 and we were still wet, we continued to another spot, Quevedo, where we tried a few more ports.  Disaster ensued as we were leaving though, as we discovered someone had traded umbrellas with Riki at the door, and left him with a rather floppy replacement.  And it continued to pour.

I’m not proud of our last meal in Porto, as we came across a Steak & Shake on our way home.  But considering that its been years since we ate a meal of burgers, fries and chocolate milkshakes – its ok.

Next up: First class train trip to Lisbon