Back in Austin, Maggie and I are getting around and avoiding the heat by riding the bus. It’s usually pretty uneventful, but coming home last night, the bus stopped at the University of Texas and let on a delicate young woman carrying a roll of chicken wire. We didn’t think much about that, but then a middle aged woman boarded carrying a tree branch, which she laid on the seat beside her as she rummaged through her enormous purse.
It turned out she was looking for her bus pass. In the mean time, Maggie saw a daily bus pass by our feet, so she picked it up, saw that it still had some time left on it, and gave it to the woman to use until her pass turned up. She thanked us profusely and gave us a cheery good-bye when the bus got to our stop, along with the bus driver, an introverted woman we had struck up a conversation with, and a guy in the back we hadn’t noticed until then. We never figured out what the branch and the roll of chicken wire were for. We’ll add that to life’s mysteries.
Pedro, our favorite waiter at our favorite Lisbon coffeshop, Copenhagen Coffee Lab, gave us a list of his favorite places in Lisbon. Unfortunately, he didn’t give us the list until a couple of days before we left, so we’ll have to save most of them for next time. Here’s the list, just as he gave it to us:
MAAT, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology; Pedro’s favorite museum, but we never went.
Muralha – try the Bacalhau à Brás; in Alfama
A Merendinha do Arco (Portuguese Tasca, Gambas à Guilho are amazing) on Rossio St.
Comoba (overpriced for Lisbon, but really nice food)
A Janela da Voz Do Operário
Manteigaria – best custard tart [Pasteis de Nata]
Nivà (Principe Real)
Davvero (Alfama, Cais do Sodré)
[Pedro is a good-looking 20-something Brazilian guy, so we’ll call him the expert on this.]
Portinho da Arrábida
Cabana Do Pescador (Costa da Caparica, best sunsets)
Ribeira Do Cavalo (Best one, but with a 15 minute trail walk)
Paulo, our host, also had a list of recommendations, most of which we made, but a couple we missed:
Solar Do Vinho Do Porto – the place to go to taste Ports
Mafra National Palace – enormous palace of João V, in Mafra, a 45 minute bus ride from Lisbon
So that’s the starting list for our next trip – or yours. Boa Viagem!
The Algarve is the southern coast of Portugal, where the best beaches and resorts are scattered along the coast, between the lush green hills and brilliant blue water. It’s been on Maggie’s list of magical destinations for a long time – since her days of tearing her hair out working for Harris in Florida. It’s not just the beach; the Algarve has a mystical attraction of being shielded from the daily struggle to scratch out your place in this world.
We finally made it there, and the Algarve did not disappoint. Even a couple of retirees like us could appreciate the vibe of a place that’s all about relaxation. The ocean and beaches are there, alongside the old world charm of castles and villas, all as beautiful as expected. We took an all day van tour from Viator (Western Algarve Small-Group Day Trip to Sagres, Lagos and Silves). Tiago, our tour guide, gave us insights into Portuguese history and culture that you just can get out of reading tour books.
We liked Faro a lot: the town itself is pretty small and fairly quiet: there’s no beach scene, since the coastline is mostly taken up by a natural park and bird sanctuary. There was live music everywhere: rock, jazz, singer/songwriter, even a festival of African music; In Lisbon, we had gotten to think that Portuguese music was all about Fado. We like Fado, but we were still glad to see that there’s more kinds of music here.
For a cool city with nice beaches, restaurants and night life, Lagos is the place to be. From Lagos, we took a boat trip to the Ponta da Piedade, where there are cliffs, caves, grottoes, and little pocket beaches to explore. The boat driver really knew his stuff, whirling around a point and flying right up to the mouth of a cave before bringing the boat to a full stop and motoring gently inside. He wanted to make sure that we saw each and every rock or bump that somebody thought resembled a camel, and elephant or Michael Jackson. That was fun at first, but I just wanted to take the pictures that I wanted, so I started ignoring him. He apparently thought that I had gone blind or stupid, interrupting his patter to say, “Sir! Sir! Do you see the camel? [Yeah, yeah I see it – now if that sailboat will just come out from behind that rock..] NO, THERE! TO THE LEFT! [OK OK, I’ll take a quick glance to the left and wave at him..] NO, FARTHER TO THE LEFT! Now I would feel bad about being the idiot holding up the tour, so I would put down the camera, look farther to the left, see the camel, point, and let him motor on to the next sight and repeat the whole process. There were fewer interruptions as the tour went on; either because I got better at faking it, or he gave up on the stupid American, I don’t know which – but it worked out for everybody and we all had fun.
At the western end of the Algarve is Sagres: the most southwestern point in Europe. It’s beautiful and the scenery is dramatic, but unfortunately shrouded by fog while we were there. The thing to do there is to watch the sun set, but for that you really need a car and be able to plan your trip for a clear evening – which we had neither, so we made the best of it while we were there.
Our only regret for the Algarve is not staying long enough. Who knows – we may be back some day. Maggie and I both certainly hope so.
We have been to several museums in Lisbon. We read the tour guides and places “not to miss” – and have concluded that some of them you might want to miss. 🙂 Anyway, we agreed (mostly) on our favorites.
Our top 3 in no particular order, since we could not agree on the order. (Whew, that was an easy solution!)
1. The Gulbenkian Museum – hands down, our favorite museum in Lisbon! It features an art collection from ancient Egypt to Impressionism to Art Nouveau. Don’t miss this one. This picture is from a temporary exhibit on Islamic art, which was breathtaking.
2. The Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom – Housed in a former prison, it provides information about Salazar’s rise to power. Both of us are old enough to remember some of these historical events. We loved the story of Salazar’s mechanic, who helped some prisoners escape by driving them out of the prison in Salazar’s car! Talk about balls!
3. The Maritime Museum – Being history lovers, this museum was one of our favorites. It covered the “Age of Discovery” with exhibits on ships and navigation equipment from this crucial period in Portuguese history. We loved the stories of when Portugal was the power house of the world, in the 15th and 16th centuries.
If you have time, you might also want to check out these next museums. They were secondary in our opinions to the ones listed above, but were still well worth seeing.
4. National Tile Museum – lots of lots of beautiful tiles, but the most dramatic exhibit is on the top floor – a panorama of pre-earthquake Lisbon. We thought the map was fascinating, but you don’t need a museum to see tiles in Portugal – they’re all over the place in the old parts of the cities.
5. Fado Museum – We knew very little about this musical genre, so we wanted to learn more about it before going to a live performance. I think learning the history of the music, the instruments and the performers enhanced our appreciation of the music. I would recommend it.
6. Banksy Exhibit – OK, not technically a museum, but a temporary exhibit. I wanted to include it because we enjoyed it so much. It was supposed to pose the question, “Genius or Vandal?” but naturally it led you to believe the genius part. We loved seeing the story of this controversial segment of the artistic world and one of its most influential creators!
And now, the list of museums that you might want to go to, but we just were not as excited about after visiting. A lot has to do with our interests vs. your interests, so you may go to one of these museums – you might even rank one of them as your favorite.
7. São Roque Church and Museum – Build in the 16th century, this church has absolutely stunning gold and precious metals work, but we had a hard time understanding how they justified the expense, when so many Portuguese were ignorant and starving at the time it was constructed. We didn’t feel very spiritual during the visit. We’ve been to other cathedrals where we felt uplifted by the art and architecture, but in this one we just felt weighed down by all that gold.
8. Monastery of Jeronimos – Giant, impressive 16th century white limestone church and monastery. My advice: skip the museum and go to the church, where you will see Vasco da Gama’s tomb. We don’t understand why so many tourists spend the hours in line to see the monastery, when the church is free and much more rewarding.
9. Museum of Ancient Art – Artwork, mostly Portuguese, from the 15th and 16th centuries. Neither one of us thought that this was worth the time, especially if your visit to Lisbon is short. The exhibits were heavy on Medieval religious art – not our cup or tea, since it’s the same mythology repeated over and over. Clay did spend some time in front of the Hieronymus Bosch painting, “The Temptation of St Anthony” just because it’s so crazy.
Other than that, there are rooms and rooms of plates, cups and other tableware. Amazing, but the whole display was overwhelming. We did like the Japanese Nanban screens that depicted the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan. The artists didn’t draw in linear perspective; they drew the more important elements larger than others. So here you can see that they thought a lot about the sailing ship and officers, but not much about the crew.
So there you have it: our inexpert opinion. Feel free to add your comments, we’d love to hear from you. If you haven’t been to Portugal, feel free to come and form your own opinion. I hope you’ll find your trip as rewarding as ours has been.
We’ve been in Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve for three weeks now, which is not enough time to say we are experts on Portugal, but we have come up with some observations about the country, the people, and some things it would be good to know before traveling here.
We’ve grown fond of the Portuguese people. In general, they are gregarious, boisterous, warm, tolerant and proud. They love to be outside – having a party or just hanging out. I don’t know when we’ve been to a place where so many people are mixed race. Part of it is the proximity to Africa, I’m sure part of it comes from their history, but from an outsider’s point of view, they just don’t seem to spend a lot of energy on their neighbors’ origins. We could learn something from that.
Fado music is amazing – we love it, even without understanding the words. It has the energy of flamenco and the heartbeat of the blues. Lisbon is not much of a “total” music city; unless you go to a concert, about the only kind of music is Fado. In the Algarve, there’s more variety, at least in the summer: classic rock, African, jazz, singer/songwriter, etc.
Sintra: the best day trip from Lisbon, so far. If you’re going to the Pena Palace, you must leave early (we caught the 8:41 train out of Lisbon) or wait in a loooong line. Best to avoid Sat/Sun when the locals go, and Monday when the museums in Lisbon are mostly closed so it’s crowded with tourists.
Being over 65 is wonderful: ½ price on many entrance fees and on the intercity train. We have a “cheat” system: Maggie buys the tickets, shows here ID if necessary, we take the two senior rates if they give them to us. It works in museums, but we don’t do it for the train, where there’s a big fine if you’re caught.
The gun laws are strict, so you don’t walk around thinking about what nut case has a gun. Police are seldom seen, except at large public gatherings. We feel very safe where ever we go. The only worry, and it’s slight, is to watch for pickpockets when you’re in a large gathering of tourists.
Air conditioning: most places don’t have it, and don’t need it. Summer highs can be in the 80’s, but lows are the 60’s, so people leave their windows open in the cool parts of the day and close them in the afternoon. The humidity is very low, so in the city, people dry their clothes on clotheslines strung in front of their windows. there are not many secrets here.
Food: there are small markets everywhere that all have some products: produce, wine, bread, cheese and maybe cereal, milk. Food prices are low, but not a huge variety. Same for restaurants: good quality, low prices, but in Lisbon there’s not a lot of variety: lots of Portuguese places, some Italian, but it’s rare to see a Chinese place, or Indian, French, etc. We spotted a Mexican restaurant in Lisbon and made a bee line; it was pretty good, although their hottest sauce was just a shade above mild.
Fish – except for Iceland, Portuguese eat more fish than any other country! Huge variety of salt and freshwater fish, shellfish. Grilled sardines everywhere this summer, because the catch was good. Four make a meal; always served with peeled boiled potatoes and small salad.
Wine: there’s never a bad one, and it’s almost always very inexpensive. Restaurants pour a full glass every time.
Beer: not much of a beer scene except maybe in Lisbon. We did find a craft beer place in Faro, and the waiter told us about a small annual beer festival there, but it wasn’t going on while we were there.
Public transportation in Lisbon goes everywhere and reliable. Buy the Zapping card to use and refill as needed. The Zapping card works on buses, subway, trams, trains and ferries, and surprisingly, on the trains to Sintra and Cascais as well.
ATMs are everywhere, which we needed because many restaurants don’t take credit cards; or they do, but the system is broken today – always broken today.
Algarve is amazingly beautiful. We spent two nights, but could have stayed longer.
Lisbon is big, modern, cosmopolitan city with old neighborhoods to explore, too.
Porto is beautiful, but we ran out of things to do after a couple of days. We didn’t take a tour of the Douro valley, but we probably should have.
Dogs are not as common as in France or US here in Portugal.
Today’s adventure was to lock ourselves out of our apartment. Our lock is one of those 19th century skeleton key affairs, where there’s an actual keyhole you could peak through (but I don’t think anybody would be interested). When you come in, you stick the gigantic skeleton key in the lock from the inside, and when you leave, you take the key with you.
Only today, we got out on the landing, I closed the door, and didn’t have the key. It was still in the lock on the inside of the door. I messaged our landlord, he said he was 100km away and he would send the cleaning lady. After a phone call with her, he messaged us back that she would be there in an hour. Maggie and I ran a couple of errands, and in an hour we were back waiting for her. She arrived on time, with her husband Alessandro, who spoke no English, but he had an extra key – which was no good, because our key was still in the lock. The two of us poked at the keyhole with my jack knife, trying to knock the key out, but with no luck. Finally I pulled out my phone and Googled “locksmith near me.” The first few were closed on Sunday or were disconnected numbers, but the fifth or sixth one (Chaves Espresso – that sounded promising) answered the phone, I said, “chave?” [“key” – I had learned that one word]. I heard “Sim” [yes] and handed the phone to Alessandro. He asked the appropriate questions, and asked me, “seven nine?” I thought €79 was a reasonable price under the circumstances, and instantly agreed.
Meanwhile, Maggie had decided that she needed a ladies room and a stress reliever, so she went off to the corner cafe to drink a glass of wine. There she found a hostess who took an immediate liking to her, and gave Maggie a full escort to the ladies room door (with the hostess’s arm wrapped around Maggie’s waist). Later, at a table with a view, Maggie got involved in a lively conversation with four Croatian coeds. I think it’s safe to say that Maggie had forgotten all about being separated from her money, a change of underwear and a bed for the night. She was making lemonade like it was going out of style.
Back at the apartment, the cleaning lady, our upstairs neighbors, some Fado singers from across the street, a confused Uber Eats deliveryman and a stray dog had gathered to watch and wait. Maggie had returned and quickly became Facebook friends with the nice young man from Bangladesh who runs the souvenir stand next door. (She also scored a couple of bottles of water for herself and the cleaning lady.) Alessandro had gone off to help the Chaves Espresso man find a parking place. He returned, with Mr. Chaves Espresso in tow, who sprinted up the stairs, squinted in the lock, whipped out a tool and had the door open in seconds. I paid him in cash and he was on his way.
So all in all, it was a good day that started badly. Maggie and I got a lesson in keeping perspective of life’s problems, and met some interesting people that we wouldn’t have otherwise. I just have to keep an eye on her and that hostess.
Do you like fish? You’d love the food in Lisbon. It’s sardine season now, and people have told us that the catch has been especially good this year: the sardines are plentiful and fat. These aren’t the little guys you buy stuffed into a can like – well, you know. They’re more like small trout: four grilled sardines (sardinhas assadas) make a meal, along with the ubiquitous pair of boiled potatoes and two tomato slices. Aficionados eat them whole, from head to tail, but we haven’t quite graduated to that level. I cut out the guts, chop off the head and scrape the meat off the bones with my knife. To each his own.
The one thing you can get any time, any where is salt cod (bacalhau). The cod is dried and salted for shipping and storage, and that’s the way it’s sold in the stores. It has to be reconstituted before you can eat it – meaning getting the salt out and the water back in. Supposedly, there’s a real trick to getting all of the salt out, but we haven’t had a bad one yet.
Beyond that, there’s an incredible variety of fresh and salt water seafood. We’ve eaten sea bass (the European variety, not the South American fish that’s sold in the U.S.), fresh water bass, salmon, dorado (what we’d call mahi-mahi), fish soup, shrimp, squid, and octopus. There’s a lot more than that on the menus, which we’re working through, one by one. It’s a tough job, but we’re up for it!
Pork is everywhere, too, in all its varieties. If you walk into a deli, there will be a pig’s leg proudly displayed on the counter, so you can see that you’re getting the prized black-footed variety, and not some cheaper imitation.
When you need a break from fish and pork, there’s pizza, maybe a hamburguer or a sanduíche with French fries that are always perfect, soup (Portuguese gazpacho is chunky, not creamy like the Spanish kind, but we’ve grown to prefer the Portuguese recipe). No matter what you get, it’s all inexpensive. The two of us can go out for a meal and spend less than we’d spend per person at home, for the same or better quality. You can wash it down with a beer or glass of wine and not add a lot to your tab – but I’ll have to write about that some other day. I can smell sardines on the grill from the restaurant below us, which says it’s suppertime!