Laura's Vacation Blog

Friday, March 19, 2010

Portugal 2010

A cobblestone mosaic on the sidewalk.
Why Portugal? It's likely sunny and temperate in March, it has more than its fair share of World Heritage sites, likely due to the fact that it was a global empire from the 15th to 18th centuries and it has quite a viticulture that we were eager to sample close to the source. And here's the recap:

Saturday, March 6

Nothing much to talk about here since pretty much all we did was sit on airplanes or sit in airports. The fun starts on Sunday!

Sunday, March 7

We arrived in Lisbon at 6am (GMT). The customs line was long and slow so we have plenty of time to contemplate the comments overhead from a fellow American's mouth: "They [Obama's supporters] are all communists and Marxists and they want a me the birth certificate!" We hoped our itineraries would take us far apart from this fellow.

Rua Augusta in the Baixa

Finding our hotel without much trouble, we were able to check in ultra-early and take a much-needed nap. We woke up around 3pm in the afternoon and set out to explore Lisboa. We wandered the streets of the Baixa district all the way down to the Praça do Comercio and took an antique elevator up to the Barrio Alto where we strolled around and back down to the square near our hotel. We stopped for a drink at a Pastelaria and sampled the first of the many sweet pastries that vendors in Portugal sold to us. The Portuguese love their sweets about as much as Seattlites love their coffee. I think workers stop on the way home for a shot of espresso and a pastel de Belem (custard tart) as a ritual of the day. We tried (successfully) to make it a ritual of our days in Portugal too.

Our first meal in Portugal was something to get excited about. I had fish and Justin had pork and clams (Porco a Alentejana). Justin measured up every proceeding meal to this one and I’m not sure that he found another meal quite as tasty.

Monday, March 8

We woke up to rain and since most of the indoor activities (like museums) were closed on Mondays, we improvised a plan and made it work. First, we took the metro down to the river and went looking for the daily market. We found it thanks to my Portuguese language tapes that taught me to say, “Where is the location of …” Hooray! The market was a total disappointment with only a few vendors selling some fruits and veggies and most of the stalls completely empty.

Funicular de Gloria at the top of the hill

We made our way back to our hotel and found lunch and decided to take a tour on a trolley around the city. Aside from foggy windows in the trolley, it was a perfect way to spend a rainy day. We took a funicular (a trolley that runs up a steep hill) up to the Barrio Alto and found the Port Wine Institute that evening for some delightful tastes of this national drink. The Port Wine Institute was in this cool old building with lots of stone and exposed beams. It was a lounge where you sat and ordered a glass from their huge list of wines. They have probably 100 different port wines to try, most costing around 1-2 Euros/glass. What a deal!

Justin sampling a ruby port at the Port Wine Institute

Tuesday, March 9

Castle Sao Jorge with the city of Lisboa in the foreground

Time to check out the famous Castle in the center of Lisboa's Alfama district: Castle Sao Jorge. This castle was rebuilt and restored in the 1960s under Salazar after falling into complete ruin. Most of the walls had been knocked down and needed to be pieced back together to resemble the fortress that we see today. Like many of the castles in this country, this was built by the Moors many centuries ago and then captured by the Christians around the 12th century. When we visited, there was a team of archeologists restoring a recently discovered Islamic neighborhood adjacent to the castle.

Here I am patrolling the castle walls

Wednesday, March 10

Just outside of the center of Lisbon is an area called Belem with a wealth of World Heritage sites. The prime attraction is the Monastery of Jeronimos, a giant church and cloisters done in classic Manueline style architecture (of course! King Manuel commissioned this church). This huge building was financed with "pepper money", the tax on all of the spices that travelers brought back from the east. Here, Portuguese explorer Vaso de Gama is entombed.
Monastery of Jeronimos

Tomb of Vaso de Gama

Interior of Monastery of Jeronimos

Across the street from the church is the Monument to the Discoveries along the Tejo waterfront, a monument to Prince Henry the Navigator aka Infante. And down the road from that, about a 1/2 mile is another World Heritage site: the Tower of Belem which was closed to visitors when we were there but the exterior view was probably adequate.
Tower of Belem

After walking the length of the main drag, we found a little bar to have a beer and contemplated one more site: The Coach museum. This museum had about 50 restored horse-drawn coaches from all over Europe on display. Some of these were in amazing condition for their age--probably because they were largely used for carting around royalty and likely had a nice garage in which they were parked.

Royal Coach with gold leafed gods sitting on the tailgate

Thursday, March 11

Justin and I day-tripped it out to a little aristocratic escape called Sintra. Sintra is the host to a handful of palaces and castles amongst a bucolic setting. With all of its hills, the views of the landscape are breathtaking. When we finally made it up to a viewpoint, we could see hundreds of little parcels of land, dotted with the occasional wind turbine and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Here, we toured the National Palace, still in use today for some special occasions, Pena Palace and a Moorish Castle.

The National Palace photographed from the Moorish Castle

The National Palace was pretty empty so the main attraction were the tile walls and the painted ceilings. The kitchen was pretty interesting with these two giant exhaust hoods to funnel smoke from the fire under the spit.

Pena Palace on the other hand was fully furnished (these folks might have been horders by today's definition) and was full of eclectic architecture. The architect was either having a lot of fun or couldn't make up his mind. Either way though, it made for an interesting tour stop.

Pena Palace

Our final stop (thank god! we were tired from hiking up and down hillsides on uneven cobblestone) was the Moorish castle. This castle was quite similar to the one in Lisbon although the views were quite different and quite amazing.
Moorish Castle and beyond

Friday, March 12

Tomar is a little town in the middle of Portugal which probably would not have caught our attention, were it not for Justin's interest in the stories about the Templar Knights. The city of Tomar has the headquarters of this order of Knights, the Convent of Christ. It is a sweet little place, a little slower than the big city with a lovely river running through the center of town. As luck would have it, our cute little hotel was on an island in the middle of this river.

Lovely Tomar

We had two objectives for this town, get our dirty laundry clean and tour the Convent of Christ. The laundry was easy, despite the language barrier, since the only option was to drop it off an have it done and the convent was huge and amazing with a hint of spook.
Convent of Christ, Home of Portugal's Knights Templar

Saturday & Sunday, March 13 & 14

The lovely botanical gardens

From Tomar, we hopped a train to Coimbra, Portugal's college town. Host to both the historic university built around the 15th century and the modern day school graduating Portugal's best and brightest. We planned to poke around the university sites and check out some gardens as well as attend the weekend futbol matchup between FC Academica, Coimbra's professional team and FC Porto on Sunday. So after finding our hotel and shedding some layers of clothing (the weather was warming up), we visited the picturesque botanical gardens and dragged ourselves up the big hill to the university campus. The gardens were lovely, although it was a bit early in the year to see much in bloom. By the time we got to the campus, there wasn't much time left before the sites closed to tourists so we decided to walk into town and have a drink and look for a spot for dinner. About halfway though our meal, we noticed that the big soccer game on TV (every restaurant has a TV that is broadcasting some soccer game) was the game we were hoping to see. The league had moved up the game a day from their published schedule and hadn't told us! Bummer, because I think we would have had fun attending the game and rooting for the home team (although they lost to FC Porto 3-1).
The front door (check out the door in the door) of the old library.

On Sunday, we headed back up the hill to the university and checked out their historic buildings now on display for visitors and not used for education. One really cool fact that we learned is that the old library which was amazingly decorated with gold-leaf and ancient books has bats residing in its stacks. The librarians allow this because the bats eat insects that could destroy the old books. Every night, they lay down drop cloths throughout the building to catch any bat droppings and the cleaning staff tidies everything up in the morning before they open for visitors.

A view of Coimbra from the University. Notice the Futbol stadium in the background.

Monday, March 15

Ribeira view of Porto

Making our way further north to our final destination for this vacation, we arrived in Porto shortly after noon. Porto was alive with people everywhere probably breaking from their jobs and out for lunch. It was exciting to step off the train and find ourselves in the middle of a bustling city. After arguing about the directions to the hotel (literally, it was 3 blocks from the train station but the orientation was a bit confusing), we finally found it and check in. The hotel was really cute and we got a room with a balcony and view. Justin and I found a restaurant near the hotel for lunch and planned our walk down to the river to take a boat tour and have an aperitif of port.
The view from our room of Clerigos Tower.

We signed up and paid for a boat ride and took a stroll past the port wine lodges to kill some time before the boat departed. The other passengers on the boat were quite amusing. There were two women who appeared to be local tourists (they probably lived pretty close to Porto, although it is a bit difficult to eavesdrop in another language so perhaps I picked up on that incorrectly) who took about 300 photos of themselves posed on this boat. The boat ride was about 50 minutes down and up the Douro River, just shy of the Atlantic Ocean and under several of the bridges that span the river from Porto. Afterward, we sat down at the Kopke bar for a glass of port.
Justin cruisin' the Douro

Tuesday, March 16

Equipped with our tourist map with key sites highlighted, we struck out to find some sites to see. By this point in our trip, Justin and I were both a little tired of churches and museums, despite Porto's fine collections of both. We toured the interior of the Stock Exchange Palace, an incredibly ornate building that used to host more commercial activity but now is mostly used for tours and the occasional meeting by some local trade groups. Most of the building is decorated with cast plaster and then painted to resemble other things like metal, wood and granite. The craftsmanship is amazing.
Lighthouse at the beginning of the Atlantic

Right next to this Palace is the tram station so we caught a ride on the tram down the river out to the breakwater where the Douro River meets the Atlantic. Justin, feeling like he needed some symbolism, took off his shoes and dipped his toes in the water.
Come on in, the water's warm.

Later that afternoon, we bussed it over to the other side of the river to check out the Port Wine Caves. About 30 or 40 Port Wine makers call Porto their home and have these amazing facilities that are centuries old. The caves are multi-storied but dug down into the side of the hill to take advantage of the temperature and humidity that being underground offers to the port making process. The first place we visited, Croft, took us into the first level of their cellar where they have gigantic vats for aging LBV and hundreds of chestnut barrels for aging other varieties like tawny and vintage port. The chestnut barrels allow for a higher level of oxidation which induces a different flavor than the vat aging process. This was all very fascinating for someone who only discovered she liked port wine three months prior to this trip. After touring and tasting at Croft, we hiked further up the hill to Taylor for basically the same thing, a tour and a tasting. Fun times!
Barrels of Port Wine at Croft Cellars

Wednesday, March 17

Ramos...Ramos Pinto.

Our last full day of vacation meant that we needed to stock up on our souvenirs and squeeze in any last bits of site-seeing. We first headed to the market, a place similar to Seattle's Pike Place but without all of the arts and crafts. What a variety and what fun it would be to have a kitchen so that we could cook up a meal from here.
Fish seller at the market.

We made our way through the market and onto two other quintessential Porto establishments, the Majestic Cafe for a coffee and tea and their old world ambiance and the Lello & Irmao Bookstore for its neo-Gothic facade and double staircase. From there, we focused on finding a few souvenirs and buying some port wine to bring home. And, buying port wine meant a chance at tasting more port wine which had become our favorite pastime on this vacation. We visited Ramos Pinto where there was no tour and tasting wasn't free but Justin had sampled one of their ports at the Port Wine Institute in Lisboa and really liked it so we wanted to see their cellar and buy some of their wine. Our last meal was a light one, steamed clams, soup and the delicious Portuguese bread. It would only be 24 hours before we were back in Seattle struggling to burn up all of the calories we consumed eating Portuguese bread.
Delicious Portuguese bread.

Thursday, March 18

Ate logo, Portugal! We left on a big jet in the morning, arriving back in Seattle at 9:30pm local time.
Facing the Atlantic



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