- May 18, Thursday: Fly to Lisbon, Portugal
- May 19, Friday: Explore Lisbon
- May 20, Saturday: Explore Belem and fly to Sao Miguel, Azores
- May 21-24, Sunday-Wednesday: Explore island of Sao Miguel
- May 25, Thursday: Fly back to Lisbon, drive to Sintra and Evora
- May 26, Friday: Tour Evora, Obidos and overnight in Nazare
- May 27, Saturday: Tour Alcobaca, Batalha and Fatima and overnight in Coimbra
- May 28, Sunday: Tour Coimbra and drive back to Lisbon
- May 29, Monday: Fly back to US
Dates: May 18-29, 2017
I promise this isn’t going to be yet another article about why Portugal is “having a moment” in 2017 – in fact, I’d like to go on the record saying that Tim and I had been planning a trip to Portugal for a few years now, long before Travel & Leisure, the Huffington Post, Forbes and many others bestowed such accolades on Portugal as “travel destination of the year”. This will, however, be a chronicle of our adventures in this lovely country that we just happened to visit during its “moment” (so-designated because all the other western European countries have been over-covered in the travel mags and blogs, it’s relatively cheap, and has not had the same level of terrorism threats as England, France or Belgium in recent years).
And though I’m normally the one who decides where Tim and I travel, this was actually a destination he picked out a few years ago, during our 2014 RTW trip. Portugal wasn’t on our itinerary then, but Tim had said we should plan to come back to explore this country within the next few years. So, as our first vacation as a married couple, we ventured off for a week in Portugal and the Azores Islands.
We tagged our flight on to our business trips to Atlanta, so we flew from Atlanta to Lisbon via Madrid on a Thursday night red eye, landing in Lisbon mid-morning on Friday. We checked in to the Fontecruz Lisboa, an Autograph Collection Hotel with Marriott (booked using points), and were thrilled to be upgraded to the presidential suite. We were groggy and the king bed was inviting, but we wanted to make the most of our time so after freshening up and downing an espresso each, we ventured out to explore the city by foot.
We were following Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook recommendations and started with his three-part walking tour of Lisbon. We began by exploring the Alfama, the sailors’ neighborhood dating from the 6th century AD. Our first stop was to be the Sao Jorge Castle, but just getting there proved to be more challenging than we expected. Since you can see the castle sitting up on a hill from many points in the city, we thought it would be easy enough to navigate our way there.
We were wrong – as you get closer and closer to the hills, the streets and alleyways take ambiguous trajectories, and it was not long before Tim and I had walked in a near complete circle before realizing we had no idea how to actually get up to the castle itself. After a lot of walking in the wrong directions, we found a stairway that led to the top. Once at the top, we still had to find the castle entrance and the ticket office (which aren’t as close to one another as you might want).
Through all of this we ended up being very lucky- when we got to the ticket office, there was no line at all and the castle grounds themselves were not stiflingly crowded (a contrast, we would find, from some of Portugal’s other popular sites). Now a bit about this castle on a hill – it was originally built by the Moors in the 11th century as a home for the army, but was seized by Afonso Henrique (Portugal’s first king) in 1147 and was the royal home for centuries. The castle itself and the neighborhood surrounding it bare the marks of Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Portuguese dominance, testifying to the complex history of the region.
Departing from the castle hill, we meandered down through the castle town until we arrived at the Fado Museum. Wanting a break from the heat, we decided to pop in to the museum and learn about this Portuguese folk music. The museum itself was humble but informative. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for it, but if you are short on time and won’t have a chance to take in a live fado show (like us), then this is a good way to learn what all the fuss is about.
At this point we had worked up a substantial appetite, and when we saw the sign for paella at the restaurant across the street from the museum, we decided that was the spot for us (never mind that paella is more of a Spanish meal…).
After our meal, we continued on to the next part of the walking tour, into the historic downtown area (Baixa). The most fascinating stop for us in this part of town was the Church of Sao Domingos and the square just outside of it. This church is the most powerful visual reminder we saw of a tragic event that occurred in 1755 on All Saints’ Day Sunday – a massive earthquake that shook the entire city. The ceilings of churches like this one crashed in on their congregations, killing thousands in the rubble. Immediately following the quake, a 20-foot tsunami slammed the shoreline; meanwhile, candles that had fallen in the quake ignited what remained of the city in a fire that blazed for 5 days. All told, over 10,000 people died from this event. The Church of Sao Domingos has been more or less rebuilt, but the walls carry the marks of the earthquake and the subsequent fire. You can almost see the ghosts that must haunt this place.
The square outside the church has a story no less tragic. It once was home to a palace that was the center of the Inquisition (this palace was destroyed in an attempt to forget this part of history), was the site of a massacre of the town’s Jews in 1506, and served as the 16th century slave market. Between all of this and the earthquake/tsunami/fire, I can only think of a few other places Tim and I have visited with a comparably horrific history.
So yeah, that was heavy. Thankfully the next stop was for a drink! All around Lisbon small shops sell ginjinha, a potent mix of the cherry-esque ginja berry, sugar, cinnamon and brandy. It’s delicious, and inspired us to make our own take on it using a cherry bounce recipe back at home – yum!!
Following our ginjinha tasting, we made our way to the Bairro Alto neighborhood and to my second favorite stop of the day (the best is yet to come!)- the Port Wine Institute. Up until this trip, I thought I hated port wine. Tim and I had tried it once a few years ago when we were making a chocolate dessert recipe that called for a tablespoon of port wine and the only bottle at the store was a gallon size. We bought it anyway figuring we’d drink it (hey, it’s wine!) but it was so overwhelmingly sweet we ended up dumping it out. But coming to Portugal, the home of port wine, we opened our minds and decided to give it another shot (especially since our gallon of discount port was certainly low quality). We are so glad we did – at the Port Wine Institute (home of the most extensive selection of port wine) we tried both a white and a red port and loved them both. And we hadn’t even known there was such a thing as white port!
Our walk continued on through the Bairro Alto, where the highlight of the day was a visit to Cervejaria da Trindade, a bar that is actually a former monastery-turned-brewery. We enjoyed a few drinks each in the old refectory and soaked in the unique atmosphere before then making a tipsy visit to the largest used bookstore in Lisbon, Livraria Barateira. This is also the point at which we realized Rick Steves was trying to get us drunk. It worked.
By this time it was evening and the city was alive with people eating and drinking on outdoor patios. The atmosphere was festive and energetic, though we were losing steam after a full day of walking (my tracker on my cell phone said we went 12 miles!) on very little sleep.
We made our way back to our hotel and got a dinner recommendation for a seafood place just a few blocks away. Motivated by hunger, we hustled to the restaurant, ordered, and then ate in a zombie-like stupor before practically sleep-walking back to the hotel.
The next morning we ventured out to the Belem area of Lisbon. This is an historical area by the ocean that I think is best characterized as the tribute to Portugal’s seafaring exploratory past. We started by visiting the ginormous Jeronimos Monastery (it would be the first of many monasteries we’d set foot in in Portugal). King Manuel directed the construction of this white limestone church and monastery in 1495 in celebration of the Portuguese explorers’ success. Fun fact, the church was built near the location of a small chapel where sailors would pray the evenings before embarking on long voyages. The church and cloister are good examples of the “Manueline” style (the name of which comes from King Manuel and the many buildings he commissioned during his reign), which combines late Gothic and early Renaissance attributes.
Exploring the monastery was – at first – very overwhelming. There were large cruise ship tourism groups funneling and shuffling into the church (which is free to enter). Tim and I were planning to tour the monastery itself anyway so we thankfully got to take a shorter line inside the monastery to buy our tickets and then set off to explore. The cloisters are the most notable feature here – beautiful arches and columns line the halls surrounding the grassy green lawn.
We were also, thankfully, able to get a pretty good view of the church (without waiting in the maddening line) from the upper level balcony that looked down into the sanctuary.
After touring the sanctuary, we headed over to the shoreline where there is a long boardwalk lined with craft stalls and food carts, all next to the Monument to the Discoveries. This monument, first erected in 1940, also honors Portugal’s age of exploration, but the coolest part, in my opinion, is the map of the world charting the exploration routes on the ground in front of the statue.
At the opposite end of the Belem area from the monastery is the Belem Tower, which has guarded the harbor since the 1500s. We were short on time and it was hot outside, so we didn’t make the schlep to get close, but allegedly it offers interesting views from the top.
Before heading back to hotel, we stopped at a famous pastry shop – Casa Pasteis de Belem – which is known as being the birthplace of Portugal’s delicious cream tart (pastel de nata). They serve them up fast and warm and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. I ate probably a dozen during this trip.
We then headed back to our hotel to catch a ride to the airport – we were setting off 930 miles west of mainland Portugal for 5 nights in the mysterious Azores Islands!