Brief report of pleasant Portugal jaunt

Jun 11th, 2018, 11:35 AM
  #1  
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Brief report of pleasant Portugal jaunt

When several things in life aligned to make it possible to squeeze in a brief getaway, I chose to head to Portugal which has been on my list for a while. Dates were guided by existing commitments and the availability of FF reward tickets. On United's site snagged saver level RT biz class over the water on Lufthansa 747's!. Outbound IAD-FRA the upper deck was at least half empty, on the return FRA-DEN it was fully occupied. Here is what the LH seats look like. This was one of the older planes that still has the storage compartment next to the window. It was large enough to hold my duffel bag with room to spare. On the newer model the compartment is replaced by a shelf. The lie flat seats are the similar on both aircraft, with the newer version offering adjustable firmness of the seat cushions. On this upper deck it is 2-2 seating, but on the main deck Biz class is 2-3-2. Cannot imagine being in the middle seat in that configuration, would go for upper every time.

2nd Row LH 747 upper deck
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Jun 11th, 2018, 12:05 PM
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Lovely Lisbon

In contrast to my usual in depth planning over weeks this was a last minute trip. Arrival was delayed by bad weather at IAD so I lost most of Monday but did get to wander the neighborhood a bit. Used Trivago.com for the first time, booked through Expedia a room at Lisbon Sao Bento hotel which was pretty new appearing, compact but comfortable room, great breakfast and helpful staff. Location was good. Here's the view out my window


Hotel Lisbon Sao Bento

The success of my brief visit is in no small part owing to the bit of research that led me to grapeolivepig.com where I got in touch with an American now living in Portugal who offered general advice and with whom I booked a market and cooking experience as well as a wine country tour. Both were absolutely stellar, worth every euro and I highly recommend Maureen. Especially with a short time and last minute planning, she helped get the biggest bang for my limited time.


Lisbon Mercado da Ribeira


Fish stew we made

Encouraged by Maureen, I scheduled a couple days in Porto in the middle of my visit.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 01:05 PM
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Porto

It was easy to book the train from Lisbon to Porto on the Comboios de Portugal website. Based on schedule I went with the slower (by about 15 minutes) Intercidades in 2d class. When making reservations, pay attention to which station in Lisbon you depart from and keep in mind you want to go to Porto Sao Bento station which is in center of town. You'll likely have to get off at Porto Campanha station and transfer to an Urbano train to Sao Bento, easily done. Uber from hotel to train station in Lisbon and from train station to hotel in Porto was easy, but keep in mind that Uber drivers are not allowed in the taxi areas so pick up / discharge nearby.

One of the nice things I found in Portugal is that tech just seemed to work. I had my train ticket on my mobile phone. I booked a Porto walking tour and a Port wine tasting tour on my mobile. Free WiFi seemed to be widely available and work well. Thanks to my T-Mobile plan text and data are free in Portugal and I used the heck out of them. Also used the heck out of WhatsApp. I did notice that my phone battery seemed to wear down quickly, probably because it kept looking for a network signal. I kept a power stick with me each day and used it a few times. Speaking of all things digital, this was the first time I encountered a digital urinal.


Digital display urinal in Porto train station

Weather was not good first day in Porto, so took advantage of the gym at the Crowne Plaza Porto which was lovely. I scored two reward nights, was upgraded to premium floor - good travel karma! To maximize the next and final day I booked a great free walking tour (tipped the excellent guide 20 euro) on which we saw the bookstore where JK Rowling wrote her Harry Potter stories.

Livraria Lello where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter stories
After lunch and a bit of relax I had a second tour, this one for Port Wine tasting with Porto Walkers for a reasonable price of 25 euro. Visited a three port houses, learned a lot and sampled eight different wines - lovely. The port houses are actually not in Porto, but across the river in Gaia. Though I generally resist organized tours, this was great. And the wine samples helped compensate for the ubiquitous stairs


Wear comfortable shoes!
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Jun 11th, 2018, 01:55 PM
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Back to Lisbon

For the second stint in Lisbon booked through booking.com an apartment that was nice except for the trendy design dining table and chairs being too low for my aging self. Otherwise spacious, clean and comfortable, with great shower and nice kitchen facilities I used for breakfast using supplies from nearby supermarket. Like just about everything except the beaches in Lisbon, it is on a hill. The hill outside the apartment is right on the famous #28 tram line. Hills lead to staircases (escadas) leading to more stairs and hills. Lisbon is NOT for anyone with mobility problems.

On Sunday I headed to Sintra, accepting that there would likely be crowds.. Took the train to Cascais and then bus, which ate up time. Only later learned could have gotten train right to Sintra. If I had to to do again I'd likely sign up for one of the bus excursions from Lisbon. Again LOTS of uphill walking and stairs. Pena Palace was very cool, mostly for the views


Pena Palace view

Back in Lisbon spent time wandering around Alfama, the section not devastated in the 1755 earthquake which retains the maze like narrow cobblestone hilly passages. Had a great grilled fish dinner in a place among the narrow passages - in the middle of a steep staircase, of course

Last edited by Seamus; Jun 11th, 2018 at 01:57 PM.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 02:14 PM
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And, of course, pastries!

You no doubt have heard of the famous pastel de nata (or Pastel de Belém) which are a signature treat. A little bite of heaven. Think of a little pastry cup made of Mille-feuille and filled with a sweet Crème brûlée. They were everywhere, all the time, including breakfast. Fellow Fodorites have recommended Confeiteria Nacional as the best - and they were delectable! - but none of the many I tried were less than delicious. I felt justified feasting on them after climbing up to and all over Castelo Sao Jorge

The famous Confeitaria Nacional
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Jun 11th, 2018, 02:43 PM
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And more!

I enjoyed wandering about Lisbon, including the modern shopping area with the usual line up of luxury goods and shops around Rossio. Even more interesting were the little shops tucked along the (hilly) byways. I did not get to the museums as I had hoped, deciding they would be on the top of the list for next visit. The Mercado da Ribeira has been rebranded with the corporate logo of Time Out magazine but retains its original structure and function during daytime. In the evening and night time the central hall is swamped with folks sitting at communal tables chowing down on victuals from the various food vendors which line the perimeter of the space. Crowded with both tourists and locals but convivial, I enjoyed a luscious pork belly meal there. The miradouros offer spectacular views and I took in several.

So, to sum up and some practicalities:
Yes, put Portugal on your list as long as you have no mobility restrictions. If you do have some issues, plan to take uber or tuk-tuks as much as possible and plan your days carefully. Even with this you'll still face some walking/climbing at various sites so be prepared with comfortable shoes and any assistive device you find helpful (cane, walking stick) and build in rest periods on your itineraries.
Portuguese people are marvelously friendly, welcoming and helpful. Portuguese speakers understand Spanish better than vice versa, but in the cities English is common. During my brief visit I communicated with uber drivers in Spanish, English, French and Russian!
Uber and taxis are readily available. Several locals said uber is better, and that's what I used for everything except airport to hotel on arrival. A couple euro is well worth avoiding the schlep up and down those hills, especially at the end of the day.
Public transport is easy with a card good for 24 hours valid on all forms of transit or one with stored value you can recharge ("zap") at metro stations.
Porto is uniquely enjoyable, and I predict the area will give Tuscany a run for its money in terms of attracting tourists. I missed the Douro valley tour because of weather, but it top of the list for next visit. Locals said best time to visit is September/October.
Wandering in the maze of Alfama in Lisbon is a delightful past time!
At some crowded tourists sites and on Tram 28 police warned to beware of pickpockets, but otherwise I felt very safe everywhere.
The marvelous blend of history and modernity made this brief jaunt thoroughly enjoyable and whetted my appetite for more.

Evening procession

Thanks to all the Fodorites whose trip reports and postings made this an easy and enjoyable trip!
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Jun 11th, 2018, 03:11 PM
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When were you there? I was in Lisbon May 17-21, Coimbra May 22-23, and Porto May 24-26. I had great weather until the second day in Porto, when the rains started, and I too abandoned plans to visit the Douro Valley.

I was surprised how incredibly busy with tourists Porto but especially Lisbon are now - because of Portugal's old reputation of not quite being discovered. Clearly that's no longer true. I found public transportation in Lisbon mobbed, not just on Tram 28 (where the was almost always along line to board). It seems Lisbon really hasn't kept up with the big influx of new tourists.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 04:10 PM
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Enjoyed your report and photos, Seamus! Portugal is on my list.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 04:35 PM
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dcd
 
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Great report, Seamus! And pics!! Thanks. I think we're heading to Portugal next year.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 04:50 PM
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Nice report, and your pictures are great. I came home and made some of the custard tarts. My husband loved them, but they didn't hold a candle to the ones I ate in Portugal, especially those from Monasteiros Jeronimos.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 05:02 PM
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Thank You Seamus. This was great and extremely helpful. Your pictures are fabulous.

I'm doing a Road Scholar trip to Lisbon the end of January next year. My friend and I plan to stay on a few days afterwards by ourselves and this has provided loads of great information. We had considered heading to Spain, but it looks like there may be more than enough to do in Portugal. I better keep up with my daily walk/run regime and I think I need to add the stair stepper to it.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 05:53 PM
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I loved Lisbon - the architecture, the cobblestone streets, the pastel de Belem. The vinho verde!

I especially loved meandering through the narrow streets of the Alfama - that old world neighborhood where colorful clothes hung out to dry add to the postcard perfect charm of the city.

Boots
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Jun 11th, 2018, 07:21 PM
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@Andrew we may have passed in the air. I arrived Lisbon on 28th May. I was so bummed that the weather in Porto precluded the Douro valley tour, but plan for next visit to rent a car and drive the area - several folks recommended that as they best way to go. Did you enjoy Coimbra? One person told me there was not much there aside from the university, but others said it was worth a visit.

@barbrn - absolutely stay in training! The hills are challenging but your buns will look great! If your Road Scholar tour does not provide enough time in the Alentejo wine country, I heartily recommend a day trip with Maureen Ferguson. She is not only incredibly knowledgeable but a delightful travel companion.

@ dcd - do it! do it! As Andrew notes, it is an increasingly popular destination. Even where there were crowds I found things pretty darn civil and friendly.

@ Florida1 - move it up a few notches on your list! It does seem to be getting more popular, so get there before the crowds are unbearable.
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Jun 11th, 2018, 07:30 PM
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And another thing...

I already mentioned the interesting juxtaposition of the historic and the modern that seems to characterize Lisbon. So the counterbalance of the digital display urinal in the Porto train station was the comfort station on the hill leading up to Castelo S. Jorge. Yes, it may seem a bit indelicate but trust me it is a welcome sight to an aging prostate!
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Jun 11th, 2018, 07:33 PM
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Originally Posted by Seamus View Post
@Andrew we may have passed in the air. I arrived Lisbon on 28th May. I was so bummed that the weather in Porto precluded the Douro valley tour, but plan for next visit to rent a car and drive the area - several folks recommended that as they best way to go. Did you enjoy Coimbra? One person told me there was not much there aside from the university, but others said it was worth a visit.
I'd agree with both sentiments: there's not much there aside from the university...but it is worth a visit. It's an interesting town for sure, even if not completely charming. (If you learned about Portugal's troubled 20th century mostly under the dictator Salazar, a visit to Coimbra shows you where he came from; he was a professor there originally.)

Coimbra is quite easy to visit as a stop between Porto and Lisbon by train, anyway. I had two nights in Coimbra and could have managed with one (one night wasn't quite enough, two nights perhaps too many). I did an impulsive day trip (by bus) down to the lovely beach town of Nazare from Coimbra after the first night, and I should instead just have taken my bags and stayed a night down there, because I LOVED Nazare. (Yes, I will do my own trip report, once I get my pictures sorted!)

One big upside to Coimbra: almost zero tourists compared to Lisbon and Porto, so that was a nice relief.
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Jun 12th, 2018, 07:42 AM
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@Seamus and @Andrew - Do either of you have info on where to store luggage in Coimbra? I'll be stopping there for a few hours on my way to Porto. I'll just have one bag, but it's too big and heavy for me to comfortably schlep around town. I've found contracting advice on luggage storage online, so it's probably best to ask those who have been there recently.
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Jun 12th, 2018, 09:26 AM
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Originally Posted by memejs View Post
@Seamus and @Andrew - Do either of you have info on where to store luggage in Coimbra? I'll be stopping there for a few hours on my way to Porto. I'll just have one bag, but it's too big and heavy for me to comfortably schlep around town. I've found contracting advice on luggage storage online, so it's probably best to ask those who have been there recently.
No official luggage storage in Coimbra as I recall at either station. But you can probably do what I did in Tomar and store it at one of the hotels close to the small Coimbra station. (The hotel in Tomar refused to take any money to store my bags.) An old Trip Advisor thread mentions a cafe that would store the luggage, but it seems they have since closed down. I would try the Hotel Braganca, which is literally across the street from the small Coimbra station. I almost stayed there. Otherwise, I'm sure you can find somewhere to store it. I have done this a few times before in other towns, and Coimbra is pretty low-key when it comes to tourists. I wouldn't not visit Coimbra if you can't figure this out ahead of time - figure it out when you arrive if need be.

Coimbra has two stations, and coming from Lisbon, you'll almost certainly have to change at the larger Coimbra-B (think B means "big" - on the fast train lines) to the smaller Coimbra station nearby. Any ticket ending in Coimbra-B includes a ticket to Coimbra and vice versa (so if an agent sells you a ticket to Coimbra-B, you don't need to buy one on to Coimbra proper). If going on to Porto from Coimbra, you might as well take a regional train like I did, if the schedule works out. Some of the regional trains go from the little Coimbra station directly to Porto Campanha station. Even though the IC and AP trains are faster and make fewer stops, connecting to one at Coimbra-B often involves a layover anyway, so the regional train may not be much slower - but probably a few Euros cheaper. I found the regional trains in this region (which have WC's) were not very crowded and I had plenty of room to spread out. The IC trains I was on were less comfortable, actually, even if faster.

(And in Porto you'll similarly have to change at Campanha station to one to Sao Bento, the one in the center of town - same thing, tickets to Campanha include a ticket on to Sao Bento, no need to buy another one.)
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