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Trip Report Trip Report - Portugal

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This is a trip report from David and Susan. We visited Portugal from September 19 through September 28, 2006, and with tremendous help from LDC and the Fodors site, David and our friends planned a tour that allowed us to see a remarkable variety of Portugal’s diversity in our short stay.

Of course we started in Lisboa, where cultures and centuries tumble together along remarkably narrow streets in some quarters

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and fore-sitefully wide avenues designed after the 1755 earthquake in others

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Lobo and Loba were kind enough to meet us the very evening we arrived for a tiny sweet Portuguese coffee at a bar in Alfama, where we were staying, and they had pointed us to a neighborhood restaurant for a dinner of sardines and potatoes.

During a walking tour (Inside Lisbon, leaves from the Praco Don Pedro IV at 10 am during the season, 13 euros per person, and we’d recommend them) on the first day

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we stood in a tiny, stone-paved square at the top of a 19th Century, elaborately iron-worked elevator

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reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. In front of us to the right was a 17th century church under which a 20th century fire had exposed Roman ruins. To our left was a drab government palace used by Salazar´s successor through 1974. On April 25 that year, a song played on all the radio stations signaled the Army to mass its tanks in this tiny square to issue an ultimatum for the end of the dictatorship. After several hours, the dictator surrendered -- without a shot being fired. The people of Lisbon celebrated by inserting carnations into the barrels of the soldiers´guns. So, in that one tiny square, many centuries collide.

It is cliché to say that Lisbon is a city of hills, but what the cliché failed to prepare us for was the wonderful dance of light and color that is revealed from each vista

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And to read about azuelejo is not to be prepared for the intricacy and ubiquitousness of this beautiful and functional art form

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Nor were we really ready for the beautiful trees and flowers everywhere – our guest house had lemon and fig trees, a prickly pear cactus, and a myriad of gorgeous flowers.

Our tour included a visit inside the Alentejo Cultural Center (Um culture, uma povo, uma regioa - One people, one culture, one region), which includes a restaurant, and is open to the public. The tiles alone are well worth a visit

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and we are told that it’s a great place to eat (although we weren’t able to try).

We stayed in a guest house whose back wall was the Castelho San Jorge, and it was gorgeous and had breath-taking views. It was also, however, a six floor walkup—a sense of really being “inside” in Alfama.

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There were pensao and small hotels in Alfama, though, and it is a completely charming bairra.

The high point of our visit in Lisbon was our LDC evening on Thursday, September 22 at Adega das Gravatas

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Matt from England will post a full LDC report, but we can’t say enough positive things about the generosity of spirit that LDC represents. It was a great evening, full of interesting conversation, great food and wine

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and warmth

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From Lisbon, we rented a car (car rental was from Auto Europe, and it was uneventful and reasonably priced, even for a trip in which we dropped the car off at a different place than we picked it up) and ventured north. We stopped at Obidos, and we could imagine that in high tourist season this town might be too small to enjoy, but in late September, even with school trips already underway

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it was an enchanting step back into Portugal’s past of walled cities and a feudal social order

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Driving around Portugal was one of many pleasant surprises for us. The landscapes tended to be open and of great beauty and variety, and the driving conditions not nearly as bad as we might have feared. Because we were trying to see a lot, we spent most of three of our days on the road, and each day was filled with very different vistas and conditions, hinting at the variety of the Portuguese countryside. The travel was not lost time at all, but enhanced our appreciation of Portugal. This view from the city walls of Obidos shows one variety of agricultural landscape

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Our destination was Sao Pedro de Muel

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on the Atlantic Coast

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-- a lovely tourist village in which we slept with the sound of Atlantic surf lulling us to sleep, and ate in a restaurant that was literally carved into the cliffs at water´s edge

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where the fish was REALLY fresh

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The restaurant was Estrela de Mar, the hotel Hotel de Mar & Sol, and we’d recommend both. Neither is top of the line – our bed pretty much filled our room, but the sound effects and balcony view were unbeatable, and the restaurant was clearly a local favorite but not four-star. If it hadn’t been spitting rain, we could have eaten on the balcony at the restaurant.

On to Coimbra

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an ancient University town, where we met a family friend named Carla and absorbed the ambience of an 800 year old university and its environs. We stayed at the river-edge and very central Hotel Astoria, resplendent with ancient tradition and marble bathrooms. It was right next to this city square

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Carla took us to a basement restaurant that she remembered from her student days, on the “far” side of the river, for a delicious lunch

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We shared the place with a local men’s group, and their enthusiasm enhanced the ambience.

We spent the afternoon exploring the university at the top of Coimbra’s hills

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the ancient but bustling downtown (complete with a stop for a coffee and a drink at the café next to a grand downtown church) and later, the mysterious Garden of Mermaids

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We had hoped to dine in the Zé Manel dos Ossos, enjoyed by Frances Mayes, but it was closed at dinner time, so we enjoyed Goat braised in red wine at another restaurant in the complex behind the hotel, Restaurante O Serenata. The food and the company seemed very authentic – there were two birthday parties at large adjoining tables.

We are very interested in fado (music that some call the Portuguese blues, because the roots are in the same homesick angst that spawned the American blues). Fado is alive and well in Coimbra, although aficionados tell us that there are recognizable differences between the fado of Coimbra and the fado of Lisbon, where we had not been able to listen. Some enterprising young people have turned a tiny 14th century chapel into a fado nightclub in Coimbra (A capella is the play-on-words name of the club and the principal act). We strongly recommend including A Capella (we think they’re open 7 nights a week, at least during the tourist season) into your plans if you visit Coimbra. In addition to very good live fado, the chapel shows DVDs of the history of fado between sets, and a wonderful collage of stills from the origins of Coimbra fado at the University behind the performers during sets. The songs are introduced in both Portuguese and English, and we learned the untranslateable word “saudade” for the longing that underlies fado.

David and I are geocachers, and we wanted to add Portugal to our world map. David made time to do one cache in Lisbon, and we wanted to show Carla how all this worked, so we looked up some of the caches we knew were in Coimbra before heading out of town on Sunday morning. The description and the GPS receiver took us to the wonderful Penede de Saudade, a hill-side park near the University filled with memorial stones from alumni who remember their good times at the University (with longing, of course) and the friendships and loves that originated there

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After logging our cache, on Sunday, we set out for Moimenta da Beira, the home of Carla´s parents. The drive was through fascinating, mountainous forests of pine

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eucalyptus, olives

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chestnut

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oak, and dense, bracken fern understories, all tumbling over mountains and hills and around small villages and cities. There is apparently a serious arson problem in Portugal, exacerbated by several years of serious droughts, so we saw lots of evidence of fire, often shockingly close to the towns and cities.

The landscape grew more agricultural as we neared Moimenta --orchards of pears, chestnuts, apples, and vineyards, and every house, no matter how tiny its yard, had a little vegetable garden. Violetta had prepared a wonderful meal of caldo verde (Portuguese green soup) feijoada merisco -- a seafood and white bean stew with a creamy tomato sauce that was out of this world, along with several varieties of local bread and cheese and local (perhaps they made it themselves?) presunto, the Portuguese version of the smoked ham Prosciutto. And she had made fully 4 different desserts

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-- all served with wines from the agricultural cooperative where she works, the Cooperativo Agricola do Tavora. We don’t know if their wines are available in the States, but they are delicious, and we recommend them.

The Alta Beira -- the region of Moimenta -- is a harsh, unforgiving landscape, and the wines from its winery are named after novels of Aquilino Robeiro, a prize winning author who came from the region. The one that stands out in our memory is Terras do Demo -- the devil´s land. But the results of the peoples´ hard work-- the fruits, the food, and the wines -- are delicious. David and Carla and Violetta and Amilcar toured the local area a bit on Sunday afternoon while I napped, and David said it was breathtaking. Afterwards, Violetta taught us to make Portuguese flan, and presented us with a pan to make it.

Monday morning, we set off for Porto. This trip was mostly through the Douro, and Carla was kind enough to take local roads that wound along the River through its vineyard-

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and windmill-clad

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valleys. The landscape was reminiscent of northern Italy or the banks of the Rhine -- vineyards on terraces from ridge-top to ridge-top, white-walled houses roofed with orange tiles tumbling down the hillsides among them

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In this case, many of the grapes are destined to become port wine

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Matt from England recommends a train-ride along this valley, and we noticed in Porto that river cruises up the valley are another option. If you’re in Portugal, you’ve got to see the Douro

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It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and the trip took literally hours more because we wanted to stop at every pullout for another photograph.

Wherever there was forest -- and the landscape became more forested as we neared Porto -- there was evidence of fires

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Forest fires in the “urban-wildland interface” are not just a US problem, we could see.

We arrived in Porto early enough to take a tour of the caves where Port is aging along the river in the city

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and to wander its colorful and ancient riverfront communities

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Late September is the beginning of the University year in Porto, so one of the unexpected features of our visit was the teams of uniformed sophomores

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herding freshman complete with pacifiers to remind them of their “baby” status

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around the waterfront in some mix of hazing and orientation. The local citizenry seemed eager to weigh in with their advice, as well

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We were already admitting that our visit was nearing a close, and Carla helped us select half-a-dozen fado CDs to accompany the Portuguese dinner parties that we envision hosting when we return.

On Wednesday, we visited the beach (it’s easy to forget that Porto is, in addition to the world capital of Port, a beach town) along Villa Novo da Gaia’s 15 km of boardwalk

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Fall’s chill was in the air, so we were alone, but we could easily imagine a Venice-beach scene in high summer!

We made another stop at Porto’s downtown Bulhao, or market, to buy some cheese to bring home and to once again immerse ourselves in the freshness of Portuguese food

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It was fitting to end our visit with the grounds

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and exhibits at Porto’s wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museu Serralves. Two of the exhibits that we particularly enjoyed were that of Gego and Fernanda Gomes, and much of the art on display was “about” the relationship of art to its audience. I at least thought that the Gomes exhibit was a reminder of the art that surrounds us in everyday life, and that, in many ways, summarizes our visit to Portugal – a week surrounded by art of color, of architecture, of landscape and food and sound not just in museums, but in the streets and restaurants and nightclubs and people.

Madrid was almost an anticlimax after the diversity and hospitality that was Portugal. Our trip home was relatively uneventful, save for the last leg being held up by weather and extending the trip to a full 22 hours. We drove home from Pittsburgh listening to fado all the way, and deciding that translating the lyrics of Jose Alfonso would be wonderful way to continue our adventure in learning Portuguese.

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