An off-season trip to Portugal

Old Nov 15th, 2009, 05:27 PM
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An off-season trip to Portugal

My wife and I are just back from 11 days in Portugal. We stayed in Lisbon, Evora, Marvao, Nazare and Porto. I’ve benefited from trip reports for many of our travels, and now it’s my turn to contribute. Although I don’t promise I’ll have as much detail as many of the other reports, I’ll try to answer questions.

We retired a year-and-a-half ago and it’s very different traveling “off-peak” than during Christmas, February and Spring vacations with every other teacher in the country. One of the differences is that since we knew exactly when we could go somewhere, we would make plans nearly a year ahead, book our air [FF if we could get it] 330 days out, and then have 11 months to do the research on where to go and what to do and see.

This trip was much different, in that we booked the air less than a month before we departed. And since there are many places we have never been and want to go, we weren’t even sure where we were going until the US Airways agent told us there were 50,000 point Frequent Flyer seats on TAP -- non-stop from Newark to Lisbon, and non-stop back from Porto.

Day of Departure
Our children and grandchildren live in New York City, so we stayed overnight at the Wyndham Garden Hotel at Newark Airport. We got a great rate of $125, which included the overnight and 12 days of parking. In the morning, we took the hotel shuttle to the AirTrain, and then a NJ Transit train to Manhattan, and then a taxi from Penn Station to see our kids. We left our son’s apartment about 2 p.m. for the return trip to EWR. We estimated an hour-and-a-half to get to the TAP gate at Newark, which would get us there 2 ½ hours before the flight departed at 6 p.m. My wife says I have “terminal neurosis” – but I’d rather sit an extra hour at the airport than miss the flight. Good call, Steve. So we’re on the train to the airport, and we stop for about 20 minutes just before the Newark Penn Station. About 10 minutes into the stop, the conductor says there is “police activity ahead”. We get into the station, but the train doesn’t go anywhere for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, with no details from the conductor. We are not the only ones looking at our watches, and we start thinking it’s time to get off the train and take a taxi to the airport. They finally open the doors for people who have planes to catch, and we – along with maybe a couple hundred others – run off the train to catch a taxi. It turns out there are maybe 6 taxis for 200 people, and we do not catch one of them. So we run back to the train, which finally starts moving about 20 minutes later. During that wait, we learned from the other passengers that President Obama had been in Newark campaigning for John Corzine [who went on to lose the election two days later] and the police had stopped all the NJ Transit trains. We got to the TAP ticket counter at 5:09 p.m. – six minutes before the flight closed – and then to gate in ample time. After that, the flight was relatively comfortable in the economy section of an Airbus 340, and we arrived on a time in Lisbon about 6:30 a.m.

Day 1 – Lisbon
We arrived so early that the “Aerobus” wouldn’t start running for another hour, so we took a taxi – 15 Euros including tip – to the Sheraton Lisboa. We were scheduled for check-in that day, but turned down the opportunity to spend 150 Euros to check in at 7 a.m. Instead, we left our bags at the hotel and walked from the hotel to the center of the city. We stopped at our first “Pastelaria” for what would turn out to be our daily morning routine in Lisbon – coffee Americano for two, a cheese sandwich for my wife, and a delicious, custardy and sweet “natas” pastry for me. We were the first people in line when the Touristo office opened, and we bought two-day pass on the double-decker, open top, Hop On – Hop Off “yellow” bus. We love the concept and we always try to do it on our first day in a city. You get an overview of the city, you learn where things are, and you can plan the rest of your visit. The problem with taking them in November is that there is an hour between trips, and we often had to wait quite a while for the next bus. And I have trouble hearing the narration because the cheap ear buds don’t fit well. But overall we like the experience, and take them every chance we get. There seemed to be three companies running these trips in Lisbon, and two companies in Porto. We saved our ticket stubs, and got a 25% discount off the fare on the “yellow” bus in Porto with Carris, which runs most of the public transportation in both cities. The tickets are also good on some busses, subways, trolleys – but it’s not always clear which ones, especially if you don’t speak Portuguese. We stayed on the bus for more than a full loop, and ended up getting off near our hotel and having lunch at a food court in a nearby shopping mall.

We are big Starwood fans, and try to stay at their hotels whenever we can. We also use our Starwood AmEx card for everything, which enabled us to use “cash and points” for this trip, and had gorgeous rooms in both Lisbon [on the SPG floor] and Porto [on the Club floor]. Cash and Points were $60 and 4800 points per night, which was a great deal. We checked in to the hotel about 1 p.m. and took a nap. The Sheraton brand is much different in Europe than in the States, and these were both top quality [primarily business] hotels. As others have commented, especially on the Trip Advisor boards, they seemed much more like W’s than like Sheraton’s. They had very modern hallway lighting, and in the rooms were glass walls between the bedroom and the bath/shower [although there were shades for those who are modest]. We loved the hotels. They were in the business district, but we prefer that because we like to be where people work and live their daily routines, rather than always being with other visitors or tourists.

Dinner on Monday was at Bonjardim, a moderately priced Portuguese restaurant with a *Fodor’s Choice label, which specialize in roasted chicken. It’s at Travessa de Santo Antao 11 in the “Restauradores” section, which we thought meant restaurants until we learned it meant restoration. It was one of our best meals, and the chicken was so good that we would return three days later for our last dinner in Lisbon. The hotel and restaurant were both very near Metro stops, so that was our preferred method of transportation. And we slept very well the first night, making up for the previous night in scrunched into economy class air.

Day 2 – Lisbon
Breakfast at another Pastelaria right near the Sheraton, then a walk to the famed Gulbenkian Museum [whose location we learned from our Hop On – Hop Off yesterday]. We enjoyed the Gulbenkian – both the grounds and the collection – but not so much the nearby Modern Art Center, which is on the same property. We then walked to the nearest stop to catch the Hop On – Hop Off bus. It was about a 30 minute wait, but we didn’t mind, and we got to see much more of the city. Given that there were few tourists, we always got to sit in the front of top level of the bus, protected from the wind and with the best view. We again went about a loop and a third, getting off in the Barrio Alto section. By this time it was about 4 p.m., and we were quite hungry, so we stopped at a nice looking bar/fish restaurant with a soccer motif. My wife did not like the consistency of the swordfish she ordered, so filled up on bread. Not her preference while at home. I had sardines, and told myself that I didn’t need to order them again during the trip. After our late lunch/early dinner, we set off on foot to explore the old parts of the city. We saw a #28 streetcar go by and I remembered reading about that route, so we got on the next one, rode to the end, and then took the return trip. We weren’t sure exactly where we were, so we started talking to two cute French girls who spoke English, who were traveling on their own through Europe, staying at hostels. They were 17, which amazed us. We could not imagine 17-year-old Americans traveling on their own through Europe. One of them spoke 5 languages, and they seemed very confident and sophisticated. After another walk and coffee, we took a city bus back to the hotel.

Day 3 – Lisbon/Cascais
We planned to go to Sintra today to see the National Palace and the Pena Palace, but fortunately my wife decided to read the guidebook and discovered that one of the two palaces was closed on Wednesday. So ever flexible, we changed plans and decided to go to Cascais and Estoril for the day. We took the train to Cascais, an adorable little beach town, where we shopped – my wife bought two fashionable scarves, one for 3 Euros, and the other for 2.50. We had an outdoor lunch, where the people next to us were taking advantage of the newest fad – cooking their meat on a hot stone. It reminded me of making beef fondue back in the 1970’s. We then walk about a mile along the scenic seafront promenade, avoiding the waves crashing onto the walk, and ended up in Estoril. My wife had been to Estoril with her mother while in college, and we stopped at the tourist office to discover that the hotel where they stayed had been torn down years earlier. We got a picture in front of the Estoril Casino, caught the train back to Lisbon. We walked through some of the Baixa section, took a ride up the Santa Justa elevator, caught the Metro to Pingo Doce, a supermarket for cheese and water, and then walked to our hotel. We had a late dinner – late for us, about 8:30 p.m., is still early for most people in Lisbon – at the Pasta Caffee in the Monumental Shopping Center a short walk from the hotel, which was mentioned in the Fodor’s.

Day 4 – Lisbon/Sintra
We travel in one wheeled suitcase each, which means that we usually break-up a 12 day trip with a visit to a Laundromat. We’ve done that in Barcelona and Jerusalem, and have found that it lets us explore new neighborhoods and often meet younger travelers. Apparently there are no Laundromats in Lisbon, but with the help of the hotel concierge, we found a laundry about a 10 -minute walk away. It cost 15 Euros, which we thought was a bit pricey, but it worked. So that morning we dropped our clothes off at the laundry, had breakfast at yet another Pastelaria, and then took another Metro to catch the train to Sintra. We had positive experiences with both trains; they are very frequent [like every 20 or 30 minutes] and are easy to figure out and inexpensive. The public transportation systems in Europe are excellent. If you plan to visit multiple sites in Sintra, you should get an all day ticket on Bus #434 for about 4 Euros. Otherwise, you’ll spend the entire day hiking. We visited the Pena Palace and then stopped for lunch at a little place in the center across from the National Palace. My wife, not in love with the food so far on the trip, ordered a tuna sandwich. She almost choked on it – it reminded her of a can of cat food. I, on the other hand, ordered the tourist menu with vegetable soup and an omelet. I loved the vegetable soup and ordered it at virtually every other meal on the rest of the trip. We learned a few days later that the vegetables are mashed into the soup, so the consistency is a puree. After lunch we visited the National Palace, and then we walked about 20 minutes in a drizzle to the Museum of Modern Art, which was described in the Fodor’s as housing one of the largest collections in Europe, featuring works by Picasso, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dali and many others. It was too good to be true, however, as when we got there we discovered the only works on display were Indian. So we walked back to the train station, took a train to Lisbon and a Metro back to our neighborhood to pick up the laundry by 7 p.m. That night we went to Bonjardim again for dinner, and it was equally delicious – one of our two favorite restaurants on the trip.

Day 5 – Lisbon/Evora
Breakfast again at another Pastelaria. The “natas” at every location were equally good. After packing and checking out of the hotel, we checked our bags, walked to El Corte Ingles, the big Spanish department store, where my wife got gifts for our daughters-in-law, and then we walked to pick up our rental car for our trip inland. I don’t love to drive in a country where I don’t speak the language [and therefore can’t read the signs] but my wife was a very good navigator, aided by maps, our routings from, and our son’s Garmin for which we downloaded map of Portugal and a voice offering directions in English. The car was a nice small Mercedes B180, and after getting extra insurance recommended by our travel agent, I drove the half-mile or so to the hotel to pick up our luggage, only stalling once. All was fine until I needed to back up to leave the hotel and I could not find reverse. The hotel doorman who I was going to ask to help me had disappeared, and it probably only took two minutes for me to find it, but it felt like an hour, and I was pretty anxious. Finally in gear, we set off for Evora, an easy 150 kilometer drive to the east. We had chosen Evora because I read in a Travel & Leisure that a Luxury Collection property called Convento Do Espinherio, was the second highest rated resort in Europe. AND, a 400 Euro [$600/night] room was available at the same $60 and 4800 point per night rate as the Sheratons. So we checked in and were offered a mint liqueur at 2:30 p.m. For some reason, we were upgraded to an unbelievable room, almost a suite, in the new wing of the resort.

We drove the two or three kilometers to Evora, and our first task was to find the restaurant where we wanted to have dinner. We went to the Tourist Office [which we did in every city we visited; it’s the best place to get maps and advice] and got directions to the restaurant that Nikki and Lily had recommended on this board – Taberna Tipica Quarta Feira. It was about 3:30 p.m. and the restaurant was empty save the owner or chef. He spoke neither English nor Spanish [which my wife speaks and used to communicate many times during our holiday]. When we asked about dinner, he said no and held up his index finger. We eventually realized that they were full that night [a Friday] and he was telling us to come at 1 p.m. the following day. We explored some more in Evora, and eventually realized we hadn’t had lunch. So we stopped at a small place I’d read about on this board, where my wife had the cheese omelet and I had the vegetable soup and a breaded fish. I was not comfortable driving at night, and we left the walled city for the short drive back to Convento just as night was falling. Our late dinner was red wine and proschuto the hotel had left us as a welcome gift [they must have thought we were very important].

Day 6 – Evora
Not wanting to spend 30 Euros each for breakfast, we made cheese sandwiches from bread and cheese we bought at the market in Lisbon for just such an occasion, and made our own coffee with the new Starbuck’s Via instant [very tasty] and an immersion coil. We went back into Evora, explored some more, and then made our way to Taberna Tipica Quarta Feira at Rue do Inverno 16-18. As Nikki and Lily explained, you just sit and they bring food. The dinner [it was lunch time, but this was indeed dinner] started with meats and bread on the table and a baked, soft and warm sheep cheese that was absolutely delicious. This was the one place you did not refuse the appetizers, because they were clearly part of the experience. The meal featured black pork, some pork ribs, a spinach soufflé, and a unique cauliflower dish, shaped like a small loaf of bread but soft. Red wine came with the meal, and dessert included two sweet dishes. My wife, who watches what she eats, loved the atmosphere and the experience. I loved to food. Total price for both of us: 40 Euros. The waiter, who said he was the son of the owner/chef, spoke very good English and we had a nice chat with him although he refused to tell my wife the ingredients in the spinach dish. The restaurant is very small, and we appeared to be the only Americans there. He said that two or three years ago, they might get 10 American parties per year, but that number has increased considerably in the last few years. More walking and exploring, and then we stopped at the supermarket on the way to our hotel to get water and the next day’s breakfast – some sheep cheese and bread.

Day 7 – Evora/ Estremoz/ Castelo de Vide/ Marvao
Sunday dawned gray, but we savored our special room at Convento Do Espinherio having breakfast on the balcony before checking out and heading north to the mountains. Our drives averaged about two hours each, so on this day we planned several stops en route to our evening in Marvao. The evening before, my Blackberry brought the New York Times travel section, with a picture of the walled city of Marvao, and descriptions of the Alto Alentejo, the border province we were visiting these two days, as the new Tuscany, the up-and-coming region of Europe which was just starting to be discovered by tourists.

We stopped in Estremoz at another Pastelaria, then drove to Castelo de Vide, a quiet and very photogenic hilltop town, which the guidebooks say once had a thriving Jewish community. The Tourist Office was closed for the lunch hour, so we wandered around a found a bar just behind the main cathedral, with an outdoor grill filled with chicken. So we stopped and had lunch before heading back to the Tourist Office to our map and directions. We headed for the “sinagoga”, a climb up a very narrow almost alleyway, and discovered a museum which had just opened earlier in the year. Unfortunately, all the signage was in Portuguese so we could not read or understand it. The woman at the desk said that the town government had funded the museum.

We left Castelo de Vide and headed for Marvao, about 15 kilometers away and overlooking Spain. We had loaded Portugal and Spain onto our son’s Garmin, and it was comforting to have that assistance, in English. What a beautiful view when we reached the town, although my wife kept saying “you drive, I’ll look for both of us.” Our hotel was just inside the gate and easy to find, and the view from our room at Albergaria El Rei Dom Manuel was magnificent. Fodor’s said we were in one of five rooms with cliff-side views. The walled and fortified town is about 3000 feet above sea level, with 360 degree views from the 13th century castle, with stone walls around the town added in the 17th century. After checking in to the hotel, we walked to the castle but a heavy mist made it our coldest day of the trip. We also went to the nearby museum. We had an enjoyable and very tasty dinner at the hotel, along with the other three couples staying there, but it appeared no one else spoke English. We turned in early and woke to the noise of cars beneath our window going up or down the single lane between the hotel and the walls of the town.

Day 8 – Marvao/ Obidos/ Nazare
The day dawned bright and sunny, and after breakfast at the hotel, we spent a few more hours exploring the nooks and crannies of Marvao. My wife wanted to walk on the wall, so we did for a while, but about half way through the height .. more accurately the potential drop off .. frightened me and we went to firmer ground. Workmen were preparing for the following weekends chestnut festival, which is said to draw 30,000 people. I don’t know where they will all fit. We left Marvao and headed west, stopping in another pretty walled town, Obidos for lunch [vegetable soup and an omelet again] and more walking. The drive was scenic, and much of it on wide highways, so we encountered some very fast – although not at all reckless – driving by people zooming by us. I was going about 120 km/hour, and they must have been going over 150. On the drive, basically across the middle of the country, we encountered windmill farms, a large dam, and a nuclear power plant. After the visit to Obidos, we headed north to Nazare and Quintas das Rosas, another recommendation from this board and confirmed by Trip Advisor. Quintas das Rosas was a couple kilometers out of the Nazare, with a view of the city. Anna, the innkeeper left us a note that she would be back later, so we made our way into the city, went to the tourist office to get a map and our bearings, and then went back to the Inn. Night was falling, and I was reluctant to drive into the town, so Anna and her husband recommended a restaurant and drove us there. My wife had sea bass and I had sole and the dinner was very nice, although only a few other tables were occupied. We walked to the taxi stand about 9:15, but there were no taxis, and after about 15 minutes reluctantly called the Innkeeper who came into town to pick us up. We were the only guests in the B&B – it was, after all, mid-November, and not high tourist season. We thanked her profusely and went to bed.

Day 9 – Nazare / Porto
Breakfast consisted of fruit and fresh eggs from the chickens on the farm. We thanked our host, and headed off for the all highway drive north to Porto. We were surprised how few other cars were on the road. The tolls were high, and perhaps those two facts are related. Anyway, as we drove we watched the fuel gauge but it barely moved down, and we filled up with diesel fuel only once, about 40 kilometers south of Porto, for about 50 Euros. With the GPS, the hotel was easy to find, and we unloaded, checked in, and then returned the car less than a half-mile from the hotel. I was happy to be in a city and relieved that the car was returned safely. I hadn’t needed the extra $100 worth of insurance, but it was a good insurance policy. The Sheraton Porto was similar to the Sheraton in Lisbon. It was in a business neighborhood, and more like a W than a Sheraton, and rated the top hotel in Porto [out of 110] on Trip Advisor. We walked about ¾ of a mile to the acclaimed Casa da Musica, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, which opened in 2005, and then took the Metro into the central part of the city.

We had read in Lisbon that if we saved our Hop On – Hop Off tickets, we could get a 25% discount for the Porto Hop On – Hop Off, so we did that and caught a bus leaving in 5 minutes. After that overview, we walked the city, and decided to try for another late lunch/early dinner about 5.p.m. at Chez Lapin, a well-known, and Fodor’s Choice spot on the Cais da Ribeira, overlooking the river. Chez Lapin was closed at 5, but we went to the place right next door and had a very nice meal. It was nearly dark, and we were tired, so we walked back to the Metro and then headed to our hotel with all the commuters. We stopped in on the Club Lounge, where we found ourselves alone until one other couple arrived. The Club Lounges at many US properties are so crowded there is often little left to eat, but that wasn’t the case here.

Day 10 – Porto
For our last full day in Portugal, we planned to walk through the shopping areas we had seen on the bus the previous day, and take the other two routes on the Hop On – Hop Off which would take us across the river. We started with a light breakfast in the Club Lounge, and then took the Metro into the downtown area to catch the bus. We got off the bus and stopped for coffee and another “natas” at the well-known and historic coffeehouse, the Majestic Café which I had read about and wanted to visit. We walked through the fancy shopping district, with my wife resisting any temptations – the dollar was so weak against the Euro that she wasn’t every temped, and then we decided to try Chez Lapin for a regular lunch. It was open, and the 17 Euro tourist menu filled us up. After lunch, we took the last route on the bus, and then headed back to the hotel to pack. We were going to eat near the hotel, but decided that a nightcap at the Club Lounge would be sufficient.

Day 11 – Departure
The only rainy day of the trip was our departure day. We had an easy the taxi ride to the airport [24 Euros including tip] and an easy check-in. As we were getting ready to board, the rain stopped and blue sky appeared. The flight back was on an Airbus 330, and the time passed quickly as I played on-line trivia game on the video screen in front of me.

In planning the trip, we relied on Rick Steeves’ book, and used this message board and the Fodor’s web site extensively.

We focused on the cities because we love to explore cities, and we enjoyed our visits to the country. We would have spent some time in Belem, we might have gone to a Fado show, but we did most of what we wanted to. We didn’t need to do the Algarve because we live near the beach, and we would have liked to visit wine country if we had more time. Maybe on our next trip.

We took the Fodor’s and Eyewitness Travel books with us, and my wife bought two pocket dictionaries. She was better able to read Portuguese than to speak or understand it spoken, but after 12 days she was communicating easily and even I learned to pronounce “obrigado”
asp10 is offline  
Old Nov 15th, 2009, 05:47 PM
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It is always a joy for me to read about a trip to Portugal. It is a country that we have really come to love.
I am glad you enjoyed your visit. It seems as if you took your time and were able to apprecitate some of the high points.
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Old Nov 16th, 2009, 01:13 AM
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Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative and enjoyable report!
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Old Nov 18th, 2009, 04:22 AM
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A nuclear power plant in Portugal???
WOW!!! They built one and I didn't notice
lobo_mau is offline  
Old Nov 18th, 2009, 06:10 AM
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Glad you had a good time in Portugal. And nice to read of another fan of Bomjardim!
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