15-23 March 2013

Friday-Saturday, 15-16 March

Portugal is our choice for this trip, to some extent, because there is so much to see in such a compact, history-infused space. With but nine days, including travel, we take off from Atlanta with a detailed plan, mustering the energy it will require.

We change planes in Madrid, where crowds seem to line up, then scramble to board planes. When we land in Lisbon and take a taxi into town, the driver charges a little extra for the bags (not legal, says Wade, who has read the guidebook on this possibility), so no tip for him (says the guidebook)! Both of us are jet-lagged, but this is a short trip, so there is no resting, no napping, no serious unpacking until later.

The hotel is spare, but clean and adjacent to the Chiado shopping district and the best reasonable restaurant alley in town, so we read. Taking the modern trolley that is huge, but crawls through ancient streets noisily, we get to Belem, home of the Jeronimos Monastery. A survivor of the 1755 earthquake, this is a Manueline masterpiece. Crowded at the chapel this day with high-school or college-age Portuguese students, many going in to Mass.

Four different children under ten years of age walk up to us as we stroll and, we gather, make their pitch for cash. They have nice clothing and don't look as if they were missing any meals. We walk over to the Belem Tower, which celebrates the centuries of Portuguese dominance (both economic and military) with sculptured explorers and monarchs.

Rain threatens, but stays away. We grab a pretty good baguette sandwich, big enough to share. We take a long riverside walk to the Discoveries Monument and back through the monastery gardens. It's a long day, but exactly what we signed up for with this compact trip.

We take the bus back to our neighborhood and this vehicle, too, seems to race down alleyways. Marisa unpacks and tidies up the room; Wade successfully forages for meat, cheese, and wine. With no appetite for being out in public, we have dinner in our tiny room, pastry for dessert.

By now, we begin to relax for the first time, feeling as though we have been walking for twenty-four hours straight.

We haven't, but we can feel that way. Can't we?

Sunday, 17 March

Very pleased with ourselves for having adjusted our bio-clocks, we think, we head out after decent rolls and coffee from our hotel. A short stroll to Rossio Station yields our second pair of Pastel de Nata that we pack for our trip to Sintra, the last stop on this line.

The day requires multiple reviews of which buses to take, or not, up the hill to the Moorish Castle (Castelo Mouros) ruin and all the way to the tip for the Pena National Palace. The National Palace is in the old town closest to the train station, so we hit it immediately. We outrun a group of, we think, thirty college students who act more like seventh-graders in our eyes. They eventually catch up and block our view in various rooms. But the Palace has some naturally appealing aspects, not the least of which are those weird conical kitchen chimneys. Wade pauses by the ox rotisserie in the kitchen.

It is a foggy morning. We join many tourists on the mountain. The steep climb by our apparently normal city bus is more like an amusement park ride, complete with sharp turns, impossibly slanted and steep drops. We laugh in amazement as we see some regular autos and bicyclists making the same run as this bus, which routinely takes up the middle of both lanes and then some.

We get off first for the older ruin of the Moorish Castle. Following the signs, we cannot see the castle yet and are immediately led downward. Knowing that the main site is up, the foreboding hits us.

It is justified.

Through the fog we go - down, down - until finally we begin to climb uneven, seemingly half-original, half-restored steps. The stones of the mountain are imposing and one can only wonder what kind of power and desire the originator of such a place wielded. At the top we can view and enter about three turrets / towers, while jockeying for photo ops with other intrepid explorers in our camera's sightlines. The fog persists, so we have no grand view, but are proud of ourselves as we trudge down and out - probably a half-mile - on interesting, but lumpy, paths.

Now we catch the same bus route that brought us this far and continue to the peak for the Pena Palace. The last leg up actually requires (offers, really) a trolley-like bus. We do not hesitate, remembering our last trip to a mountain-side castle just an hour or so earlier.

The Pena exterior reminds Marisa of certain fantasy sets she's seen in movies - towers and wall carvings, all in shades of pastel. The interior is loaded with what you'd expect from a nineteenth-century cousin of Queen Victoria. The whole place was taken over by the new "Republican" government in 1908 and it became a public park two years later. We have espresso at the top.

Feeling very proud of our relentless trek, we happily retrace our trolley-to-bus route down the steep curves to the Sintra old town. The narrow, hilly, stone streets have many small shops selling antiques. Coffee shops (cafeteria) abound as do street performers (not so good). With a recommendation from the guide book, we go to the Cafe Piriquita. Apparently the national fast food is grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches. We order up two with glasses of vinho verde. Except for the coffee, we have eaten only yellow food today.

Now we wander again, eager to try some ginjinha while we're here. We stop into a lovely little place and buy a sample in a chocolate cup. The English-speaking saleslady keeps the free samples coming - cheeses, ports, jams - and we end up buying a big chunk of cheese and a half-bottle of ruby port, both to be consumed before we leave for home in a week.

We stroll the ten minutes back around the curvy main road to the train station, then relax all the way to Rossio. Coming out of the station, we decide to take our own stroll for some more sightseeing, coffee, and dessert. We climb up through the Alfama district and finally find an outdoor spot to sit and sip. Then we look up and see a Trolley 28E, an old wire-powered, twenty-foot-long, skinny, antique Rice-a-Roni trolley. Okay, all seats taken and the ride is as bumpy, jerky, and haltingly fast at times as the other two hill-climbing buses earlier. Though we laugh and hold on, we are glad to sit after others exit.

Five stops later, we are a the end of the line and learn only then that this trolley doesn't simply turn around and take us back. Oh, no, we must get off, buy another ticket, and wait thirty minutes for the next one. Feeling jilted and pouty, we wait for the next one to take us on the long, windy, downhill, colorful, exhilarating and occasionally depressing ride through streets narrow, buildings sometimes derelict and abandoned, and soak up the feeling of real, old Lisbon.

We stroll back to the hotel, stopping at a restaurant for some bread to go with yesterday's ham. Only we find the server has misunderstood our wishes and he serves us espresso on the table outside.

We are tired.

Monday, 18 March

This is our first full-on sunny day in Portugal! We begin in the breakfast room with coffee, bread, butter, jam. Then a stroll to the water. Monday morning on the wide, stone-paved, pedestrian-only streets is calm and sparse compared to Sunday evening. We stop for a second espresso at the Praca do Comercio, by the bay where we saw a full-size cruise ship the day before. There are still plenty of floating tourist types like us. We then ease ourselves to the water's edge for photos and a look back at the city on many hills; colorful, thriving buildings with businesses and homes; crumbling facades on graffiti-scarred relics.

We take a small bus up to the Sao Jorge Castle, streets filling with vehicles of all sizes that can squeeze into the narrow passage, crossing in front of each other and determined walkers like us.

Back down to our street nearest the hotel for lunch at one of the restaurants that a guidebook recommended; one of the twenty or so whose street solicitation person has accosted us over the past two days, begging us to dine there. Thinking the aggressive pitches sort of quaint awhile before, we now are not amused. When we are seated, the waiter opens up the first page of the menu displaying $60 lunches for two. Oh, come on. We select, instead, the $10 cod which is listed only in the menu Marisa was given.

As we wait and then eat under a fabric awning open to the outside, no fewer than five men come, in turn, from the street to our table, and try to sell us sunglasses! They each practically shove them into my nose, quickly going on the assumption of English-speaking suckers who forgot to bring shades. So - not a bad time to finish our just-fine fish and catch a cab to the airport, pick up our rental car and head to Cape Sagres, some 250 km away on the far southwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula and continental Europe.

Easy ride down interstate-sized highway past many open fields. Distant villages are visible, then we drive among hills and rivers and valleys, rolling into the resort town around sunset. The low-to-the-ground style of buildings evokes a beachside place - a feel one can find from the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Hatteras.

The off-season rate at our splendid hotel - the Pousada de Sagres, Infante - is one-third the normal seasonal price. We have a great view from our balcony, looking out at the old fortress on Sagres Point and the cliffs surrounded by water. Wade goes out to forage in the village for dinner and we melt into our space with the sound of the wind and water.

This is peace.

Tuesday, 19 March

Nice breakfast buffet in a room filled with loud-talking British tourists. Well, okay, it turns out to be just one couple and one American woman exchanging travel experiences and bird-watching tips. God, she's loud. We did not come this far to be force-fed the one quality of native Britishers of which we roundly disapprove. Besides, we were finally relaxing.

There's a nice lounge next door and it becomes the refuge we need - view and quiet now commence.

We walk to the Sagres Point now, from where Henry the Navigator commenced his westward journeys and held his "school" for others so inclined. The fortress is all under fast-moving white clouds, blue skies and a stiff breeze. We take in the mostly vacant expanse of flat, coral-like rocks that cover the ground. First, we go into a tiny, presently-functioning chapel. Since the front door is open, a cat has taken a seat on the rear pew and looks calmly out at the very few visitors.

The path is on the full perimeter, complete with signs warning of "Erosion Cliffs." Perched out on the rocks, past the warning fences, and at the very edge of these very tall cliffs are fisherman, dropping lines some 75 feet into the rock-filed waters below. We must have seen twenty guys, but no one reeled in a fish while we walked.

A honeymooning couple from Utah asks if we would take their picture standing by a particularly beautiful turbulent wave-splashed cliff. A small building, also looking like a chapel from the outside, turns out to be a movie theater with a continuous dramatization of the beginnings of Portuguese world exploration.

        Cliffs are higher than you think.
Look at the tiny people on top!

After the long peaceful walk back to the hotel, we snack on our meat, cheese and wine, looking back from our balcony at the site we just walked around. Going out in mid-afternoon, we are headed to another finger of cliff when the dark clouds roll in swiftly and begin to rain. One of us continued in the rain; the other ditched a about a third of the way there. You guess who!

Naps, balcony, lovely evening meal, balcony.

We don't want to leave.

Wednesday, 20 March

Breakfast looking across to Sagres Point and its cliffs, but soon we're on the road to Evora. We count literally two trucks on the interstate-equivalent and very few cars, really. Then we're on a more rural-feeling two-lane and see the cathedral and clay-tiled rooftops of Evora.

Getting to our tiny hotel proves to be a puzzle of one-way alleys, converging angles and sporadic street names on corners of buildings. The whole city center inside the medieval walls holds its age well, evoking the sense of two millennia of Romans, Moors and Catholics. The hotel is charmingly stuffed into a sixteenth-century building. A sign posted in three languages basically says "Get used to these uneven worn-out stone steps; they're sixteenth-century." Our room has the only marble balcony. Looking east, the view of buildings and rooftops resembles a living, painted work of art.

Strolling to see our sites is among the most challenging ever in our travels. The town is extravagantly hilly, but has an amazing juxtaposition of a Roman temple flanked by a cathedral with Moorish accents. Like any good tourist, we buy a few beers, sit down and stare at the site. We continue our winding climb and enter any number of other churches, filled with Portuguese tiles, saints painted on wooden ceilings, and bustling women in black mopping the floors.

Not starving, we elect to eat in our lovely, quaint, authentic room and have our wine and quiet. A great place to emphasize our good choice to come to Portugal!

Thursday, 21 March

Evora was a great stop and our hotel a great deal. People all over have been kind and accommodating (we choose to forget the restaurant hawkers in Lisbon). We extricate our tiny, four-door Fiat from the steep, stone-paved courtyard parking area, following a British couple that required the lady to get out and yell driving instructions to her driver-husband.

Out of the town's hills, we head west then north, opting to use non-interstate routes. This works well for seeing the small towns and bark-stripped cork trees by the road. But the occasional large truck can slow you down and take your mind off the scenery.

Obidos is an hour northwest of Lisbon and strikes a winning pose with its eighth-century castle inside its remodeled thirteenth-century walls. We check in to the Hotel Real d'Obidos. We'd thought about staying inside those walls, but guidebooks warned us that no cars were allowed without undue rigmarole. We stop for a big late afternoon dinner right after check-in and are the only people in the house. Our hotel is a great choice, just slightly better decked-out than the Pousada in Sagres. Small steep stone streets again, laid out randomly as they rise to the important, defensible heights.

We throw open our balcony doors; let the breeze whisper and the cars slide by; look out at the fortress castle whose shadowed and sunlit walls contrast so powerfully against blue sky and drifting white clouds.

As the sun sets, Wade wanders, looking for a small supper to take back to the room. All the streets are empty, but one little sign points to a tavern. Entering to check it out, the voices of six American dudes talking about surfing fill the air. When they leave, Wade is the only one left, but picks up a great couple of grilled-cheese "toasts" and dessert. Back to the marvelous suite with wine and wife at the table.

Friday, 22 March

Beautiful sunset, an overnight storm, and a crisp sunrise - all viewed from our balcony windows. Today is a driving and strolling day, all to towns within 25 miles of our hotel.

We drive first through Nazare to catch another glimpse of a beach town with beautiful, daunting cliffs and giant waves. Women of a certain age (sixty-plus, we think) can be spotted in their indigenous skirts: multi-colored, puffy over petticoats, and above the knees. Signs abound referencing a surfing culture.

Alcobaca is our first stop. A twelfth-century Cistercian monastery, it was - like so many in Iberia - built to honor a victory over the Moors. Though it's at least a two-hour drive from Lisbon, it was also damaged in that country-shaking earthquake of 1755. It's a lovely place and the tour is blessedly self-guided; the tourists blessedly few in number. The many courtyards require many photos. The kitchen and its massive chimney are worth another look; water and fish were actually diverted from the Alcoa River via canal to a large trough in the kitchen.

Out we go and spy both coffee and shopping in the square that opens up to the monastery's front steps.

Now off to Batalha and its monastery. Commemorating a non-Moorish, fourteenth-century war-of-succession victory, it is yet unfinished. We have never seen such a thing in all our travels - beautifully carved columns that end roofless in mid-air. There are plenty of defaced or vandalized ones, but nothing mars those where the willpower, money and effort ceased. The rest of the place, however, is quite complete.

Driving past Obidos, we head as far west as we can go - to Peniche. We had thought we would pause for a bit of refreshment as the sun goes down, but instead we stand above churning tides that are at least one hundred feet below us and explode almost up to our faces. We see two mountainous islands to the west - in the sea mist - stunning in every way. This is scary driving, though, and no time to be drinking wine.

Back in Obidos, we venture to the market street again, stopping in the square by the church for a safe beer. There is shop after shop, all but a handful selling souvenirs and crafts of Portugal. We grab a take-away salad in the hotel to go with our "toasts."

A good day.

Saturday, 23 March

We languish over the splendid breakfast buffet, then take our farewell stroll among the stones and tiles that make the streets of Obidos so lovely. Marisa finds the one tile she's been wishing for, recognizing it because it's the only one with a cat she has seen. We dig out our unopened half-bottle of Sintra port, open the balcony doors of our hotel room, read and relax one more time with the sky of Portugal looking in.

We make our quick ride into the Lisbon airport. Crowds appear and the weird behavior resumes. We take the short flight to Madrid and spend the night in a Holiday Inn Express at the airport.

Damn, we are annoyed that the taxi to the hotel is 25 Euros each way. We outsmarted ourselves trying to find something moderate and dependable. We feel dumb as we eat bad American-style, room-delivered pizza. Good grief.

When we were in the final stages of planning this trip, Portugal was aroused to the point of gathering 500,000 protesters in Lisbon a week before we arrived. The focus of ire is the EU, dominated by the austerity mandate, notably pushed hardest by Germany, one of the most aggressive lenders complicit in the housing and financial bubble. A lot of money was lent here, and the bad economy is among the bottom five in Europe: Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy. In spite of these deep difficulties, the population is friendly and the essential services are in place. No real inconvenience for us, the tourists. But in snippets of conversation with different servers, the concern was evident.

The steep terrain - chosen those centuries ago for sites of even the smallest village - hits the memory like a sort of national trademark. It feels even more prevalent than in other parts of Europe we've visited together. The preservation of sites is generally very good, even for a struggling government and economy. Every street seems to hold something ancient.

In our drives across the countryside, we saw few cattle, a few more sheep, and hardly any crops - probably a seasonal issue. Yet, the land is so uneven. We saw some beautifully terraced areas, but it appears there is no serious attempt to grow food in this southern half. Perhaps it is simply not arable - hence the cork trees and historic poverty.

Huge history is the backdrop for this piece of a peninsula whose people inserted themselves into multiple centuries and continents, then counted their money, slowed their birthrate, and woke up to a status that is just ordinary.

But the history remains in the dirt, the people and the beautiful settings and structures they proudly maintain.