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Trip Report Lisbon and Porto

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I’m usually told that reading my prose is better than Ambien so will try to keep this brief and informative. Having just reread this; I realize what I have always known. Whenever somebody says they are going to be brief, you know you're in trouble.

I’ve never wanted to go to Portugal but after the last eight or ten trips to Italy in a row, Jack wanted to go someplace different and he picked Lisbon and Porto. We had been watching a House Hunters International program about an English woman who ended up purchasing a ruin on a hill at an attractive price and that was all it took for him to decide this was someplace he wanted to visit.

LISBON

We arrived in Lisbon around 1500 on a beautiful spring day on 22 March. I’ve never liked tours so we do everything on our own. Someplace I read about the Lisboa card which at 36 Euro for 72 hours turned out to be a great value. We didn’t think we would use it that much, but it turns out we actually saved money by buying it. It is good for limited train service and on all the local buses, trams, and metro. With the hills in Lisbon we found ourselves using transportation much more than we expected even though we both prefer to walk. The 28 tram that is so prominent in all the pictures and many comments is something you may want to try just to say that you did it, but try not to ride when it’s overcrowded – it is not fun then.

We stayed at the Avenida Palace Hotel (http://www.hotelavenidapalace.pt) in a suite which was an exceptional value since I had booked early. The hotel is centrally located and very well maintained. I cannot speak highly enough for it. Everybody there treated us like valued guests, which, sadly, is not always the case in hotels; especially considering our very unkempt appearance on arrival. They maintain an excellent breakfast room with a large variety of eggs, meats, cheeses, cereal, freshly squeezed orange juice. Service is outstanding. Will definitely return here in the future.

The first night we just walked around the Baixa and chose a tourist trap restaurant at random, the food was quite good though horribly overpriced. My first exposure to Portuguese wine was here. Nine euros for a half bottle; later saw a full bottle in a store for 3.50 euros. Seemed very good at 9 euros, would have been exceptional at 3.50. I had no ideas about Portuguese wines other than Port. Everything I tried was very good. I’ve always touted American wines for their quality and value but they definitely lose to Portugal. I shouldn’t admit this but I bought a small box wine for 0,49 euro expecting it to be rot and it turned out to be very drinkable. Admittedly, I am not a great connoisseur anymore, but I don’t think many will be disappointed in what they try.

Our first full day was gorgeous; we took tram 15 to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in Belem. This was free with our Lisboa cards. This place is on the not to be missed list and deservedly so. Fantastic architecture, we spent quite a bit of time here. Attached to the Monastery is the National Archeology Museum which is also free with the card and has some nice pieces, the mosaics are exceptional.

Then across the street, through a nice little park, through an underpass and we arrived at the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument which is MASSIVE. It reminds me of something Mussolini might have built but Jack was fascinated by it.

A right turn and short walk brought us to Torre de Belem, a defensive tower from the 1500s that shows that not all military structures need to be dull. We took tram 15 back to the area of the hotel and rested a bit.

Jack is a vegetarian and uncompromising about it. I had read that there was a great Italian pizzeria in Lisbon across from Santa Apolonia station so we decided to try it. The metro station is right outside the hotel so it was an easy, free trip. When we exited the station and looked across the street, I thought the restaurant Casanova must have closed because there was nothing but a single unit of a business complex with any lights on and no signs of any sort. We crossed to check it out and it turns out that this one business was indeed Ristorante Casanova. The only sign was a graffiti style writing on the wall inside the door. After a short wait, we were quickly seated and proceeded to have the best pizza I have ever had outside of Italy. The place was packed and as far as I could tell we were the only tourists. You can usually tell a good place when there is nobody outside to lure passersby in, no sign but a line of people waiting for tables as early as 20:00. I cannot speak highly enough for the place. We ate there every night thereafter and never had a bad meal.

The next day, Saturday, we had planned to visit Castel de Sao Jorge, but it was gloomy and cool so we decided to visit the Se and a local flea market called the Thieves Market. It was interesting but typical of any flea market with overpriced junk that people were trying to unload. While there, it began to sprinkle. We decided to walk to the Se and then back to hotel. Enroute, it began to rain. It began to pour. And then it stopped.

I had confused the church in Lisbon with the one in Porto so was quite disappointed when we got there and found, basically, another old stone church. Oh well.

Since it looked like rain again at any moment we took tram 15 back to the west to visit the Museu National de Arte Antiga which Jack wanted to see. It is also free with the Lisboa card. You get off at the Cais Roche stop, but be aware that the museum is on top of a very high set of steps in case you have problems with stairs. They have a nice collection of pottery, furniture, paintings and sculpture; but, in all honesty, it’s only worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood with nothing else to do.

Sunday was glorious, as opposite from Saturday as possible. We started the day with a brief ride on tram 28 to the Largo Portas da Sol stop to visit the Museu das Artes Decoratives, this one is not free but you do get a discounted admission of 3.20 euros. It’s an old home turned into a museum with some very attractive rooms and furnishings. It’s the only place that told me I couldn’t take photos; luckily I had two good ones before they told me. It’s a small place, easily visited in 30 minutes but well worth the time, if you spend a lot of your free time watching HGTV.

Turn to your right outside the museum and in a few steps you’ll find some quite steep steps leading to a steeper hill leading to the Castello. This was built by the Arabs around 1100 and seems to be in remarkably good condition. You get a discount here from 7 euros to 5.50 with the card, 4.00 for ‘seniors’. The views are truly spectacular. If your legs are up to it, it’s well worth the time. You can get taxis to take you up the hill to the castle but there is still a lot of stairs and climbing to do inside. Take this into consideration before deciding to go.

We walked back down toward the hotel and decided to hit one last museum and it turns out that we had truly saved the best for last. We took the Blue Line metro to the Sao Sebastiao metro to visit the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian (http://www.museu.gulbenkian.pt). Walking down the hill toward the museum we first came upon a very modern building with his name on it and mistakenly thought we had reached our destination. It turns out that there are two Gulbenkian museums in the complex, the first with modern art which we found disappointing. After asking directions we arrived at our destination and there are simply no words to adequately describe what we found.

Prior to this visit I had never heard of Calouste Gulbenkian. It seems he had a major role in the development of middle eastern oil reserves and became one of the wealthiest men in the world in his time. He also had extraordinarily good taste. The museum holds his collection of items from ancient coins some of which are in such good condition it’s hard to believe they are really over 2000 years old. Some pottery, Persian carpets, sculpture and paintings. It is simply mind boggling that one person collected this treasure trove in his life time. It would be impossible today, simply because art of this quality is already in museums. If for no other reason, visiting the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian makes traveling to Lisbon worthwhile.

PORTO

The train left Santa Apolonia station exactly on time at 12:00 heading to Porto (30 euros tourist class the difference between tourist and comfort class being two seats on each side of the aisle in tourist and two on one side and one on the other in comfort class) and arrived in Porto exactly on time at, I think, 14:44. We took a taxi to our hotel the Infante de Sagres (http://www.hotelinfantesagres.pt). It’s an old building that has been unfortunately ‘renovated’ but it is centrally located with a staff that goes out of its way to be helpful. The suite was spacious with two full bathrooms. Breakfasts were varied but the food and service was several steps below the quality of the Avenida Palace in Lisbon; not bad, simply not as good.

I live outside of Denver in the foothills; I am accustomed to hills. I have always thought of San Francisco as being a very hilly city. I had a lot to learn about hills and Porto taught me. Our first afternoon we walked our way down to the Ribeiro district then wandered back up toward the hotel; I would estimate the altitude difference at around 1,000 feet down and back up. We then recharged our legs and ate at what might reasonably be called a fast food restaurant, Café Asiz. Food was pretty good, homestyle cooking. Jack had a soup that he liked very much and I ordered veal. If it was veal it was definitely a teenager, but there was so much I couldn’t finish it. Jack ate the French fries that came with it.

It is now Tuesday, we stopped by the Livraria Lello & Irmao which is a short walk down the street to the right of our hotel. If you’ve never seen a picture, you must. Don’t plan on taking any photos however; they keep employees on hand to stop you. You must buy. Still worth the visit. They sell some nice soap too.

Next on our list was the nearby Museu Nacional Soares do Reis. I generally avoid using maps because I’m not good at reading them and simply get lost. On any normal day, I just find the general direction of someplace I want to go and always find it. I don’t know how this works, I only know it does. Today I didn’t do that. The map had me totally confused. I was forced to try to ask the only Portugeuse person we met who didn’t speak English how to find the museum. He did; these are some of the kindest people I have ever encountered. The only problem with the musem is that it doesn’t open until 14:00 on Tuesdays and we were there at 11:30.

Okay, so we walk back to the hotel to deposit our purchases from the Lello & Irmao and then decided to visit the Se. We arrived there at 12:35. It closes for lunch at 12:30. Guidebooks do serve a purpose if you only READ them.

Since the Se is just off the street to the Ponte Dom Luis I, we decided to walk across it to visit Gaia. I have a love/hate relationship with heights and I can’t resist them. Jack just has a hate/hate relationship but came with me (this was no small effort for him). There are some phenomenal views from the bridge and it is well worth the walk. There is a small park at the Gaia end and the terminus of the aerial cable car that takes you down to river level (5 euros one way 8 euros round trip). Since I had already pushed my luck with Jack and heights, I decided to skip the ride. Looked like fun.

After walking around the park, we decided to try the museum once more and walked back over to it. It had just opened and nobody at reception spoke English fortunately they spoke French and I was able to understand nearly everything he said. The museum contains 17 and 18 century Portuguese art which Jack found interesting and I didn’t.

Next we returned to the Se and marveled at the amount of gold leaf they had used inside. Next visited the Iglesia de San Francisco at 3 euros each. There is a museum attached to the ticket office with plenty of dead Portugeuse if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The church, if anything, has even more gold leaf than the Se. Photos are prohibited, but there is nobody there to stop you if you rebel at rules. Both of these churches are well worth the visit. Warning! To exit the church you go through a door that is next to a VERY clear glass wall. Jack was getting tired and didn’t realize it was glass. Sort of like the Windex commercial with the birds.

After the disappointing meal on our arrival we decided to try something different. There was a restaurant around the corner from our hotel called ‘Book”. I asked the person at reception if he knew whether or not it was a good restaurant and he replied “It is our hotel restaurant, so, of course, it is excellent.” It actually was! I avoid hotel restaurants for anything but breakfast like the plague, but both the food and service here were excellent. Sublimely good veal, a wonderfully flavorful and inexpensive red wine from the Douro and a unique desert of crème caramel topped with caramel ice cream. 75 euros; so good we did it again the next night.

Last day, what to do? We did a 6 bridges ‘cruise’ which I thought was a waste but Jack enjoyed and this pretty much concluded our visit to Porto.

Took a taxi to the airport the next morning at 0600. For the rest of the story see http://www.fodors.com/community/fodorite-lounge/this-is-a-tale-told-by-an-idiot.cfm

For a trip that I didn’t want to take; even allowing for the problems coming home, I have to say that Portugal was a delightful surprise. Go.

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