Lisbon April 2014
The background- Company sponsored trip so most was pre-arranged and planned for us, including:
Hotel -Pestana Palace
Flights- US Airways Atlanta to Philadelphia ; Philadelphia to Lisbon-same on the return
Dining- Valle Flor (Hotel) - Dinner
Mercado do Peixe (lunch)
Aura Lounge (dinner)
Furnas do Guincho (lunch, near Cabo de Roca)
I was not happy about being booked on US Air as my status is all on Delta but that's what our German based travel agency booked us. We were not permitted to book our own travel or to request preferences. Not awful but not great for international travel.
We do not check bags, as we don't trust any airline to get them there and we had a number of events to go to that we needed nice clothes for. No way was I going to show up to the awards dinner in the same jeans I wore in the flight over. A few things I did not like about US Air....we checked in online but couldn't get an eboarding pass. (With Delta you can text it to your phone even without their app). All self service check in in Atlanta.
Security in ATL was easy and we stopped off at Verasano's for pizza margherita before the flight to Philly. At the gate, we realized since we had no priority, we were in zone 4 for boarding. Uh-oh....getting the bags on would be tough. I asked a passenger named Michael at the gate if the plane (looked small-ish) was one where bags need to be gate checked and he said no. We chatted a bit and I told him that we were ultimately on to Lisbon and he recognized that boarding in zone 4 would be bad for us and that we probably have to check our bags through to Lisbon. He offered to let me board with him and I declined as it would need to be both Chaz and I and thanked him for the info.
A minute later he walked over to us and insisted that we board with him (first class) and he would just tell the gate agent that were we colleagues. He didn't want us to have to check our bags. So we accepted the very kind offer and laughed as we asked what "business" were were all in...we decided to use the fictitious George Costanza " Art Vanddelay" import- export business from Seinfeld. We boarded without incident with our bags. Surprisingly roomy bins on the smaller plane to Philly. Uneventful flight to Philly. Thank you to our new friend Michael wherever you are. It's great to run into someone who will just try to help you out!
The International terminal in Philly is underwhelming in many ways. First our gate was the LAST one (of course) but we had plenty of time. We stopped at Cibo wine bistro and it was packed. I had Sauvignon blanc which was very pricey and Chaz had a beer. Those were fine but my God, the food was very bad. Chaz-steak sandwich Me-turkey burger..both very overdone on bread that looked good but was soooo dry and no condiments for either sandwich. Skip the food here.
We tried to gain access to the US Air club through our AMEX card membership but the association ended last about 2 weeks ago, so that was a no go.
It occurred to me that no one had confirmed our passport info and we did not want to get held up from boarding b/c of that (gotta get the bags on) so we stopped at a service desk. At first the agent told us they would verify the info at the gate but he did go ahead and take care of it for us. He also tried to get us to move back in the back of the plane with the promise of a whole row of seats. I asked if he could guarantee it and he couldn't and I explained that we had purchased preferred seats to get a bit more room and to be in the front of the plane. This was interesting, the seats are only preferred because they are upfront, he explained. They aren't roomier (my bad for assuming this was the US Air version of Economy Plus with Delta). I do notice that US Air tries to sell you a lot of extras (upgraded meals for about $25 a pop, preferred access for $20 a person, preferred seating for $50/seat, etc....). The agent never offered to refund the $50 we had paid and why would we want to move to the back of the plane...we took our chances and I knew the plane was not full. We would have also lost our zone 2 boarding, so I couldn't see much of an upside. It made me wonder, do they offer that, keep the money you paid for the preferred seat and then sell it to another passenger? The agent was a bit pushy about us taking the new seats and it made me wonder.
Gate area is dismal with no charging stations. A plus, the boarding moves fast and I like that US Air doesn't offer a lot of pre boarding options, which Delta does and it slows everything down. They boarded very quickly and on time. On board, we were right behind First. The plane wasn't full and the flight attendants did a nice job of moving a few passengers to give many more room and we ended up getting the row to ourselves. We were in row 5 of a 757....what is not preferred here is that there are no A-C seats in row 5 because it's a lavatory. Arrrgh! (seat maps on the website do not indicate the lavatory location so you think it may be a galley area or other)
The flight was uneventful but no in seat monitors and no choices on inflight entertainment. To me, that's odd these days on an international flight. I missed the meal (meaning I missed the service but in no way sorry to miss an airplane meal) as I went to sleep as fast as I could after takeoff. I also missed most of the lavatory noise thanks to always traveling with earplugs.
One more USAir complaint, breakfast is a little plastic wrapped muffin top and coffee, water and juice only. Not substantial at all and I need a diet coke in the AM but soft drinks were not offered. I don't expect a big breakfast in coach but some fruit or yogurt would be nice. On the return flight, we could only get water or canned Minute Maid OJ for one drink service. I don't really understand that. We did get a lunch and sandwich later on the flight. I do like that they give you the whole can of diet coke when they serve it.
We arrived on a Thursday AM and were escorted to our hotel by the on ground tour company. Easy time at passport control.
Unfortunately it was raining when we arrived but cleared up late in the morning and we were able to visit Belem before the afternoon meeting I had to attend at the hotel. We got to see the old aqueducts on the way in from the airport...amazing how long they have been there.
The hotel checked everyone in prior to arrival and we had our own area set up for check in. The hotel is quiet and pretty. The staff there is very attentive and friendly. We were provided a fruit plate after arrival in our room and the bags were delivered quickly. I regret not having time to explore the grounds of the hotel, which was a beautiful old palace.
We unpacked, got cleaned up and the hotel called a cab for us to take us to Belem. The staff also suggested a good drop off location near Jeronimos Monastery. The ride was less than 15 euros but I am not sure of the total. We were dropped off right in from of the famous Casa Pasteis de Belem shop and a Starbucks. If you "know" us from other T/R then you know Chaz' weakness for Starbucks.
So, The first place we visited was Starbucks (and yes, I am horrified )!
But, the second place was Casa Pasteis de Belem for the famous pastel de Belem. It wasn't crazy busy and most of the staff speaks English. I toyed with the idea of getting 4 of the tarts but decided to limit it to one a piece. I still regret that decision. This little tart deserves its fame! Warm, smooth and not too sweet with a crispy phyllo type crust. It was gone too quickly. I think the tarts are just over one euro but I don't remember the exact cost. The wind blew our packets of cinnamon and sugar away, but these pastries are just perfect without them. If you go to Lisbon, go there!
We were then off to Jeronimos Monastery. There was some sort of car rally set up with bleachers and the track passed the front of the monastery. There also were lots of school kids everywhere and an exhibition at the monastery. It was a bit crazy. We visited only the main church, as we had limited time. It is also the burial site of Vasco de Gama. It is very pretty and Chaz picked up on the Manueline architecture in this church and it's decorative purpose (rather than structural). Maybe not as impressive as other sites we have visited but we enjoyed visiting it.
Next, we walked to the waterfront to see the Monument to the Discoveries. Fun for me as my early awareness of Portugal was studying the explorers in school. We were getting a little bit of sunshine and that made the waterfront nicer. We also had a good view of the 25th of April bridge from the walkway along the river. The bridge really is gorgeous. We next walked down to the Belem tower, also on the river. It looks like something out of an old novel and was interesting to tour. We climbed to the top for a good view of the waterfront. I love the red light-green light system they use to control the up and down direction for visitors. They need this at other sites where traffic has to be one-way due to narrow stair wells.
We headed back to the drop off location to see what else was in the area and to hunt down something easy for lunch. We ended up at a very busy Rick Steves recommendation for all things pita or baguette...Pao Pao Queijo Queijo. The place was packed and we felt lucky to slip in before it got even busier. English is also spoken here (thank goodness), we ordered and then waited in 3 deep, shoulder to shoulder for our number to be called. We both got chicken pitas and coke zero. While we were waiting and listening to the staff call out "baguette" every 10 seconds, the Cheeburger, Cheeburger, Pepsi, Pepsi from the old SNL skit came to mind. It was raining lightly but we found a seat outside and the rain was short lived. The pitas were loaded, and I mean loaded with chicken. Very good...this place moves a lot of people....it's not too fast but the food was fresh and very good. We had to pay cash as the cashier told us they only accept Portuguese credit cards. Not sure if that is really Portuguese only or European chip and PIN cards. I broke one of my own travel rules (don't eat near tourist spots) but since good ol' Rick suggested it, we went and were very happy with it.
A quick cab back to the hotel to clean up for my meeting. Chaz took a short nap and took his time getting ready and I found him after my meeting in the hotel bar. Very pretty and where I sampled my first Portuguese sparkling wine. Very good....I still prefer a Champagne or a Prosecco but this was very good. The bar is back lit onyx (I think) with a nice, somewhat formal seating area. We finished up and walked to the area my company reserved for cocktail hour. The first room was black and red with a distinct Asian feel and and a duo playing classical guitar and a Portuguese guitarra...candlelit and so pretty. On to dinner at Valle-Flor (hotel restaurant) which was good but it was a hotel affair....the appetizer was a cod carpaccio and the main course was a seed crusted chicken. Good but not great, but were we're fading anyway.
We turned in around 11pm and both of us slept well.
The company arranged a private tram tour through Lisbon. I love that Lisbon is colorful...tile covered building facades or brightly painted stucco exteriors or graffiti. It's interesting. There is laundry hanging on lines, cable car wires, etc and it's hilly! If Lisbon was an "outfit"' it doesn't match perfectly but it works somehow. It's not beautiful in the way Paris is to me, but it's unique and very pleasing. The cable car was the old style, almost antique but a great way to see the city, especially in a short time. I also love the intricate mosaic pavers you see everywhere in all sorts of patterns. It makes the city interesting. To me, Lisbon is energetic and very visual!
Our guide Americo was wonderful. We enjoyed the guides and stuck with Americo the whole time we were there. I appreciated that they love Lisbon and Portugal and they want you too, as well. They are very proud of their country.
Back to the tram....as we stepped onto our tram. We were handed a sparkling wine glass and soon had a glass of Sparkling wine. Next came fresh strawberries and a few snacks from Sintra to sample. There was one pastry type thing with sausage inside that was quite tasty. We saw parts of Barrio Alto and Alfama on the ride. I loved seeing a street vendor with a huge mound of fresh strawberries for sale! The streets are so narrow in some spots....driving must be a challenge?
It was a scenic, very enjoyable tram ride and we learned a lot about Lisbon.
We climbed near the top of Lisbon and then walked a short way to Castel Sao Jorge at the top of the city. Again, a great view of the famous bridge but a bit cloudy and misty, so not the best view that day. We spotted two peacocks that Chaz pointed and said "look, turkeys!!" Maybe he had too wine but it was funny listening to him struggle to come up with peacock....pheasant and the "F" word were also thrown out. We also saw our first cork oak and several us had a chuckle regarding the "corksoakers" skit from SNL (a lot of pop trivia here for me).
Up top we were treated to a nice break at casa do Leao with coffee, snacks, and a diet coke for me. Following this, we walked back to our bus with quick stop for cork goods for those who wanted to purchase something. We were then off the a seafood restaurant Mercado do Peixe which was excellent. We ate a lot!
Finally, my first vinho verde and I do like this very fresh, drinkable wine. It goes perfectly with seafood. Lunch was cheese, bread, prawns, iberico ham, grilled lobster and chargrilled golden bream (looked like flounder). We had a light salad and new potatoes with it and everything was excellent. The rain really started up during lunch and we were almost rained out for the afternoon!
Back on the bus and a late start to our gourmet food tour. We started at a brewery, which for me, was not a highlight but I don't really like beer too much. Also, we ate so much that beer didn't sound good. I did like the Portuguese "edamame"...salted Fava beans. Great little snack. The brewery/restaurant is decorated inside with beautiful tile work.
We headed out to the perfect spot for a chilly, rainy afternoon...a little wine bar called The Pharmacy for cheeses and Port. I have to tell you that I usually do not like any kind of fortified wine, dessert wine, etc....and I still don't want one with dessert (too thick and sweet with dessert, for my taste). But, we started with Dow's fine tawny port and I really liked it. We sampled another port afterwards and I liked it even better (Graham's late bottled vintage Port). The cheeses we had in Portugal were also excellent. I did a horrible job of keeping up with food and wine names. We didn't plan anything, don't speak Portuguese at all (except hello, thank you, yes and no) and the pace of the trip was a whirlwind and I think that's why I don't have much info on the food...unusual for me.
Long story short....I was very pleasantly surprised by the Ports. Nice....not going to be a good to drink for me but from time to time....could be nice.
We walked back through all the fashionable shops to meeting place on Rossio square, which is really pretty. I love the wavy mosaic pattern here on the square.
We had a short time to turn it around for our dinner out in Lisbon but a hot shower does have restorative powers. Another plus about the hotel...good water pressure, plenty of hot water and plush robes...all favorites for me in a hotel.
Now, I don't know if this is how it usually is but we always encountered a significant amount of traffic when traveling to dinner. I don't know my way around and I suspect the are a number of reasons for this, including needing travel where big motor coaches can squeeze through and the hotel may be a bit out of the way. But, we spent an hour getting to dinner at Aura Lounge. We sat in some rough traffic. Once we got there, we were sleepy from the ride and the busy day. We were greeted outside on the sidewalk with all kinds of drinks (more sparkling wine for me) but I couldn't wait to get inside the restaurant as it was chilly because of the rain. The restaurant is very pretty and does have a DJ to mix good music for dinner. The service was good, the food was good. The starter was grilled scallops which were really good. The main was steak...slightly overdone for me, but good. Dessert was a poached pear en croute, which was delicious.
Thank god the trip back to Pestana Palace was much quicker than the trip over...a great day. I really enjoyed the tram ride and enjoyed getting to know Lisbon. Another good night of sleep and ready for our last day in Lisbon.
We awoke to a very foggy day! Our last day of sightseeing started with a trip to Sintra. The little town is nice and we started behind the National Palace but we quickly moved to the gardens of Quinta do Regaleira. I can't say enough about how interesting, unique and wonderful these gardens are. They are so lush...we didn't get sun but it only made it seem greener. Again, Amerigo is an excellent tour guide. There was tons of wisteria blooming and it's a favorite of mine. Clusters of purple flowers hanging off those twisted vines....beautiful to me. The gardens have all sorts of paths to wander around but the well that you can work your way toward as you go up the paths is the star attraction for me. You enter and see the bottom and the spiral stone staircase to transport you to the bottom. You wind your way around and down and it gets wetter, you go. To look back up at the stairs is very cool...but it gets better. You then go through a tunnel and arrive at an opening that looks like something out of a movie....again, no words to do it justice but then you hop across a little stone walkway across the water to the other side. It's just beautiful and the only time I will walk on water.
We were with a fun group from my company and also treated to a little smoke from a dragon....there is a clearing with two dragons in a sculpture in front of a cave like structure that you can walk behind. While to guide was talking one of the Dutch guys worked his way behind it the dragons while no one was looking and began blowing smoke from his e-cigarette....the effect was cool and the guide was taken by surprise to see the smoke appear. I know, you had to be there, but it was hilarious! (This same guy pointed out to us all the previous day, as we were beginning our gourmet tour, that our first delicacy was going to be edible underwear, as the first shop we walked past on the way to the brewery was a sex shop...again we all burst out laughing)! We had a lively group.
We were taken then a to the elegant hotel Setais Palace Hotel for coffee on their terrace with a beautiful view. Then on the Cabo de Roca. We had a cloudy day and so I don't think the view was a spectacular as it could have been and it wasn't crowded. We were served some sparkling wine upon arrival, always a plus for me! We had friends who brought their Steelers Terrible Towel along and we had fun making sure we got photographed with it at the little tower here. Chaz is from the 'burgh originally, so we are Steeler fans. The Terrible Towel is the most well travelled thing on the planet and the fans are great about taking their towels to the fours corners of the world and getting their pictures made with it.
We drove, after the short stop, to Furnas de Guincho on the water for another wonderful seafood lunch and white wine. This time it was a salt encrusted grouper but we started with bread, cheese, prawns and iberico ham, as we had the day before. We also got to sample olives and they are a favorite for me. Beautiful setting and I am sure it is even more breathtaking on a sunny day. The vistas along the coast are inspiring. We continued on through Cascais and back into Lisbon late in the afternoon. Cascais looks nice but I didn't like all the signs on the buildings near the water...a common site in tourist areas on the water all over the world. It takes the quaintness away and replaces it with tacky, to me.
I know we didn't scratch the surface in Sintra and would love to go back.
We got all dressed up for an awards dinner at Xabregas Palace. A few photos in the gardens at Pestana Palace and the sun finally came out.Again, a ton of traffic and I guess that's just how it is around 6:30-7:00pm in Lisbon.
We had a great night...thank god for the red carpet they rolled out because the pavers and stilettos don't go together. The walk way was lit up and really beautiful. We were greeted by a group singing and playing Portuguese music. It was a great way to start. And we were offered some sparkling wine to start and we were able to enjoy the night with friends and wonderful, lively Portuguese entertainers.
We wrapped up with dinner and awards and sadly, more traffic on the way back to the hotel around midnight. It was a full long weekend and we were beat at the end.
Our ride to the airport was uneventful and again Amerigo met our group to get us checked in an on our way to security before saying goodbye. He commented that he was glad our group enjoyed the trip and made the best of the less than favorable weather. The Lisbon airport is very nice and fast! We got checked in so quickly, through security and passport control quickly and everyone is courteous and polite. This was a very nice change for an international airport. Even the gentleman who checked us through at passport control was friendly and happy that I knew to use Obrigada and for Chaz to use Obrigado. (Although we did watch a passenger have a meltdown in security because he didn't like the way one of the guards touched him, but we saw nothing unusual and thought the passenger was an ass)!
I decided to pick up a few last pastel de nata for the trip home...quite good but the spot in Belem wins for these little pastries. Far better than the airplane dessert brownie!
The flight to Philly from Lisbon went great but it all went downhill in Philly. The lines were terrible, especially when clearing security for our connection. Very inefficient and understaffed. Sadly, we had a maintenance issue and then a traffic slowdown into Atlanta so we were several hours late getting in.
Interestingly enough, near the end of the flight our new friend Michael (who let us board early with him on the flight out) was also on our flight home to Atlanta and stopped by our row to say hello and ask about the trip. Such a nice person and I can't believe he was on the flight!
We really enjoyed Lisbon. It is strange for us to be on a trip where we didn't plan the trip. I don't have a lot of time to plan much lately. There is so much we didn't get to see and I can see why those who have been to Lisbon speak well of the city. We really enjoyed the seafood and would have loved to try more of the local food.
Lisbon is hard to define but so pleasant. It's definitely got it's own style. I can say that the people were so kind, friendly and quick to smile. English is widely spoken, which was good for us. We felt lucky to visit Portugal.
I do have a question though...what in the world is the fluorescent orange juice that we saw a lot? We saw this especially at cocktail hours...I don't drink fruit drinks or juice (rarely), but they said it was orange juice and it looked like Tang on steroids.
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Lisbon April 2014