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Tedgale Trip Report: Portugal in April 2014 (with Easter in Amsterdam)

Tedgale Trip Report: Portugal in April 2014 (with Easter in Amsterdam)

Old May 24th, 2014, 07:08 PM
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I haven't written that part of my report yet. But I'll say, briefly:

1. It offers an intelligent presentation of the history and development of the azulejo tiles.
2. Much more important, the building is a stunning -- simply stunning -- religious complex dating from 1515 with magnificent spaces, esp the chapel and its ante-chambers.

Jaw-dropping interiors of great beauty.

A very civilized place with kindly and knowledgeable staff.
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Old May 27th, 2014, 08:37 AM
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I have to agree with tedgale on the Tile Museum. I definitely think it's worth the time and would not miss it.
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Old May 28th, 2014, 04:21 AM
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And it was not hard to reach though it looked remote on a map. I did a route search on the Lisbon public transportation site. We walked over to the Chiado metro station and took a bus from a stop just in front. It was about a 10 minute ride. To return to the centre, we caught the bus a few steps from the museum entrance.
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Old May 28th, 2014, 05:00 AM
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Love the TR Tedgale. It's funny how we go back and forth on airlines. We are in Paris now flying in on Sat. Air Canada to YVR and British Airways to Paris through London. We were able to check in to BA through the first flight which was Air Canada. BA lost our luggage and was delivered next day to Paris apt. The last three times we have used BA, luggage lost two of the times. Back to Air Canada for us. I realize it is different for you lucky people in eastern Canads.
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Old May 29th, 2014, 01:26 PM
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Thanks Colleen. We are thinking of trying a new service: Air Canada Rouge. Their flights have a tiny "Premium" cabin -- half the price of Business Class and about halfway between Economy and Business in service and amenities. Armchair seats, 37 inch seat pitch (5 inches more than the Economy norm), white linen food service, etc.

The biggest advantage is direct flights (Toronto or Montreal -- no flights from Ottawa) to attractive European destinations: Lisbon, Rome, Athens, Barcelona, Venice, Nice.... We'd fly Ottawa to Toronto to Barcelona (that leg would cost $795 in mid October), and fly home in Economy from Marseille to Frankfurt to Ottawa ($450, I think).

The Premium service seems to get pretty good reviews from those who booked knowing what they were getting.

The negative reviews come from those who booked Business class seats (and paid Business class fares) before Rouge was set up, then found themselves re-booked on Rouge with no reduction in the fare.

BTW, the standard Economy cabins on Rouge are apparently absolutely awful -- unbearably cramped unless you're under 5 feet tall. Hundreds of complaints on frequent-flyer websites: crowding, inexperienced staff, additional charges for every extra (in Economy) and lack of in-flight entertainment (IFE).

A black eye for Air Canada, I'm afraid.
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Old May 29th, 2014, 04:05 PM
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Wow, tedgale, just wow. What a great TR. Get this one done before your next adventure.
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Old May 29th, 2014, 10:21 PM
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Great info Tedgale on Rouge. Our BA flight was in world traveler plus their mid-range seats and it was very good so Rouge sounds great. Will check it out for next year. I saw Rouge being advertised
and I really didn't read any further dismissing it as awful without realizing that the Premium would be worth a try.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2014, 12:43 PM
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I finally finished my Top Ten!

8. Sintra:
Trains to Sintra leave from the Rossio station every half hour or so.

Buying a ticket from the machines on the station’s upper level (from which the trains depart) was a fraught experience. We could not use our current Via Viagem cards for some reason, so had to buy new ones for 0,50 Euros and charge them with the amount of the return fare. However, we could not charge them with that exact fare: we needed to pay a slightly larger sum and were left with a puny balance on the card after our trip. I have forgotten the mysterious complexities of the fare structure and on-board “swiping” system that triggered all this confusion. All I can say is Be prepared to be baffled. Thank goodness there was an employee standing by to help us and all the other dumbstruck travelers to Sintra.

The journey, through miles of harmless suburban sprawl, takes about 40 minutes. We found ourselves in a landscape of steep green hills, dotted with picturesque hotels and villas. It’s about a 10 minute walk, climbing slowly through prettily landscaped terrain, to reach the central square of bustling, tourist-choked Sintra, where the Palacio Nacional stands. Alternatively, you can take the 5 Euro hop on/ hop off bus, which takes you on a circuit of the National Palace, the Moorish castle, the Pena Palace and the train station.

At the National Palace we bought combination tickets to see that site and the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros). The Pena Palace is the big draw in Sintra, of course, but extravagant late-Victorian whimsy doesn’t interest me. The two sites we chose were exactly the right “load” for the four or five hours we spent in Sintra – certainly anything more would have been overload. Even with the hop-on/ hop-off bus, we did a lot of walking and a lot of climbing, especially at the Moorish castle.

The National Palace, built by Joao II on a former Moorish site in the late 14th century and much enlarged by Manuel I in the early 16th century, remained a royal residence right up to the end of the 19th century. Though the rooms are magnificently decorated, they are not oppressively so. This is not Versailles. There are pleasing expanses of plain white walls and bare floors. Ceilings are generally painted wood; nothing is smothered in gold leaf.

Like Topsy, this summer palace “just growed”. The feeling is of casual accretion rather than a grand design. Overall, it’s a sober, masculine environment that nonetheless seems very human and livable – an impression heightened by photo enlargements of late 19th century royals playing or posing in the very same spot where we stood.

With a proper sense of the dramatic, the routing of the self-guided tour keeps two of the most impressive sights to the very end. Inside the Torre da Meca is the Sala dos Brasoes, a huge space rising to an octagonal cupola and majestically decorated with the coats of arms of 72 noble families. At ground level are enormous murals in blue and white azulejo tile. We walked around for at least 15 minutes with our heads flung back and our jaws hanging open.

The other jaw-dropper is a visit to the royal kitchens. This vast space has no ceiling. Instead, the walls taper gradually into two funnel-like chimneys of impossible height. Each chimney has the shape of a milk bottle of the 1950s. I cannot imagine that the smoke of the various ovens and spits simply escaped up the chimney; there must be some flues inside the tapering walls. In any event, it is immensely impressive, as impressive in its way as the grand rooms that the royal themselves occupied.

After a bit of wandering through the centre of Sintra – a place of no intrinsic interest but full of resources for the hungry, thirsty or bored – we caught the bus to the Moorish castle. Though traffic was not heavy, the trip up to the castle was painfully slow, largely because the bus could not take the hairpin corners if there was traffic coming in the other direction. Much halting and backing up ensued. We saw people hiking up these roads on foot but the climb was enough to deter anyone but a mountain goat.

At the access point to the Moorish castle, another climb begins – a pleasant, gradual ascent through manicured woodland gardens, offering splendid vistas over the neighbouring hills. But a damned long climb, nonetheless.

The origins of the Moorish castle go back to the 8th century; Afonso Henriques captured the castle from the Moors in 1147. As it lost its defensive value, the site was gradually abandoned. In the 19th century, however, Fernando II began restoration of the castle as a romantic folly. Excavations and replanting of the grounds have continued since.

On the day of our visit, Sintra itself was in full sunshine but the heights of the “Serra”, over which the castle sprawls, were wreathed in fog or cloud – a familiar condition, I gather. A clear sky would have been ideal for panoramas but the floating grey wisps of cloud and the muting of the landscape’s colours gave a greater atmosphere to a place that must, in the past, have been deeply forbidding and probably uncomfortable as well.

Today the surviving elements of the castle are mostly ramparts surmounted by walkways, with a few ruined buildings left open to the sky. There is a small covered-over area of recent excavations, where you can see the remnants of the Moorish epoch.

At first I simply did not grasp the extent – and the grandeur – of the site. In the grey mist, I started tramping up one set of steps, with a vertiginous drop on the other side of the rampart. I climbed and climbed. It took perhaps 10 minutes of steady exertion to reach the highest and furthest point of the castle’s defensive walls. On a clear day, there must be an unparalleled view of the Serra and of Sintra far below. Even with the obscuring clouds, it felt romantic, like a bit of rugged Scottish crag and moorland transposed to a Mediterranean setting.

The descent was along a more gradual path – you can reach the base in about five minutes. Then you climb the other half. Around mid-afternoon, fairly bushed, we walked slowly back to the access point and the bus stop, then made our way by bus to the train station. There – providentially – a train to Rossio station was just preparing to depart.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2014, 12:44 PM
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9. Belem:
The dictator Salazar decided in the 1930s that Belem, the launching point for many voyages of discovery to new worlds, should be a monument to the maritime greatness of Portugal. Under his patronage, existing historic sites were linked together by monumental public spaces and new public structures such as the bombastic Monument to the Discoveries and the Museu de Arte Popular (as dreary inside as out).

Salazar’s grandiose vision has faded but the fine old buildings of Belem retain their original dignity and interest. The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – the monastery of the St Jerome order – is far and away the most celebrated. But this little suburb houses a 500 year old fort, the Torre de Belem, as well as the former royal residence, now the presidential palace (Palacio de Belem), the national Coach Museum and the Maritime Museum. The former gardens of the royal, now presidential, palace host a botanical garden filled with exotic plants from Portugal’s colonies (Jardim Agricola Tropical).
More recent structures include the Belem Cultural Centre (in a lavish building erected for Portugal’s presidency of the EU), the folk art museum and the Gulbenkian Planetarium.

We traveled to Belem on the number 15 tram. This is a spiffy modern vehicle quite unlike the tiny, wheezing number 28 tram that creaks its way through the old city, stuffed to the roof with grim-faced and indignant tourists. We sat opposite a charming young boy of ten and his eight-year old sister. Their mother was a conductor or perhaps the tram driver. In any case, they were riding the tram at mid-morning on a weekday. The young boy wanted to practice his English. It was rudimentary, my Portuguese even more so, yet he was very helpful in directing us on when to get off and where the main sights were.

At his suggestion, we walked first to the Torre de Belem, where the lines were about one-quarter as long as at the monastery. Here we bought a combination ticket that would allow us to go right to the head of the monastery’s admission line.

Manuel I ordered the building of the Torre de Belem early in the 16th century as a protection to Lisbon’s harbour. Its construction spanned the years 1515-21. Before the Tagus silted up, the Torre stood out in the harbour; today it stands at the river’s edge. Familiar from many, many tourist posters, the tower is decidedly picturesque, with a rich encrustation of stone ornament intended to display the power and grandeur of this newly-rich imperium: armillary spheres, religious emblems, the royal coat of arms and familiar Manueline motifs, such as stone carved like twists of rope.

Inside, however, it is comparatively plain. At the lower level are the storerooms, prison, emplacements for cannons and other defensive elements. Above this rises the tower, with a single large room on each floor. The tiny staircase is so tight that visitors must ascend and descend according to a system of red and green lights (which all too many defy). My favourite part was the roof-top walkway, where we could examine the carved battlements close-up and admire the full sweep of the harbour.

We wanted to reserve 90 minutes for the monastery (we found this quite adequate for a viewing – which is not to diminish in any way the importance of this primordial site). Hence, we allowed ourselves an hour to walk through the art gallery at the Centro Culturel de Belem. There are many public spaces in the vast complex; we visited only the art museum, which has an absolutely charming collection of 20th century European and American art, containing many small gems by Picasso, Matisse and other popular masters.

The absolute highpoint for me (apart from a riveting Warhol portrait of Judy Garland, based on a studio photo-portrait of c. 1945) was the museum’s collection of advertising art. Somehow the museum came into possession of the archives of an English advertising agency, which included a vast quantity of original commercial artwork spanning a period from 1910 to 1960. The displayed items number in the hundreds. Mesmerizing and – by itself – a sufficient reason to visit Belem, if the monastery and tower were ever to vanish.

Our final stop was the monastery, the great monument commissioned by Manuel I around 1501. Though we were able to move to the front of the line with our combination tickets, I noted that by 3 pm there was virtually no line-up at all – a sharp contrast to the morning crowds. You are directed first into the church; you view the refectory, chapterhouse and cloister later.

Here I pause in my description. I realize how fruitless it is to try to capture the grandeur and scale of this complex and the inventiveness, delicacy and rich playfulness of its decoration. The main cloister, from the 1540s, is especially impressive, for its florid decoration that never loses sacrifices coherence, proportion and grace.

Consecrated to the glory of God, the monastery is equally a hymn to worldly power and riches. Though its Manueline motifs are rooted in the naturalistic tradition of the Middle Ages, the monastery owes its very existence to a far more recent innovation, one in which Portugal led the western world: overseas exploration and imperial conquest. Only a burgeoning empire could afford to build on this scale. Indeed, much of the funding for the construction came from a tax on spices, precious stones and gold – the very goods that Portugal’s overseas territories and trading partners supplied to the world.

Not all of the original monastery buildings are included in the admission price. The Marine Museum takes up the west wing of the complex and includes a mid-15th century chapel built by Henry the Navigator. The Archaeological Museum occupies an uninspired addition to the original building. But we had no appetite for visiting the second-string sites. We had seen the best – the rest could keep for another time.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2014, 12:44 PM
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10. Museu Nacional do Azulejo:
The idea of covering walls with tiles came from the Moors and the Portuguese word for these tiles, “azulejo”, actually comes from the Arabic word for a small, polished stone. From the 16th century onward, Portugal was Europe’s leading producer of decorative wall tiles and azulejos are an essential decorative element of many of Portugal’s greatest buildings, both religious and secular.

Due east of the Alfama quarter in Lisbon, a short way beyond the Santa Apolonia station, is the national museum dedicated to this art form, the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. It is housed in the Convento da Madre de Deus, established in 1509 by the widow of Joao II and restored in the later Renaissance style by Joao III. The church of Madre de Deus and the attached convent are both magnificent examples of azulejo decoration, with works from a number of periods, including large azulejo murals created by Flemish artisans.

You must take a bus or taxi to reach the museum. (In principle, it can be reached on foot but the route is long and not picturesque.) This can be the only reason the museum is not better known or more visited. We caught a bus from outside the Chiado metro stop. In a mere ten minutes, it delivered us to a stop one minute’s walk from the museum. We had expected crowds, especially since it was the Good Friday holiday. Entry to national museums is free before noon on national holidays. In fact, crowds were thin.

The display spaces are on two floors and are grouped around two cloisters: the large and elegant Renaissance cloister and the smaller and older Manueline cloister of rather Moorish design. The first rooms of the museum explain the origin and the fabrication of the tiles, with examples of the main styles and motifs. Thereafter, the displays are chronological, with exhibits dedicated to every century from the 16th to the 20th. Some of the most intriguing and visually appealing were commercially produced Art Nouveau tiles and the “modern” tiles of the 1950s.

The museum’s first rooms provide a useful grounding in the azulejo tradition but no prior study is required to appreciate the tiles themselves. The non-figurative tiles, some of which attempt three-dimensional effects, are attractive enough. But I especially like the 17th and 18th century figurative panels and murals composed of entire walls of tile. These are often painted in a loose, flowing style in blue-on-white. The effect is much fresher and more casual than oil paintings of the same (Baroque) period.

The absolute high-point of the museum is the Madre de Deus church itself. Though the church was completed in the mid-1500s, the ornate Baroque and Rococo decoration dates from two centuries later. The Rococo altarpiece was added after the 1755 earthquake.

Every available surface has been covered. At ground level, there are large azulejo murals in blue and white. In contrast to this comparatively spare and simple treatment, the upper walls of the church and the barrel-vaulted ceiling are entirely covered with a richly sculptural framework of gilded carving, within which are set huge canvas panels depicting religious subjects. The best view of the upper walls and the ceiling may be from the grand rooms one floor above, which look out over the rear of the nave. These upper rooms – which include the Chapterhouse and other administrative offices, as I recall – are likewise covered from top to bottom with Baroque paintings, gilded cornices and frames, precious woods and eight-foot high azulejo murals.

The overall effect might have been garish but it is not; it is sublime.

The museum’s temporary exhibition space had a display on the theme of “Chinoiserie” – azulejos inspired by the mid-18th century vogue for Chinese decoration. We also popped into the museum café, which predictably is decorated with modern azulejos depicting food and wine. Beyond the glass-walled café stands a pleasant courtyard garden shaded by mature trees. The garden is open to everyone but the part nearest the café is given over to an outdoor terrace for patrons of the café.

When we left in the early afternoon, we turned right after exiting the museum and found there was a westbound bus stop right outside the walls of the Madre de Deus church.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2014, 04:47 PM
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This pretty much wraps up the trip report.

I may come back with some specific pointers about Portugal and Lisbon in particular -- assuming anyone is still reading after all this time!
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Old Jun 3rd, 2014, 05:35 PM
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Thanks - just found the report. We are thinking of Portugal for next year.
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Old Jun 3rd, 2014, 06:16 PM
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It is a remarkably easy and pleasant place to travel in.
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Old Jun 5th, 2014, 06:21 PM
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I don't believe I posted my album of photos of Alcobaca, Batalha and Tomar. Here it is:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?...1&l=d759e4688c
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Old Jun 6th, 2014, 03:21 AM
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Great report…eager for those pointers on Lisbon, too! Thank you for taking all that time to write this!
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Old Jun 6th, 2014, 09:28 AM
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Thanks! Your TR has been so helpful as we made final plans and as we now travel around Portugal. We enjoyed several of your restaurant choices in Lisbon. I fell in love with the Duoro Valley and your description is spot on.
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Old Jun 7th, 2014, 10:25 AM
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Thanks for the kind words.
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Old Nov 16th, 2014, 07:24 AM
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HI Ted: Just read this entire report again, since I was searching for it to send to a friend about to go to Portugal!

It is such a marvelous report, with so much really good advice, and superb hotel/inn recommendations. I must thank you again for it, and for all your other reports. You really do us a great service, whether we are traveling a lot, or getting to the age where your reports make great reminders of travel in the past.

Portugal is one of our favorite places, and I guess we've been there 5 times. Thanks again for the reminders and informtaion.

Where next, Ted. I've been off Fodor's for a while!!
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Old Nov 16th, 2014, 02:43 PM
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Thanks TaconicT.

We just came home from 3 weeks in S Italy and Provence -- a quite successful trip to which the fine autumn weather contributed greatly.

I'm too busy just at present to write a trip report. I hope I will still recall enough in early December to prepare a credible account. Otherwise I'll just post the basic info on our accommodation (we found great places to stay!) and itinerary.

We'll head off to Savannah GA at the end of the month and will stay there for 3.5 months.

I'm musing over where to go and what to do in 2015. I'd like to visit South Africa but the two consecutive long flights in each direction are a disincentive. We might fly to London and spend some time in the UK, then fly from there. (My brother has left NYU and is creating a new research centre at Imperial College, London, so I now have a family reason to visit the UK -- neglected by me for many years because of the outlandish prices and the lousy weather.)
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Old Nov 17th, 2014, 01:06 PM
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You always find THE best places to stay!! Will wait patiently for the Italy and Provence stats.

When I went to So. Africa, I flew to London, and stayed with a friend for three nights, then flew down to Harare. Then did a very very long drive down thru Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.
Flew back through London also, but only stopped to change planes. Now, THAT was a killer!!

Savannah will be nice for the winter. Enjoy it. We're flying down to FL this February, so no chance for a stop in Savannah. But I do hope we can meet some day.
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