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Trip Report Trip Report - Portugal February 2015

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I got so much great information from these forums before my trip to Portugal this past February that I (finally) wanted to post a trip report in case our experiences can be of help to someone else. Our trip itinerary was:

Sat: Arrive in Lisbon
Sun: Day trip to Batalha
Mon: Bus to Evora
Tues: Evora
Wed: Train to Sintra
Thurs: Sintra, evening train to Lisbon
Friday: Lisbon
Sat: Departure

When we arrived in Lisbon on Saturday, we checked into our hotel, Solar do Castelo, which was right by the Castelo Sao Jorge. They let us check in early, which was much appreciated. Our room was about the size I would expect for a European hotel and had a very nice bathroom. The window overlooked the castle walls, and several peacocks and peahens were out walking along the wall. The neighborhood was very quaint.

We did have a little trouble finding a decent restaurant for lunch. We were pretty hungry, and there wasn't a lot of choice in the immediate area. We ate at a little place that was full of tourists and had pretty gross food, but when you're tired and hungry, you tend to take what's available rather than wandering for something better.

In the afternoon we wanted to do something to shake off the jet lag and keep ourselves awake, so we took a motorcycle tour with Bike My Side, Daniel, our guide, was great--very knowledgeable and a safe driver. My friend and I took turns sitting on the back seat and in the sidecar. Daniel took us all over Lisbon, even out to the Jeronimos monastery area, so we got a great overview of the city on our first day.

More to follow!

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    Thanks! I don't remember what it was called--it was just a random restaurant near the castle. There were obvious signs (multilanguage menu), but we were hungry. In general you had to walk a bit farther away from Solar do Castelo to find any good eats.

    On Sunday we took the bus to Batalha. We bought tickets online ahead of time through Rede Expressos, which was easy and cheap. Our bus was scheduled for noon, so we just picked up sandwiches at a nice grocery store on the way to the bus station. The bus was on time and was very clean. There weren't many other riders on our bus. We got to Batalha about 2. You can't miss the monastery from the bus stop. We had a leisurely look around the monastery, which really was beautiful and even more so for being almost totally empty. On the upstairs walkways surrounding the courtyard, look for all the funny very old graffiti carved into the walls. While we were finishing our visit, we started hearing what sounded like occasional gunshots and first thought it might be something associated with Portugal's tomb of the unknown soldier, but that was in more of an indoor area, and we couldn't figure out what it was. No one was panicking so we kept going. In one area you could walk out on an open-air walkway, and we realized some kind of parade was going on, and that's where the gunshots were coming from.

    We thought we would want at least 2 hours at the monastery and so had booked the last train back to Lisbon at 6pm. We were finished WAY before that. There was a tourist office right by the monastery, and we stopped in and talked to a very nice lady about how we might occupy our remaining time or where the bus office was to change our tickets. It turned out that the bus ticket office was in a bar that isn't necessarily open. She did recommend a small town museum but also suggested that we just ask the driver to let us on the 4pm bus. We also learned that the parade was for Carnevale.

    We decided to try our luck with the bus driver and headed back toward the bus stop, and along the way we got to watch the parade, which was really fun. It seemed like the whole town was in the parade--more in it than watching--and people had put a lot of effort into their costumes. There was a whole group of Marge Simpsons, a pirate boat, people dressed up like famous paintings carrying frames around themselves, and a car covered in doilies. Everyone was having a great time.

    The bus driver very nicely let us on the 4pm bus, which was also almost totally empty, so we got back to Lisbon about 6pm. It was Sunday, Carnevale, AND Valentine's Day, so the dinner choices were limited. The helpful staff at out hotel called several restaurants that all turned out to be booked, but then recommended a casual Italian place not far away that turned out to be pretty good (sorry, I don't have the name).

    Lessons from Sunday: Batalha is really small. There really isn't anything to do of any note besides the monastery. None of the restaurants (which were closed) looked appealing, and the town itself isn't scenic. We didn't want to rent a car, but it would be the right kind of place to stop on your way somewhere else. The other lesson, which we continued to see play out: the Portuguese people we encountered were all friendly and helpful--they really seemed to want us to like Portugal. I have never had a truly bad experience in Europe, but the Portuguese people were warmer and more hospitable than anywhere else I have been.

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    I forgot to say that on Sunday evening we also went to the Santa Justa elevator. We had gotten day passes for public transportation in Lisbon and could use them for the elevator (pretty much paid for the day pass). We had to wait a little while, maybe 20 minutes. I can imagine that the wait in the summer is pretty awful. We took the tiny spiral staircase (not something I really enjoyed) up to the viewing platform. We had seen some great panoramic views of Lisbon during the day on our motorcycle tour, so it was cool to see the whole city at night. On the way out of the elevator, you pass by the Carmo Convent--right up close--which was also neat at night.

    On Monday we went to the Castelo Sao Jorge, conveniently located right by our hotel! The gardens and views of Lisbon were great, and it has a real castle-y feel. I think kids would love it--there are lots of things to climb. We went to the camera obscura demonstration, which was more interesting than I expected. They only let a small group in at a time (maybe 20), so again, I imagine the wait is long in the summer. We went to the small museum but were not that impressed with the exhibits. There was another area that was supposed to be more of an archaeological site showing where walls had been, etc., but it wasn't laid out that well or very well marked. This is really a ruin of a castle--go for the views and the fun of climbing up on castle walls, not for artifacts or education. Also, we stopped for a drink at the castle cafe, and the peacocks and peahens were out and about in the outside seating area. One peahen pecked a crumb off my friend's knee, all the while totally ignoring the peacock who was putting on a big show for her benefit.

    We had lunch at the Mercado de Ribeira, a big food hall and market run by Time Out. We LOVED this. The food hall is a big warehouse-type space that has been finished out with mini restaurants all around the outside--like a food court, but with nice restaurants. Many of the best Lisbon restaurants have an outpost here. You can walk around and get different pieces of your meal from each place and then eat at big communal tables in the middle. There were so many delicious choices. There were definitely tourists eating there but also many Portuguese people. I would highly recommend going here at least once.

    Then we took the bus to Evora, and, like the bus trip to Batalha, it was cheap and easy. We checked into our hotel, Albergaria do Calvario (I think have the spelling right). The hotel was great--big rooms, good price, friendly and helpful staff. Before our arrival, the hotel staff helped us book a tour for with Ebora Megalithica and then helped a lot with restaurants once we got there. We wandered around Evora a little bit--we saw the Diana temple--and went to a great meal at a little restaurant (recommended by our hotel) that is basically just a bar with about 10 seats, first-come first-serve, where you are served by the owner while his wife cooks in the back. We both had the pork chop that is typical of the area, and we were surprised to find that it is ENORMOUS--like a giant steak. It came with a big pile of potato chips and some salad. I ate the entire steak!! The name of the restaurant is Botequim da Mouraria. Everyone else was Portuguese, as far as we could tell, and the atmosphere was fun and convivial.

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    On Tuesday morning we toured Evora. We had seen the bone church in Kutna Hora near Prague and so wanted to see the one in Evora. It was smaller and much more spiritual than the Kutna Hora one. We walked down from the church to a pretty park that has some remnants of old city walls; back up to the Diana temple to see it in the daytime; and along the aqueduct, which really has become part of the town. We missed the window to see the Roman baths but otherwise pretty much saw what there was to see. We had lunch at an Italian restaurant on the north side of the old town near the aqueduct, and it was surprisingly good--pizzas on very crisp, cracker-like crust. I don't remember the name but imagine it's the only Italian place in that area.

    After lunch Mario from Ebora Megalithica picked us up for our tour out to the Almendres Cromlech and two other archaeological sites. There were a few other people on the tour, along with Mario's wife, who drives the van. This tour was one of my favorite things about the trip. Mario was very knowledgeable about the sites and enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge. I also enjoyed getting to see more of the countryside. For a couple of the sites, we had to walk a little ways from the parking area down some scenic paths to the sites. If you are at all interested in archaeology/stone circles, etc., I would highly recommend this tour.

    We got back to our hotel around 5-ish and found ourselves at loose ends. I read that you could spend 2 days in Evora, but I don't think that's true unless you have a car and are planning to drive out to some of the small towns that aren't accessible by public transportation. Despite being a university town--with school apparently in session--the town was really dead. The streets in the old town were empty at night, and the few restaurants were spread out, so there wasn't an area to go hang out, and we didn't see any bars or coffee shops. All the sights were, of course, closed by 5pm. We wound up going to dinner pretty early at another place recommended by our hotel, and it was a total bust. There were only two other people eating there, and so it felt like the owner/waiter and waitress were standing around staring at us (there wasn't anything else for them to do), and the food just wasn't very good. We should have gone back to Botaquim da Mouraria.

    It was still early when we finished so we wandered toward the university, thinking that students would mean coffee shops/bars/something open, but we were wrong. We finally found a little cafe that was in the university and seemed like it might be subsidized for students and had a cup of tea. Anyway, I don't know if Evora is livelier in the summer or if maybe there are areas outside the old town that have more restaurants and bars, but we wandered all over the old town and didn't find a thing. I was glad we had come to Evora to take the megaliths tour but probably would try to manage it as a day trip from Lisbon if I had it to do over again.

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    Enjoying your report and interested to read that you were there in February. We are considering the same and wondering what you thought of visiting at that time of year? Weather, number of tourists, etc.

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    Cindyjo, it was rainy a couple of days (we were prepared for that), but not enough to disturb our sightseeing, and the temperature was very pleasant for being out and about walking around. I much prefer a little chill and occasional rain to being hot and sweaty all day. It was not crowded at all, either. There were tourists at the big sites--the castle, Jeronimos Monastery, Sintra, etc., but we didn't have to wait in any significant lines, and we didn't feel that we were just being carried along in a crowd of tourists. Jeronimos was probably the most crowded.

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    On Wednesday we took the morning train to Sintra (change in Lisbon). We stayed at the Sintra Boutique Hotel, which is in town right by the sights (not by the train station). We learned that there are two main areas: the area we stayed in, near the National Palace of Sintra, which is very convenient for sights and shopping, and the train station area, which has most of the more highly rated/less touristy restaurants.

    We found a tapas restaurant for lunch (Romaria de Baco) that we liked. It was pretty popular, and the food was good. It was right in the palace area. We decided to go to Quinta de Regeleira that afternoon since it wasn't really on the route for the other palaces. From the National Palace area, it's an easy walk. The park is pretty awesome. There isn't much inside stuff, but there is a ton to do in the park, from going up into little castle-y turrets and poking your head out to walking down spiral steps around a well to a tunnel that leads back out at the bottom of the hill!! Even in February everything was green and lush. It is a lot of walking, and you should look at the map and try to plan so that you're not backtracking (especially uphill). Give yourself several hours to enjoy it.

    After that we did a little shopping. There are a bunch of touristy but fun shops with all sorts of stuff--handicrafts, tshirts, etc. We also stopped at Cafe Piriquita for tea and pastries. There are two locations--the first one we saw was closed--and the one that was open was crowded. The travesseiros were great.

    We didn't feel like trying to make our way to the train station area for dinner, so we wound up eating dinner in our hotel. The atmosphere wasn't very good but the food was fine.

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    On Thursday we visited the National Palace of Sintra and the Pena Palace. Both were great. The Pena Palace is on the bus route, and we had no problem picking up the bus (it was crowded on the bus). Like Quinta de Regeleira, Pena Palace is in a large park. The maps provided were VERY hard to follow and did not seem to match up with the trails. There were a couple of things in the park we wanted to see, but we didn't get the right route, and wound up only seeing the duck houses (which were cute). It was a nice walk down the mountain, but we didn't want to hike back up to get to some of the other things. We thought about going to the Moorish castle--you could definitely see all three in one day--but were tired and figured that it was kind of similar to the Castelo Sao Jorge, and we had already gotten great panoramic views from the top of Pena Palace. You can find plenty of info on the palaces, so I won't go into any detail about those.

    Instead of the Moorish castle, we went ahead and took an earlier train back to Lisbon. This turned out to be a really good choice because I had come down with a stomach bug and barely made it to the hotel in Lisbon (back to the Solar do Castelo) in time. I camped out at the hotel while my friend went shopping. There were a bunch of cute shops just downhill from the castle entrance that we had seen earlier in the week--souvenir shops, but places with more authentic and fun crafts, Portuguese foods, etc.

    I forgot to mention in the earlier posts that we did have one really great dinner in Lisbon at a place close to the castle--Claras em Castelo. It's very small, but our hotel called and got us a reservation. They serve traditional Portuguese food. It's owned and run by a husband and wife--the husband is the waiter and the wife cooks. There were only about 8 tables, all close together, and along one wall they have some jewelry and crafts that someone they know (I think it might have been their daughter?) makes. They were very friendly, and the food was great. We also struck up a conversation in mixed English/French/German with an Austrian couple sitting at the next table. If you're staying in the castle area, I highly recommend getting a reservation and having dinner there one night.

    On Friday, we went to the Jeronimos Monastery. It was a lot like the monastery in Batalha, but still really beautiful, and we were glad we went to both. We also walked through the maritime/archaeology museum that adjoins the monastery, and it was pretty good (not too big). We wanted to go to the pastels de nata bakery that is just down the street, but the line looked crazy, and we had already had several earlier in the week from other bakeries (and I was still feeling sick). I headed back to the hotel to rest, and my friend went back to the Time Out food hall and to the Carmo Convent.

    Of course I wished I hadn't missed out on sightseeing Thursday and Friday afternoons with being sick, but it was a great trip. If I was doing it again, I would see Evora as a day trip, which would mean more time in Lisbon. We saw the main sights in Lisbon, but I really liked the vibe of the city and would have liked to spend more time just walking around and trying more restaurants. I also have mixed feelings about the Solar do Castelo hotel. It was a great hotel, and the staff were very helpful, but it wasn't the most convenient location. There is a bus that goes up to the castle entrance (not too far from the hotel), and it was no trouble to find the stop by the castle, but it was more difficult to figure out where to get the bus downhill to take it up the hill. I think I might pick a different neighborhood with more restaurants and transportation connections. We did get cabs a couple of times when we couldn't face walking up the hill, and they were cheap, so that was good, and we learned where one of the elevators was to take us a good bit of the way up the hill. No matter where you stay, there will be a LOT of uphill walking. Just be prepared. It kind of seemed like everything was uphill both ways :)

    Anyway, I hope this is helpful, and I'm happy to answer any questions.

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