Betsy in Evora
We never really got clear information information from United about what was involved in flying their airline for two of our three flights to get to Lisbon from Des Moines and flying Air Canada the last leg, between Toronto and Lisbon.
They were fine with selling us the pricey plane tickets that included the Air Canada flight but seemed to know little about the particulars. (We even had to call Air Canada to book seats for the Toronto-Lisbon-Toronto flights. United wouldn’t do it.) So when we couldn’t get a clear answer about whether our bags could be checked straight through to Lisbon (or if we would have to pick them up in Toronto and transfer them to Air Canada,) we opted to carry on our luggage. (And had to surrender our Swiss Army knife in the process.)
Dirck at Coimbra restaurant where guests post receipts on the wall
We were glad to have our bags when our planned two-hour layover in Toronto outbound evaporated as we were sat on the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare. At one point it looked like we would have to wait two hours to fly to Toronto (we didn’t find out until later that a storm had shut down the airport) but fortunately our delay ended up being one hour. We ran through the airport, went through some sort of expedited Canadian customs and easily made our 10 p.m. connecting flight. (Phew! If we had missed that flight we would have had to stay overnight in Toronto and wait until 4:30 pm for a flight to Newark and then get an 8 pm flight to Lisbon.)
It was Canadian travelers whom we met in Toronto outbound who told us that on our return trip we would be able to go through U.S. Customs in Toronto, before catching out next flight to Houston. This was a relief since we had a two-hour layover in Toronto but only an hour layover in Houston (which means we would probably miss our flight to Des Moines if we had to go through customs there). I couldn’t get anyone to confirm this from the airlines but it is in fact what happened. Phew!
meanwhile the air canada planes there and back were old and cramped with NO movie screens. The only option was to use our laptops (or rent one) and get movies via an airline app. Huh?
Obidos at night
A few days late: This morning, at 8 am on a Sunday, we had the ancient walled in city of Obidos all to ourselves. Quite a change from the crush of tourists we shared it with on Saturday afternoon. Sunday morn, it was suddenly charming. We walked to the Mirrodouro, the scenic viewing spot near the city ramparts and looked out at the fields and villages stretching out to the Atlantic, about six miles away. Ancient churches, stone fortress towers lined with blue and white tiles, purple, red and pink bougainvillea spilling over white stucco cottages.
Obidos at morn
Now we are on flight one (of three) to go home. Some thoughts:
– Portugal’s sights and scenery are well worth the trip. We spent about the right amount of time in various spots …possibly could have used a second night in Porto, especially to take in the street scene and see some of the contemporary architecture (Rem Koolhaas’s House of music, the modern art museum.)
– The food was better than expected. It’s not Italy but what is? The seafood, pork, beef were all excellent — even the goose barnicles. We grew too fond of the custard tarts (pastia de nata) and sort of like Port now. (But the gingha/cherry liquor, not so much.)
– Bathrooms are readily available and exceptionally clean in places like tourist sites, restaurants, and shopping areas. We appreciated.
– The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) clearly isn’t happening here (why should it be but….). Lots of steps to walk up everywhere with no other options. And basic safety measures like guardrails (on narrow roads high in the Douro valley or on the edge of the ramparts we walked along in Obidos) not to be found.
– We stayed at seven places, none a dud, all with lots of character and charm, some hipster vintage, others rustic unassuming. Average price $89, with a high of $118 in Lisbon and low of about $45 in Obidos and Coimbra. Our only issue: the occasional too-hard mattress or loud neighbors.
Best breakfast hands down: The Independente in Lisbon, served (on third floor terrace with a dazzling view) by cheerful Lourdes (from Cape Verde) who made perfect scrambled eggs.
– If forced to choose between exploring north or south of Lisboa, we choose north but both are well worth visiting.
Pena palace, Sintra
With Lourdes, server extraordinaire at the Independente
Hard core tourist stuff today which was ultimately worth it but not always fun. I was excited to go to Sintra, about a 30-minute train ride northwest to the mountains by the coast to see some of the incredible architecture there but knew it would be mobbed with tourists, as it was.
Still the Pena Palace with its fairy-tale turrets and ramparts high on a mountain above the clouds, with a view below that stretched for miles, was ravishing. Loved the colors of the palace too — mustard yellow, deep rouge, blue and white tiles. We had a sandwich for not inflated prices at the little place near the entrance which was much less crowded then the cafeteria at the exit to the castle. Then we took the shuttle bus (5 euros and worth the price) down the hill to the old city to tour the National Palace, which was also astonishing with ornate tiled rooms, gold leaf and painted wood and stone details and two very cool giant white chimneys resembling milk bottles, which added to the other- worldliness. But we frequently got stopped and stuck between very large tour groups, which got oppressive. Next time: start earlier. I wanted to tour some of the other impressive houses but two was enough for one day.
Lisbon view from park across the street from our hotel
Back in Lisbon we hit happy hour in the kiosk of the lovely overlook and park across from our hotel and drank beer and lemonade at a wood table with a glorious view of the city, with the castle high on the hill and the blue riverfront and all the city in between and around.
Our hotel, the Independente, has been great, perfect location, good price (about $117 per night), funky but comfortable and clean, with a terrific breakfast served by a very cheerful woman named Lourdes who is originally from Cape Verde.
#28 Tram Ride!
Great day. Fantastic breakfast on the third floor terrace of our funky hip hotel, then we took a taxi to the western end of the # 28 tram to secure a seat the entire route though the city. Not to be missed! Great to rumble through the narrow streets and hills past pastel-colored facades and the occasional faded tile facade.
We found a cute cafe Pois Cafe for a light lunch (sardine crumble) near the cathedral, then we wandered up and down the hills of Alfama, the charming 18th century post-earthquake neighborhood with terraces looking out across the red tiled roofs to the river in the distance. A highlight was the Menino Deus church, which we happened upon on the very first day it was open to the public. (It used to be FNO…for nuns only). Didn’t look like much from the outside — a flat stone facade but inside, stunning baroque church with intricate marble and tile and trompe d’oille paint work. We didn’t go onto the castle grounds but walked around the little hillside village beside it and stumbled upon a great little cafe that replicated a tram inside and had surprisingly good pastries, ice cream and quiche.
Another tram ride (our 3 day Lisbon card was a good investment) and another walk near the theater where we sampled some cherry liquor and then walked past the fabulous Art Deco Edens theatre, where people were hanging out on the top near the fantastic glass towers. This city has such charm and verve!
Francine and Russ
After a somewhat nerve-wracking four-hour drive up to Lisbon from Pedralva in the Algarve (the last straw was the engine warning light going on about an hour and a half outside the city and the car suddenly loosing energy but fortunately regaining) we rendezvoused at the Lisbon airport with our old friends Francine and Russ who flew in from London.
We bought a three-day transportation pass for 39 euro each and rode the metro to Rossi station where we hauled our suitcases up a very steep and long hill (which we later learned is where the wonderful old funicular goes up and down) to the grand old pile that is the Independente Suites and Terraces. It’s a three-story old mansion with lots of faded Old World charm and funky art every where. We rode a strange very small elevator up to our second floor room (rather than walk with our bags) and into a charming high ceiling-ed room with dramatic art, big long windows that open like French doors and night lamps made out of old plumbing pipes.
We wandered around our neighborhood which is across the street from a tile-stoned park with an overlook where we can see across the city to the Castle and river in the distance. We walked to an amazing old mansion that has been turned into small shops showcasing local designers called Embaixada and a slightly less grand mansion near by called Entre Tanto. Tonight we took the funicular down the hill and walked past the gorgeous art nouveau theater to Cercejaria Ramaro, a famous seafood restaurant that already had a line out the door. We squeezed,our way in and our 7:30 reservation was eventually honored. The seafood was phenomenal. Shrimp, lobster, clams, even goose barnacles, all incredibly fresh and flavorful, simply prepared because there was no need to do much. The place was packed, with room after room of loud happy people cracking crustaceans. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.
Hard to believe that in my youth, I rarely planned trips and never used guidebooks. In middle-age, with limited time to travel, a slightly bigger budget and advanced pickiness, I’ve taken to booking lodging and sometimes meals in advance using an array of guidebooks and travel articles. Here’s what’s come in handy for Portugal:
Lonely Planet guide – Got this from the public library and have used primarily to find lodging and bone up on cultural activities.
Rick Steves’ guide – It’s not as detailed as the Lonely Planet guide but Rick was helpful in narrowing down where to go during a two-week period. His guide is not as encyclopedic as Lonely Planet – with info on far fewer locations and for the locations it does list, offering fewer options. I didn’t use his lodging suggestions much – Lonely Planet had a wider range, more interesting off-the-beaten-track places and good subtitles like “rural inn” to help narrow things down. I don’t like big hotels or resorts. I prefer smaller family-run places where you can sort of get a feel for what real life is like and connect a little with locals/local life. But I think Rick’s guide will be helpful for actual sight seeing, with some good walking tours in places like Lisbon and Porto…
Newspaper travel stories – The NYTimes has a few including a story on The Other Algarve (which I found a bit late, after I’d spent considerably time trying on my own to figure out the least touristy places to visit) and a 36 Hours Lisbon; But I also found some really helpful stories from the Travel Channel (Anthony Bourdain’s show), the British press including some stories from the Telegraph and the Guardian, plus Afar magazine.