Portugal Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Portugal, March 2012.

The flight to Madrid was mostly uneventful. We made it to Chamartin Train Station within one hour from arrival, found a locker to store our bags and took the metro to Atocha station, at the center of the museum district of Madrid. How lovely it is to be back to this arty area full of museums (Prado and Reina Sofia included) and the Jardin Garden and Retiro. We hung around the area, walking in and around the gardens. We enjoyed crisp churros (reminding us of our favorite Beijing donuts -- yum) with strong Spanish coffee. When the time came, we boarded our overnight train heading west to Lisbon, where we connected to a train continuing to Porto. The bunk beds in our small family suite (photo, on the train) were comfortable and cozy. We enjoyed a romantic dinner in the dining car under the full moon, with some tasty green wine.

We woke up early and went back to the dining car for a complimentary breakfast on board. Our connection at Lisbon's Oriente Station was a piece of cake. We were on-board a train to Porto within 20 minutes. The ride was delightful with sunny countryside passing by. Our hotel in Porto was 10 minutes on foot from the station, uphill through narrow cobble-stone alleys (photo, street scene). We checked in and left our bags, heading out toward downtown where there are beautiful old churches on almost every corner. Many have unique blue painted tile designs on the exterior walls. Among them, the Igreja San Francisco and the Cathedral (photo, Porto Catedral) stand out. We went to a local restaurant for lunch at 3pm, a late one for us, but typical for the locals. Richard had the famous salt cod and Barbara had sardines plus a typical rice/bean/vegetable casserole. We were the only people in the cafe not having wine with lunch. We could not stand up much longer after our big meal and two days nonstop traveling, so after a long walk along the city wall and the north bank of the river, taking in some spectacular views, we got back to our hotel room and crashed.

The next morning we started early with a hearty breakfast, and were out the door before 9am heading towards the colorful local market via two other churches (photo, tile work). The market is lively on a weekend morning. We visited the well known bakery and got a couple of giant natas (egg custard), obtained a 24-hour metro pass for two and took the metro to the Casa de Musica (photo, fun architecture), a very cool place for everyone to experience music activities and even explore their own creativity in producing and recording their own sounds. We thought Seattle's Experience Music Project could learn some things from the Casa! The community center is equipped with state-of-the-art computers and up-to-date software, hooked up to keyboards, drum machines and others -- all free to the public to use. We saw local kids coming in, apparently regulars diving into their own world of recording and mixing and who-knows-what through their headphones. We enjoyed a late lunch at a tiny shop, where the waiting line extended out to the sidewalk and down the street. The spicy beef sandwich and crisp fried chicken (smaller than a pigeon) are the main offerings in the place. After lunch we took a climb up the tall tower (Barbara forgot to write down the name -- oops!). At the top, we enjoyed a 360 degree panorama of the city under picture-perfect skies. We walked down to ride the local metro across the upper level of Dom Luis I Bridge. Tired and hungry at 6pm, we couldn't hold out for dinner like locals till 8 or 9pm. So we ate at a local diner close to our hotel with halal beef and a Turkish pizza, went back to our hotel and passed out immediately.

Our third and last day in Porto was a Sunday. Ninety-five percent of the businesses are closed, including restaurants. But museums are open! We had an adventure riding the local buses. We learned at a downtown bus stop that the route we expected to use doesn't operate on Sunday, as pointed out by some friendly local folks. They very sweetly helped us despite our non-existent Portuguese and their rather limited English. So first, we rode all the way way out to the Atlantic Ocean beach. We spent about half an hour at the beach, looking in at the Castle De Joje (photo, castle). From there we continued to the Museum of Contemporary Arts (photo, sculpture) and to the National Museum. Both museums are small and well maintained. Barbara liked the sculptures by Antonio Soares Dos Ries, such as Exile, as well as two Portuguese Naturalists painters' works. In the late afternoon, we made it back to the train station, picked up some take away lunch/dinner combo, and boarded the train to Lisbon. Adios Porto.

Getting into Lisbon in the evening with 4 nights booked in an apartment proved to be a bit of a challenge. We arrived on foot at the apartment building, which looked like a regular urban apartment with a card controlled access, but had no idea how to get in. A French couple happened to come back to the building and offered great help. It turned out our off-site management messed up the security code. We tried three different access cards from the secured slots, but none would open our studio apartment. The manager finally had to come personally, which takes more than 45 minutes from the other side of the city. By the time we got into the newly furnished unit, it was very late. The lodgings themselves were sweet, though!

Next morning, we hopped on a bus right outside our apartment, and found the tourist office next to the Triumphal Gate (photo, Praca do Comercio) to redeem our 72 hour Lisbon card, which gives us unlimited access to all the trams, local trains, buses and funiculars, plus free entry to major attraction sites and museums, discount to tours and local fado show, etc. It turns out the card also let us bypass much of the queuing at ticket sales windows and such, which provides huge advantage at the most popular and busy sites. We recommend the card as a must-have for anyone who wants to see the city in a short period. From the plaza, we proceeded to get some breakfast from a trendy Chiado cafe and took the legendary Tram 28 to the end of the line. At the top of the hill there are high viewpoints with a bird's eye view of the city -- countless red tile roofs, and a suspension bridge over the river (photo, view over Lisbon). We had a very nice lunch at a doner joint in the Alfama neighborhood, and spent a good chunk of the day at the St George's Castle (photo, castelo) dated back from 5th Century. We saw some kids with a school outing, there teachers dressed as Roman soldiers, lecturing the kids (photo, school kids) on the Castle ground. A musician played classical and Spanish guitar in an inner courtyeard, creating a beautiful echo. On the way home, we stopped at the Cathedral (photo, Lisbon Catedral). Lisbon is full of churches. And just like Porto a lot of people go to mass right after work at 6pm before heading home for dinner, which is usually quite late.

Second day in Lisbon saw us up early and back to Alfama via bus, with a nice breakfast at the bus stop cafe. It seems there's one on every other corner in the city, where people pop in for a coffee standing up. We learned the Thieves Market (photo, market day) is open today, spread out along the hillside behind the Pantheon. It is said to be the largest flea market in the country. You can find anything here, from antique tools and hardware to a half-used bottle of shampoo. Barbara found a cute Portuguese porcelain pig for one Euro. After stopping for a fuel of coffee and chocolate croissant, we continued to climb up the nearby National Pantheon, which houses the remains of Vasco Da Gama and the contemporary heroine Amalia Rodrigues, a beloved Fado singer. The view from the top floor around the dome is spectacular. Next door is Sao Vicente De Fora Church, which is covered by the lovely blue and white Portuguese tiles with intricate designs, depicting stories and fables (photo, view from Sao Vicente). We liked the tiles so much we decided to continue on the bus to see the Tile Museum (photo, more azujelos), which did not disappoint. The exquisite blue and white tiles are indeed Portuguese jewels. Coming back to Chiado, we stopped at the Museum of Chiado, housed in an old monastery that had beeen destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. It showcased the local contemporary artists with some multi media objects. As an art museum docent, Barbara made a rather funny mistake -- sitting down on a piece of art, titled "We all feel better in the dark". The piece is displayed in a darkened room where a video piece is constantly running, and is shaped roughly like a black hammock chair made from black nylon fabric with plastic in the center with the title statement. It looked very inviting, but as soon as she sat on it all the museum staff came running signaled violently for her to get up. Happily, there was no damage, but she was under watchful eyes for the rest of the visit. We sort of fled the museum in embarrassment. We had a snack for dinner before going to hear some fado. The performance was at a small theatre in Chiado. A woman and a man singing with one bass guitar and one 12 string Portuguese guitar. The singing was beautiful and emotional but the Portuguese guitar player, the leader of the group, is truly a master, the playing brought tears to our eyes.

Our last tour day in Lisbon, we got very ambitious, taking an early morning west bound bus to Belem, a 20 minutes bus ride from our hotel. We hit the most famous nata shop, Antiga Confeitaria de Belem (photo, before the rush), which has been operating since 1837. Natas are a sweet pastry, a bit like egg custard in Chinese dim sum, which was originally adapted from Portuguese through folks in Macau. The ones at the Antiga are made of very flakey and crisp pastries, filled with warm egg custard, dusted with cinnamon. It is heaven in your mouth. We arrived at to the Tower of Belem (photo, Belem Tower) just before their opening hour, and used our Lisbon card to bypass the ticket line. Climbing up the tower to see Lisbon and its bridge (photo, view) from a distance is nice, but the tower itself is worth every step of the climb. The design and architecture are stunningly beautiful and unique, combining Renaissance with Arab influence into one perfect combination. We then visited the UNESCO listed St. Jerome Monastery (photo, facade), another architecture wonder. The courtyard is framed with delicately scalloped arches and drips with organic details (photo, courtyard). The columns are carved with intertwined leaves, vines and knots (photo, architecture detail). Every surface is a surprise and the design is often out of your imagination. It is hard to describe with words, other than "wow". We stopped for an al fresco lunch at Bem Belem featuring sardines and squids, all delicious. Before quitting Belem, we returned to the same pastry shop from earlier and ordered more natas and washed them down with coffee latte.

In the afternoon, we abandoned our original plan of looking in on the Antique Art Museum and Oriental Museum. Instead, we rather spontaneously took a train out of town for 40 minutes, reaching the wonderland of Portugal – Sintra, where you see fairy-tale exotic gardens and glittering palaces on the rippling mountain tops, covered by dewy forests rolling down to the blue Atlantic. The Pena Palace is the jewel of all, as much a fairyland castle as the Neuschwanstein outside Munich. The architecture is strangely exciting. It again combines the Renaissance, classic Arab designs and some oriental influence (photo, Pena Palace). Every time you turn a corner, another style emerges, from Catholic to Muslim to Indian, all linked together (photo, another view). The royal family lived here for about 200 years til the last king gave the country to the republic in 1910.

Our last night in Lisbon, we want to see another Fado performance, right in the heart of Alfama, the birthplace of Fado, across the street from the Fado Museum. The dinner at the restaurant (photo, restaurant) is a bit pricey, but comes with Fado veteran singers, seasoned, hollow eyed, lots of wrinkles, all made their singing so fado. An older gentleman, playing his guitar and singing at the same time, pounding on his guitar from time to time, a sensational performance that will last in our memory for a long time. This is a perfect full stop to our visit. Good bye the gate (photo, Praca do Comercio) of Portugal.