October 12, 2015 · 4:13 am
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?
October 6, 2015 · 9:42 pm
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.
October 5, 2015 · 10:25 pm
Really glad we talked ourselves into visiting Porto, Portugal’s’ second largest city. I wasn’t looking forward to navigating the city streets to find our out-of-the-way pensione but the city was worth the occasional wrong turn(s). We ended up staying on the street known for its bohemian art scene and little designer shops, which was a pleasant surprise. Pensao Favorita, on Miguel Bombarda, is a charming place. Beyond the imposing front door is a warmly retro and minimalist 12-room place. We were warmly welcomed (with glasses of port, of course) and our room was in a pretty garden, among a small row of new brick buildings, with a wooden deck pathway lined with succulents. Next door is a cool little shopping space (Centro Comercial Bombarda) with lots of small shops, including a good place we followed people to for lunch today…a mellow cafeteria style display with excellent grilled chicken served with several sides (lentils, beans). We ate last night at Bugo Art Burgers, a fun little burger place that was so packed on a Friday night that we ate at the bar, chatting with the sweet young women working there. We picked two burgers that were made with Porto products (namely Port) and they were great.
Porto Riberia district
enough about the food. The sights were dazzling too. We loved Porto’s Ribeiria district, with white-and-blue tile-fronted buildings spilling down to the river. Charming even with the tourists and glad to see the laundry whipping in the wind. Also enjoyed touring the stunning stock exchange building, walking up elegant Rue de Flores past astonishing blue and white painted tile churches and buildings, and visiting the Mercado do Bolhao on Saturday morning (where we found russet apples, a favorite I can’t find in Iowa and have found only in Michigan and Spain). We also sauntered down the main shopping street (no cars) with the crowds to have coffee at the elegant Majestic Cafe (recommended by our pensione folks).
Cool Porto Hotel (felt Japanese)
Our first day we also took the rickety #1 tram out along the river to the start of the Atlantic, where we found a cool glass-walled but open air cafe, called Shis, perfect for a light snack and beer on a stunningly beautiful afternoon.
Last night we made the mistake of wandering around after dinner without our map and had a heck of a time finding our way back to our hotel in the dark. Today we tried to see the Rem Koolhaas Music Hall but tours were booked in advance until 4 pm (when we arrived before noon) so we checked out a nearby synagogue (not only closed but very secured, with a gate, barbed wire fence and a guard dog) and the elegant homes near it.
Dirck and I both decided that if we had to choose between a visit to the north or south of Portugal we would pick north. Granted we are not beach people but we love the rugged scenery and the elegant architecture of the north.
Tonight we are in the medieval town of Obidios, about an hour from the Lisbon airport which we fly out of tomorrow. Charming old place but packed with tourists, as expected. Much quieter tonight as I type on the terrace of our rustic Casa do Regolio outside the walls of the city,which are lit up gently tonight. We skipped the restaurants inside the walls, opting instead for some cheese and fruit.
October 3, 2015 · 7:33 pm
We can confirm that grapes really are stomped to make port here in the Douro Valley! We witnessed two guys doing this last night at Quinta da marrocos, the charming farm/winery where we are staying in an old room with rough stone walls, lots of old wood furniture and a stupendous view across the river at a large green and yellow slope ribboned with stone walls and vineyards.
One of the stompers was even drinking a beer for awhile while thigh high in purple grape juice. Amazing. We had dinner and “a visit”, a long tutorial from the fourth generation owner of this vineyard, which started with touring the vines and ended, of course, by drinking many different ports. (I preferred the 20-year-old pricey stuff of course)
Today we drove west to Pinhao, a laid back little fishing village and took a two hours slow-mo boat ride up the river between high hills lined with vineyards and the occasional white stucco or grey stone vineyard/hotel (including one visited by Bradangelina and another by former Brit PM John Major. We ended up driving north to Alijo and having a picnic of cheese, prosciutto (whatever the Portuguese version is called) and fruit at a long picnic table in a shady sleepy square in Favaios. Then we ended up taking what turned out to be a terrifying but dazzling drive on a one lane road out of Castedo that led us onto the roads carved into the hillside that I assume are most used by grape harvesters. Dirck did a great job of driving while I kept saying “Go slow, go slow!” and tried not to look at the sheer drop below.
Village in Duoro Valley (Favaios, I think)
Tonight, to celebrate surviving our harrowing drive we had dinner at the elegant DOC restaurant just up the road in a dramatic modern building with an outdoor deck jutting out into the river.
So glad we came here!
September 29, 2015 · 9:19 pm
(A few days after the fact:)
We are in the ancient college town of Coimbra tonight, aka the Oxford of Portugal, staying in a four-bedroom guesthouse, Quebra Luz, in the old part of the city just below the old cathedral. We are amazed we found this tiny place. Somehow we drove up a very narrow stone road, turned a few corners and we were in the right place. That doesn’t happen every day. The town feels much smaller and less touristy than Lisbon and lots of students around, wearing their serious black capes.
It was an easy drive, about two hours, from the Lisbon airport where we said a sad goodbye to our pals Francine and Russ, who returned to London after spending the morning exploring the cute little shops north and west of our hotel, around Principle Real (north of Barrio Alton) visiting the charming house of the great Fado singer Amalia Rodriguez. Last night we ate at one of our hotel’s two restaurants, the Decadente, which was jam-packed with a young interesting crowd. The food was very good too.
Dirck at Coimbra restaurant where guests post messages on the wall
Tonight we went to a very different place for dinner, Restaurant ze Manuel de Ossos, a six-table restaurant tucked away in a narrow alley. It specializes in traditional Portuguese food. The place had a line by 7:15 p.m., even before opening. We sat in a little alcove covered with handwritten notes taped to the wall by customers singing he restaurants praises’. We had the famous Ossos (pork bones) and pork belly in a special sauce. Excellent.
Amalia Rodriguez home in Lisboa
Filed under Portugal
Tagged as Portugal
September 28, 2015 · 6:41 pm
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.
September 28, 2015 · 6:14 pm
Monasterio in Belem
Busy day and late night so will be brief. Highlights:
- Dinner last night at Leopold, a five-table place with almost experimental food, with an emphasis on using the freshest and most indigenous ingredients available here. All diners were served a six or seven course tasting menu of concoctions we could never duplicate and will never eat again. Delicious.
- Visit to the stunning Monasterio in Belem, where we even got to hear a choir singing Congolese (we think) songs. Talk about great acoustics.
- Lunch at the fantastic Mercado de Ribera, a mammoth food hall with dozens of equally appetizing options.
- The revived waterfront which was packed with people on a sunny Sunday and the elegant Placo de commerce (?) on the river
- Shopping at Pull and Bear, a Spanish version of H&M where we got some stuff to replace what was stolen (the fun part of getting your car broken into…)
- A delicious dinner of tapas and heartbreaking Fado music in a tiny room at Povo (with Sardines and octopus and beer at the nearby Sol de Pesce, a clever little bar with shelves lined with tins of sardines and anchovies and tuna and decorated with fishing gear. Clever.
Fado at Povo
September 26, 2015 · 5:41 pm
#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
Filed under Portugal
Tagged as Lisbon, Portugal, Tram
September 25, 2015 · 11:23 pm
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.
September 24, 2015 · 9:28 pm
We have been staying for the past three days in a remarkable place — a once dying village tucked deep in a valley in the western Algarve. Someone bought the old village, fixed it up and now runs it as a eco tourism village. And it works! We have a little row house (for lack of a better word)… A white stucco one-bedroom place on a narrow cobbled lane. Aldeia de Padralva, we discovered tonight, also has an excellent restaurant where we had black acorn-fed pork kebabs and spicy Piri Piri (a Portuguese spicy chili).
Mostly, we have been eating seafood plucked right out of the Atlantic including fish stew (cataplana) and grilled prawns in oil and garlic and grilled sardines. Delicious! A highlight was the Michelin-starred restaurant in the nearby village of Villa do Bispo called A Eira do Mel (We ate a cataplana of wild shrimp, cubes of pork and Portuguese sausage in a delicious broth. It was served for two in a large pot with rice, followed by homemade lemon ginger ice cream) and at a seafood place right over the little bridge from the Mercado in the moorish city of Aljezar (grilled sardines, shrimp sauteed in garlic). We also ate at Site de Forno overlooking the beach near the town of Cappeietera.
It’s not been all about the food. The scenery is spectacular – dramatic black stone cliffs along the Atlantic Coast, with wild waves crashing into jagged rocks in the water, perfect sandy beaches, lots of wind. We walked today in the morning from Casteljho beach to another beach a little to the north, with fisherman somehow fishing on the jagged rocks in the water. We also went to the beach in the tiny town of Salema on the Mediterranean side, which was much calmer but very cold. We braved the water anyway.
Cork purses for sale in Lagos
Also enjoyed the fort at Sagres (which did feel like the end of the earth, as people once thought it was pre-Christopher Columbus), roaming around the resort town of Lagos and exploring the Moorish village of Aljezur. I am so glad we stayed on the western Algarve instead of on the southern coast which is chockablock with high rises. This area is a national park so protected from development. Amen.
One mishap: our car was broken into while we were roaming around a beach area the first day. Fortunately we didn’t lose anything crucial (passports, credit card, glasses etc) and I had a good excuse to buy a little cork purse (a Portuguese staple.)