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Lisbon, Alentejo and Madrid: Nikki's trip report


Sep 6th, 2007, 06:03 AM
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Lisbon, Alentejo and Madrid: Nikki's trip report

Over a year ago, I read a notice on an internet travel forum asking if anyone knew how to go about arranging a house exchange. This person was looking for a place in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and had a house in the South of France. Hmm. I don’t have a place in Canada, but I do have a house on Cape Cod, and how different can they be? So I asked if she’d be interested and ran around taking pictures to send her. Within a month, we were talking about dates.

We firmed up our plans in October, agreeing that we would go to France the last two weeks in August. This gave me lots of time to fantasize about the South of France. With all that time, my mind began to wander. Since we had two weeks of free accommodations, and since we were spending all that money to fly to Europe, why not extend the trip? Last year I traveled to Spain and Portugal with a friend, but my husband didn’t come. He liked my pictures of Lisbon. So I thought it would be fun to fly to Lisbon with him and spend a week in Portugal and Spain on our way to the house exchange in France.

We ended up planning a trip that would last just over three weeks, the longest trip we had ever taken. We would fly to Lisbon for three nights, then rent a car and drive to the Alentejo. After two nights there, we would drive to Madrid for two nights and then fly to Toulouse. Our two daughters, both university students, would fly to Toulouse to meet us and we would spend one night there in a hotel before driving to our house exchange an hour and a half away.

To get in the mood for Portugal, I read several novels:

The Maias, by Jose Maria Eca de Queiros. This was recommended to me by Lobo Mau on Fodors, who told me there had been no significant changes in Lisbon since the book was published in 1888, except that mules no longer pull the trams. This is a very big work, painting a wry portrait of Lisbon life and social mores. I see that there is a brand new translation into English, and I wish I had read that, as the one I read was very dated. I guess the English language has changed more since 1888 than Portuguese society.

A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson. A greatly atmospheric mystery set in Portugal and ranging from the time of the Nazis and the Salazar dictatorship through the present, by an English author who now lives in the Alentejo.

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by Jose Saramago. Written in very dense prose, this novel won the Nobel Prize. I am now working my way through it for a second time. A greater knowledge of Portuguese literature and history might have enhanced my appreciation of this work, and it has led me to want to explore more.

The Time Out Lisbon guidebook was extremely useful.

I started listening to recordings of fado, the Portuguese music sung in Lisbon bars and restaurants. Last winter we went to see a concert in Boston put on by Mariza, a popular young fado singer with an amazing voice. The hall was filled with people speaking Portuguese. We could almost be in Lisbon already.

The one thing I did not do in preparation for Portugal was spend any significant time attempting to learn Portuguese. I did, however, attempt to learn the pronunciation, which I was told was simple and phonetic. Phonetic, yes; simple, not so much. But I did manage to communicate our destinations to taxi drivers and we did get where we wanted to go most of the time.
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Sep 6th, 2007, 06:05 AM
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Pictures from this trip are posted at:

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Sep 6th, 2007, 06:07 AM
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We flew from Boston to Amsterdam on Northwest and from Amsterdam to Lisbon on KLM. The flights were uneventful, just the way we like them, and we arrived in Lisbon as scheduled in the afternoon. We took a taxi to the Hotel Borges and checked in. I had stayed there last summer, but between then and now I had learned to pronounce both the name of the hotel and the street it was on, so the cab driver whisked us there without too many quizzical looks. (You would think the pronunciation of the street, Rua Garrett, would not provide such a challenge, but you would be wrong.)

I chose the Hotel Borges because of its wonderful location in the Chiado, right over the landmark café A Brasileira. We paid 75 euros per night, a rate I found on an internet booking website, http://lisbon.nethotels.com.

As we were checking out, I was presented with a bill at a rate of 85 euros per night, and when I told the desk clerk that my confirmation said 75 euros, he was surprised and said that wasn’t the price. However, as I fumbled through my papers for the confirmation, he changed the bill for me. Another reason to keep confirmations until checkout.

The first room we were given was very small and the bathroom was challenging due to a small and oddly shaped tub. We spent one night in that room and requested another room the next morning. We were given a much bigger room just a couple doors down, with a much bigger bathroom and a regular sized tub.

Both rooms fronted on the street. This was both an advantage and a disadvantage. The street scene was lively and fascinating. But it was also very loud. There was a guy who arrived each day in the middle of the day and started banging on a drum. Monotonously, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and an intense stare frozen on his face. Sometimes other people would come and join in by singing and playing a guitar, or by playing one melody repeated over and over on a flute. One time the drummer was joined by a woman playing the bagpipes. This went on every day until late at night.

I don’t remember this particular form of entertainment from last summer. Our rooms last summer overlooked a quiet side street, and it was hot, so we kept the windows closed and the air conditioning on. But this summer it was not hot, we had open windows and it was very loud. I thought it was too bad we couldn’t go give them, or even just the drummer, some money to stop playing. We were tired and we did sleep. It might be a problem though for people who require a more quiet environment.

After a welcome drink at the café downstairs, we decided to go for a walk before the inevitable crash after our overnight flight. So we headed off on the hilly and atmospheric Lisbon streets. The weather was beautiful and sunny, and despite my fears, not uncomfortably hot. We walked with no plan and stumbled onto the panoramic park at the Esplanada do Adamastor. There were people meeting up to play music together in a scene reminiscent of Washington Square Park in the 1960s. A café served drinks with a view and people were lying on the grass. We sat on a bench and soaked up some sunshine and some atmosphere for a while.

The statue of Adamastor overlooked the scene. This spot in Lisbon and this statue played an important symbolic role in the Saramago novel I had read, which I did not recognize until I was standing on the spot. Adamastor was a mythic figure created by the sixteenth century Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes, whose statue presides over the large plaza near our hotel. Adamastor apparently was a force of nature standing in the way of the Portuguese explorers, and is described in Camoes’ epic poem as appearing to Vasco da Gama as he approached the Cape of Good Hope:

Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.

On this sunny afternoon, the forces of nature appeared to be tamed, and Adamastor was sporting a red and yellow toy trumpet in his mouth. Grateful that no malevolent storm threatened our own explorations, we walked back to the hotel and took a nap with the background music of the relentless drummer of Rua Garrett.
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Sep 6th, 2007, 06:43 AM
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nikki, what a fantastic start to your trip report, literary references and all!

We spent just one day in Lisbon many years ago and I've always wanted to return so I can understand why you did too. It's a lovely city and on a manageable scale. Great food too, as I recall.

It was interesting to read about how you arranged your house exchange as France is supposed to be one of the hardest countries to swap with. You lucked out. We discussed exchanging with a family we met in France last summer so hopefully something will come of that eventually. We did mange to exchange with a family in Lyon one year. The wife was an English teacher who was taking a class in Toronto. She contacted us beforehand about exchanging when her family could join her in August. It was a wonderful experience for us all.
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Sep 6th, 2007, 11:06 AM
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This is great. More, more!
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Sep 6th, 2007, 04:05 PM
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We woke up ready for the Friday evening Lisbon nightlife. We met Lobo Mau and his wife Loba in the hotel lobby as planned and walked to the Bairro Alto. Last summer I had gone to a get-together arranged by Lobo (and by another Fodors poster, Matt from England) for Fodors posters visiting Lisbon. This had been a highlight of my trip. Since then I had seen Lobo and Loba a couple more times, including one memorable evening when they came to New York in March. (I love the internet!)

We walked to the restaurant Caldo Verde and after some discussion the staff added a table for us even though they were already filled. We ordered the green cabbage soup for which the restaurant is named, as well as some other dishes selected by Lobo. Good to have someone around to order in Portuguese. Then the singing began. Several different fado singers took turns singing short sets, with breaks in between. One guy got up from the audience and sang a set as well. It was a lovely, casual atmosphere with good food, good conversation, and good music.

After we left Caldo Verde at nearly 2 AM, the streets were filled with young people heading out to bars and clubs. When we reached the hotel we stood talking in the street until I felt it must be bedtime, even back in Massachusetts. Even the drummer of Rua Garrett had left. So we called it a night and ended this long, wonderful day.
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Sep 6th, 2007, 08:01 PM
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great! looking forward to more when you can!
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Sep 7th, 2007, 01:57 AM
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Saturday morning we slept. We were awakened when it was almost noon by someone singing Hare Krishna outside our window through a bullhorn. By the time we went downstairs to the café, the singer had taken his bullhorn and left, so we sat and watched the world go by. The historic old trams passed us every few minutes, so we thought we’d take one. We walked across the street to the bus stop and waited, but every tram that came was packed, so we decided to put that trip off and take a taxi to a store I wanted to visit.

I love pottery. I had heard from Fodor’s poster Laartista that there was great pottery at Santos Officios Artesanatos, Rua da Madalena 87, Baixa. And when we entered the store, they were playing my song. There was a great collection of pottery from all over Portugal. I took quite a while to pick out my bounty, trying hard to remember that I would also be going to the Alentejo, where I could probably buy more. So I restrained myself and bought only a colorful Alentejan dish for grilling chourico and a set of three curved blue nesting serving dishes from the North of Portugal. I pointed out to my husband that it could have been worse, there were actually four nesting dishes and I was leaving the largest one behind reluctantly, thinking of the dimensions of my carry-on bag.

After leaving the shop, we bought a cold drink and walked through the streets of Baixa, the flat, commercial area between the hills of the Alfama to the East, and the Chiado to the West. We stopped for lunch at a small storefront where I had an omelet and potato chips. Throughout our stay in Portugal, potato chips and fries were served with everything. We were guessing the chips were homemade, and the guess was confirmed when an employee wheeled a dolly loaded with enormous sacks of potatoes into the kitchen.

After lunch, we walked across the enormous Praca do Comercio toward the waterfront. There is a large construction project going on, fencing off the waterfront from the street. I am hoping that the project is to enhance waterfront access and the result will be to open the waterfront to the city, but for now it was having the opposite effect. We watched a ferryboat on the river, and followed it to the ferry terminal, where we decided impulsively to get on. Having no real idea where it was going, we just hoped there would be another one to take us back again.

There was no obvious place in the terminal to buy tickets, and there appeared to be only one employee, a man standing by the turnstiles taking people’s tickets. I asked him if we could buy tickets and he signaled for me to wait. When the line of people going through the turnstiles slowed down, he walked with us to a ticket machine, which he then operated for us (including going somewhere to get change for our too-large bill) and gave us tickets. I asked where we were going, he told me a name which meant nothing to me and I asked how long it would take. Twenty minutes. All right, that didn’t seem too risky then. So we thanked him and got on the boat.

This appeared to be a commuter boat. There was a lot of seating inside but no open decks. That was disappointing because it was a beautiful day, getting hot, and it would have been lovely to sit outside. We did get to see the view through a small window next to our seats, but there was no good way to take photos. A shame, because the view of Lisbon from the water is fascinating and colorful, a jumble of buildings rising up the hills from the river.

Arriving at the ferry terminal South of the river, we weren’t sure what to do. I had read that there were beaches there, but we had no idea how to get to them. There were a lot of buses but no visible taxis. So we turned around, got back on the ferry and returned to Lisbon.

Back at the Praca do Comercio, there was loud music and a stage with a crowd gathered to watch. We walked over and found an ice sculpture demonstration in progress. Two guys were sculpting a pair of fish symmetrically, in unison, using chainsaws. I had fun photographing the ice sculpture and the crowd.

We walked up the Rua Augusta, filled with people, and ended up at Rossio, a large public square with a fountain in the middle. The pattern of paving tiles here succeeded in confusing me even though I knew it was an optical illusion. Like many of the streets and sidewalks in Lisbon, the pavement was comprised of mosaic tiles. There appeared to be waves in the pavement, and I kept expecting to have to step over them. The effect was a bit dizzying. Sort of like wearing new glasses.

Next we walked to the Elevador da Santa Justa, with the intent of taking it up to the Chiado, but the line was too long. So we walked up the Rua do Carmo and then up Rua Garrett and back to our hotel. There was a woman in colorful African dress singing to the accompaniment of a guy on an instrument like a xylophone with wooden keys over gourds for resonance. This sounded nicer than the earlier music, so we stayed and listened for a while before going out to dinner.

Dinner was at the Cervejaria Trindade, Rua Nova da Trindade 20C, a few blocks steeply uphill from our hotel. We had to wait in line for a table; there are no reservations. Many people eating there were tourists, but many were not. The restaurant is on the site of an old monastery and is lined with beautiful tile murals of the elements and the seasons. Service was slow, but I was glad to be off my feet. We had wonderful small clams and shrimp for appetizers, then shrimp acorda and rice with monkfish. All very good. And then to bed.
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Sep 7th, 2007, 07:49 AM
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Sunday morning we managed to wake up before the crowds gathered outside our window. It was a peaceful, bright morning and we figured we had a shot at catching the Tram 28 before it was packed. So we went to the stop across the street from the hotel and waited for it.

I had taken this ride last summer and found it was over quickly, ending at Largo da Graca. There are at least two different routes, and the one the tram took this time was a longer one, finishing at Largo do Martim Moniz. The tram descended the steep, narrow streets from the Chiado, crossed the flat lowlands of Baixa, then climbed into the Alfama on streets so twisty and narrow that I worried whether there would be room to pass the dogs we saw in the street. The dogs seemed to know enough to stay in the doorways as the tram passed. There were cars parked up on the curb leaving an inch or two for the trams to get by; I assume the owners know what they’re doing.

As the tram filled with passengers, there were many tourists, but there were also quite a few jolly old ladies, getting on and off after a stop or two, clinging to the poles, talking and laughing with each other. It looked hard to me, being old, walking up and down these steep hills, and relying on this method of public transportation, but they were certainly making the best of it and seemed to be in excellent spirits.

We got off at the end of the line and sat in the park at Largo do Martim Moniz, watching the fountains come on and enjoying the view up toward the castle. There was a long line waiting to get back on the tram, so we decided to take a taxi to Belem, where our next item of business was to eat the famous pasteis de Belem at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, an icon of a pastry shop with seating in back for the mobs that descend on it. Delicious custard tarts with cinnamon.

After that we walked to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. Along the way, my husband ducked into an alleyway to look for a column described in the Time Out guide as the site of the execution of an aristocratic family condemned as part of an assassination attempt in 1759. According to the guidebook, salt was spread so nothing would grow there. The guidebook states, and my husband confirms, that there are weeds growing there now.

There was a church service in progress at the monastery, so we did not wait in the long line to go inside the church. The cloisters were open, though, and we went in there to get a look at the prime example of the Portuguese late Gothic style of architecture called Manueline.

Across the street from the monastery, and stretching to the waterfront, there is a park with a fountain. Beyond that, there is the Adrao dos Descobrimentos, the Monument to the Discoveries, an enormous stone edifice built during the Salazar era. We were satisfied to see it from afar, and instead of going toward it we decided to explore the brand new Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Belem Cultural Center.

This museum exhibits the works amassed by a Portuguese collector named Joe Berardo, who made his fortune on South African gold mines. It opened in June of this year and is free to all visitors until the end of 2007. The building is large and austere and short on visitor amenities such as benches within the galleries. The collection is interesting and arranged thematically in a way that makes one think about the works. We spent an hour or so looking through the museum and then went to the museum café across the courtyard for cold drinks. By that time I needed several in order to feel human.

The rear of the museum, facing the waterfront, has a nice open area with trees, grass, and seating, as well as tables and chairs for patrons of the museum cafeteria. I parked myself on a bench with a view and soaked up some sun while my husband walked to the Torre de Belem, the Tower of Belem. There is a busy highway and railroad tracks separating the waterfront from the rest of Belem. An underpass leads to the Monument to the Discoveries, and farther along the waterfront there is an overpass near the tower. It is a long walk on the wrong side of the tracks from the museum to the tower, and according to my husband there was an unpleasant sewage smell along the way. Made me sort of glad my feet were too shot to make the trek. Also made me think the route along the waterfront would be preferable for anyone considering doing this.

After my husband returned from his walk and we had more cold drinks, we returned to the hotel for a rest and to decide where to go for dinner. We ended up eating at Stop do Bairro, Rua Tenente Ferreira Durao 55A in the neighborhood of Campo de Ourique. No reservations. This was a real find! It is a small, bustling storefront restaurant filled with people who greeted the staff with kisses like old friends.

The menu was hand typed (on a typewriter!) with a long list of specials with the date on it. Fortunately our waitress spoke English and was able to translate for us and make recommendations. There were wonderful starters on the table. In Portugal, they put out cheese and sausage and olives and other things that you didn’t order, but that doesn’t mean they are complimentary. You pay for those that you eat. We always ate them all; I can’t imagine leaving them.

We ordered grilled rabbit and a casserole of pork and clams. Everything was delicious. Everyone seemed to be getting fruit for dessert, so we got a bowl of cherries and a whole sliced mango. When we asked for the check, the waitress brought out the port. By the time we left, my husband was kissing the waitress’s hand.

We asked if they could call us a cab, and the waitress said to wait a few minutes. We did, and when we went outside we saw a taxi pull up in front and the waitress hopped out. We left with huge grins on our faces. If we had more time in Lisbon, I would have gone back the next night. Maybe a few more times.
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Sep 7th, 2007, 08:05 AM
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Thanks Leely, Moolyn, Amsdon, for your encouraging comments. I'm still plugging away.
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Sep 7th, 2007, 09:18 AM
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Nikki - thanks for taking the time to write a report. DH and I visited Portugal last year and I'm reliving my trip through your report.
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Sep 7th, 2007, 11:24 AM
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Back on the Rua Garrett, a bagpiper had joined the intrepid drummer, and then we heard a siren in the street, blending in with the bagpipes. We smiled at the sounds of the city and went to bed.

Monday morning we packed and took a taxi to the airport to pick up our rental car. We weren’t the only ones. There was a line in front of Europcar that took an hour to reach the agents at the desk. And the line was getting longer behind us. But eventually we got our car and hit the road to the Alentejo.

Almost as soon as we were out of Lisbon, we started seeing cork trees. We passed lots of farms, orchards, olive groves, cows. The countryside became very dry. We were headed for the town of Terena, and after an hour and a half on the road, we were off the highway on the local roads through the beautiful countryside. We passed the town of Borga and saw hills of marble, white in the sun. The countryside was hillier than it had appeared from the highway.

We passed towns that looked brand new, with white, white houses, but they were old towns that kept their buildings whitewashed until they gleamed like the marble in the hills. I could only think that if we lived there, we’d be ostracized for not painting our house often enough.

We reached Terena and found our way to the upper town, an ancient hill town capped by a castle and a church. The Casa de Terena, the inn where we were staying, was across the street from the church (the innkeeper holds the key) and just down the street from the castle. In front of the church there is a column on a base made from the blocks of a Roman temple.

The streets are narrow and roughly cobbled, and there are dogs keeping watch in the middle of the road who wait until you bring your car to a stop before getting up and slowly moving out of the way. Old men and women sit outside their doors on plastic chairs and watch all who come and go.

We parked outside the inn and I said, “There’s a guard dog here”. “Be careful not to hurt it,” said my husband. The small, elderly dog didn’t budge though, and I stepped over him into the Casa de Terena.

We were greeted by Jeremy, a South African who runs the inn along with his wife Stella. Cold drinks appeared. We climbed the stairs (made from the marble of a ruined Roman temple found in the vicinity) and chose our room. Then Jeremy mapped out a route for us to explore the countryside.

The Casa de Terena (www.casadeterena.com) turned out to be an ideal place to stay for many reasons. The town itself is a wonderful, off-the-beaten-path hill town that makes the bigger and more well-known ones look like tourist traps. The inn is filled with character and has nice bedrooms with beautiful new bathrooms. A wonderful breakfast of local produce, cheese, fruit, ham, breads, and more is provided each morning and is, according to the hosts, “as organic as possible”. We paid 90 euros per night for our double room and breakfast, and were charged 9 euros per night for extras including drinks and internet access.

The owners are extremely knowledgeable about the area and went beyond the call of duty in helping us find sights and restaurants we would enjoy. And they are native speakers of English, which is no small help in this most rural corner of Portugal. I had arrived with a list of places to visit, but Jeremy countered with his own suggestions and pointed us toward the town of Juromenha, with the promise of a ruined castle on the border with Spain.
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Sep 7th, 2007, 12:00 PM
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Great trip report, Nikki, it brings back many memories! We loved Stop do Bairro too, and have the NY Times to thank for it.

I've taken a car from Lisbon to the Alentejo on several occasions and we have found that it is much easier to pick up the car at an in-town location (we've gone to one on the road that the Corte Ingles is on, maybe it's a Budget affiliate, or one over behind the Gulbenkian, through a rental with Carjet). From these two locations, access to the Eixo Norte Sul to get to the bridge and on the road to the Alentejo is quick and easy. We've never had more than one other customer in either office.

Since we usually rent the car at the end of our visit, we then drop it off at the airport on day of departure. The in-town and airport locations count as the same drop-off place so there's no extra charge.

I'm looking forward to later installments. Thanks so much!
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Sep 7th, 2007, 12:07 PM
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Now you tell me. Oh well, with any luck there will be a next time.

Thanks for the encouragement, bailey and lreynold.
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Sep 7th, 2007, 06:47 PM
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When we reached Juromenha, we found the castle easily and drove around the side as Jeremy had instructed us. There was nobody there but us. No infrastructure, no tourist facilities, just a huge ruined castle with a view over the Guadiana River that forms the border with Spain. A few other people did show up before we left, but the experience still felt like pioneering on newly discovered territory.

Our next stop was Vila Vicosa. It was late in the day and the palace of the Dukes of Braganca was closed. We viewed the exterior and then drove around the town. We drove through the walls of the old castle and found a church inside. Then we drove up a road following a sign that pointed toward a “miradouro” or scenic overlook and found some beautiful viewpoints over the town and the countryside.

By now it was time to head to Vila Fernando, where we had a dinner planned with Lobo and Loba, who were vacationing in the area. Vila Fernando is a tiny town, in the center of which is a church, a monument, and a restaurant in one of the old houses beside the church. We met at the restaurant, Taberna do Adro. Lobo had e-mailed directions to me and said I didn’t need a map of Vila Fernando, that “line of sight navigation is just fine.” And so it was.

We ate outside at a picnic table in front of the church. There wasn’t room inside the restaurant for our whole party, which had grown to five with the unexpected addition of Lobo’s son. As the evening wore on, the sky turned a deeper and deeper shade of blue, and I exercised the settings on my new camera trying to capture the mood.

Lobo ordered everything, and the food started appearing. For starters there were two kinds of sausage, chickpeas with egg and cod, roast peppers, cheese, and bread which came in a patchwork bag. There was also tortilla, the Spanish potato omelet, but Lobo turned up his nose at that as being too Spanish and not as good as the Portuguese fare.

The main course consisted of three different pork dishes, made of everything except the squeal. This was followed by an assortment of desserts and a local cherry liqueur. Lobo pointed out that all the food on the table except the cod probably was produced within a few miles of the town where we were eating it.

We ate and talked happily for hours, moving inside for coffee when it became chilly outside, and by the time we left I am sure the restaurant staff was glad to see us go. I felt a little sad saying good-bye to our friends, not knowing when or whether we would see them again.

Back at the Casa de Terena, there was a much more serene atmosphere than at our previous nights’ lodging. No sound at all as we fell asleep, and in the morning there was just a rooster to break the silence. Since I woke up before the rooster, all was still, and I went back to sleep.
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Sep 8th, 2007, 08:33 AM
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Nikki, don't forget, les beaux esprits toujours se rencontrent ;-)
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Sep 9th, 2007, 03:56 AM
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We got off to a slow start Tuesday morning after our late night. The lavish spread meant for breakfast was eaten closer to lunch time. Jeremy plotted out a course for us after noting our interest in ancient ruins, and we headed out to see what we could find.

We started with a route that Jeremy described as the smugglers’ road to Spain. The road headed toward the Guadiana River and dipped into it and disappeared. We did not follow it. There was apparently a ford across the river at one time. We didn’t see any smugglers, but we did see the signs of much social intercourse at the scenic and secluded spot.

The next mission was to find a menhir, or standing stone, near the road to Monsaraz. There was a sign pointing down a side road and we followed it, wondering what we were going to find and whether we would know it when we saw it. What we found was an enormous stone standing upright in the middle of a field to the side of the dirt road with no marker of any kind.

From there we drove to the white medieval hilltop town of Monsaraz. There is a castle at one end of the town and a church at the other. Magnificent views of the countryside all around. Castle walls could be climbed. We explored the town’s one street and then drove to see more of the area.

We passed another sign pointing toward an ancient site, and followed another dirt road through the olive groves to find an anta. The antas, also called dolmens, are megalithic chamber structures found throughout the area that date from the neolithic period. They are made of large flat stones covered with a large slab and then covered with dirt. This one was surrounded by olive trees.

As we drove toward our next goal, the pottery town of Sao Pedro do Corval, we passed a large, mushroom-shaped carved rock alongside a traffic circle. Later research identified this as the Rocha dos Namorados (lovers’ rock). Intent on finding our destination (more pottery, you know), and too goal-oriented to stop and investigate, we missed an opportunity here and regretted it later. So we didn’t see the stones resting on top of the megalith, ritually thrown over their shoulders by young women hoping to get married (if the stone lands on the rock, a marriage will follow).

But we did get to the town before all the pottery studios closed. We explored the town and saw many studios, some more set up for visitors than others. At the last two places we visited, I found enough colorful pottery to keep us a bit worried about how to pack it in our bags for travel. (Everything did make it home safely, even after my luggage had an unplanned stay in Amsterdam.)

While driving around Sao Pedro, we stopped at a bank to use the ATM. While the car was parked, we saw a birdcage hanging in the sun outside a building on a hook, with two birds (maybe parrots) inside squawking loudly. A man appeared and moved the birds to a hook outside the door of a store across the street in the shade.

Back at the Casa de Terena, Jeremy and Stella were sitting on the floor inside the doorway disassembling the lock to the front door, which had stopped working properly. When we arrived, Stella was more than happy to get up and relinquish her place to my husband, who spent an hour or so with Jeremy treating the lock like a Chinese puzzle. When the lock was reassembled, but a part was missing, I began to worry about our return later that evening. Would we have to throw pebbles at a window to be let in?

Jeremy took over the planning for our dinner. He described the restaurant he was recommending for us, O Chana, in Aldeia da Serra, near Redondo. He called the restaurant to find out what was on the menu that night, and the proprietor, learning we were coming and that we spoke no Portuguese, asked him to find out what we wanted for dinner. So we selected our dishes and Jeremy called back and ordered for us.

We drove toward Redondo on the scenic route, through tiny towns at dusk (Watch out for that dog! Old lady walking by the road!) and over hills covered with vineyards. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were expected. It was obvious that we were the Americans. Everybody else in the place was Portuguese. We didn’t have to say anything; food just kept appearing.

First there was the gaspacho, which was served in Portuguese style. Small cubes of ham and sausage were placed at the bottom of the bowl. We scooped the soup on top of this out of a bowl with a chunky mix of tomatoes, vegetables, oil, and ice. Then we added croutons, and on top went a whole fried fish.

There were starters consisting of a rich sausage/stuffing mixture; peppers in oil, vinegar and garlic; and diced pork liver cooked in oil. Then there were two different preparations of porco preto, the Portuguese black pig, one stewed and the other grilled.

For the finale we were given caramel mousse and a pastry with cinnamon and an Elvas plum in syrup. The chef had also packed us a jar of the Elvas plums, since we were looking for them and Jeremy had asked if he could sell us some. When we asked for the check, we were presented with glasses of licor de poejo, a bright yellow liqueur made from pennyroyal.

Once again, we left a restaurant with enormous grins on our faces. We drove back on the less scenic route, although there was the oddity of a giant lighted coffee cup in Alandroal, the only billboard we saw in the region.

On returning to the Casa de Terena, we found the door open, so there was no need to awaken the town when our key wouldn’t work in the lock. The hosts and the other guests were sitting in the living room having a lively conversation, which we joined until the party broke up and we went to bed.
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Sep 9th, 2007, 06:32 AM
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Nikki, I am really enjoying your report. As others have said it is bringing back great memories - I was in Lisbon and area over christmas/new years last year to visit my sister and loved the country and the people. Isn't the Santos Officios Artesanatos wonderful? I almost needed a U-haul to take everything I liked back home! I am looking forward to the rest of your report, especially Madrid as I will be in Madrid and Barcelona in November [by the way I also found your Spain trip report so helpful and in fact decided to rent the Barcelona apartment where you stayed based on your report].

Thanks again for sharing your trip and your pictures.

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Sep 9th, 2007, 08:01 AM
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Whiskey, I am really glad to read your comments. Sometimes writing these trip reports feels like a huge exercise in self-indulgence. Knowing that you acted on a recommendation from my Barcelona report makes it seem more worthwhile. Assuming, of course, that you enjoy the apartment and the neighborhood, which I sincerely hope you do.

I'll be looking forward to your trip report.
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Sep 9th, 2007, 09:55 AM
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Two nights were enough time in the Alentejo to give us just a small taste of the region. We both left feeling that it would be fun to come back and stay there for longer, exploring more of the area. We knew that our stops in Spain and Portugal would be all too brief, but we would make up for this week of fast travel with the two weeks of slow travel that would follow in France.

We left Wednesday morning (OK, so maybe it wasn’t really still morning) and drove toward Elvas. We were hoping to buy more Elvas plums. They come in two varieties: the ones in syrup, like the ones we had gotten at the restaurant, and a dry form, more like candy. We had tried these when Lobo and Loba had brought us some in New York, and they had been a big hit with various family members. We hoped to bring some home. We found, however, that all the stores in Elvas were closed for the August 15 holiday. Oh well.

We followed a sign in Elvas that pointed toward Espanha, since we were indeed headed for Spain. But we found ourselves in the fortified upper town and indeed were soon driving along the top of the ramparts. There was a repeated sound of cars honking their horns at an opening through the walls down below. We stopped for photos and then headed back down into the town. Attempting once again to follow the sign for Espanha, we found out why we had heard all that horn honking: the road led through an opening in the wall, then turned within the wall before heading out again. No way to see whether a car was coming the other way through the narrow opening.

We eventually found the highway leading to Spain and made our way along it to Madrid. As we approached the turnoff for Madrid, we heard a loud beep from the car, indicating we were almost out of gas. Oops. Not knowing how much gas we had left, and being unfamiliar with this car, we had a tense few minutes locating the next gas station near the highway. We got there without having to hail strangers on the road and ask for help in Spanish. A good thing too.

We thought it might be easiest to drop off our bags at the hotel on the Plaza Santa Ana and then return the car at the Atocha train station. We were wrong. We passed the station and tried to get to the Plaza Santa Ana, which was not far from there. We were confronted by a series of one way streets that soon had us lost in Old Madrid, wending our way down narrow streets with crowds of people walking. I would locate our position on a map and get us pointed in the right direction until we were confronted with a detour that turned us around again.

Actually, it was sort of fun. After circling past it a couple of times, we finally approached our hotel from the right direction and found a place to park very illegally if only temporarily while we unloaded. We then found the station without much trouble to return the car.

I had conceived of our stay in Madrid as a fun city break for enjoying the food, the music, the nightlife, and the atmosphere of Madrid without necessarily doing a lot of touring. I selected a hotel on the Plaza Santa Ana because I had really enjoyed the atmosphere there on my first trip to Madrid last summer and because we could find most of what we wanted within easy walking distance.

We stayed at the Hotel Room Mate Alicia in a junior suite for 140 euros per night including breakfast, on an early booking internet special on the hotel’s web site, www.room-matehotels.com .
Loved, loved, loved this place. The building, a lovely old property on the corner facing the Plaza Santa Ana, has been very recently restored and converted into a hotel with great design and fun amenities.

We didn’t see the regular rooms. I picked the suite because I had read a great review of it and liked the pictures. While it was a bit of a splurge compared to our other accommodations, it was a fun indulgence. Very cool room. It was on the corner, overlooking the plaza, with floor to ceiling windows all around. Blinds were operated electronically. There was a bathtub with a view in an alcove. Also a separate shower in the bathroom, which was behind a wall but integrated into the room design in a very clever manner that did not compromise privacy. Lots of comfortable seating.

We enjoyed relaxing here after our long drive and somewhat hectic entrance into Madrid, and besides, nobody goes out for dinner until 10 PM in Madrid. My husband went out before I did, and I caught up with him a little later at an Irish bar down the street, where he was having a Guinness.

The Plaza Santa Ana is ringed with tapas bars, most with outdoor seating. The weather was beautiful. People were all over, and there were lots of children playing in the playground, even at midnight. We sat outdoors at the Vinoteca Barbechera for tapas and drinks. Enjoyed the mushroom tartlets and the veal carpaccio with olive oil and cubes of parmesan. Then we crossed the plaza and sat outside at the Cerveceria La Moderna, sampling smoked salmon sandwiches, smoked duck breast, chourico sausage, and sobresada with brie. A lovely way to finish the day before heading back to our delightful hotel room.
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