I’ve been to Portugal three times now and have loved it every time. It’s a beautiful country filled with beautiful, friendly people. Perhaps I should only count it as 2 trips however since the first one was cut very short.
My very painful “trip”
Today is the 5 year anniversary of my first trip to Lisbon. My husband Dennis and I were living in Dublin at the time, and I don’t have many pictures of that trip because early the first morning I fell down a short flight of stairs and ruptured my patellar tendon. Who gets that kind of injury tripping down 4 steps! Nine hours in a Portuguese hospital (a converted 17th c monastery so that’s something) and I’m flying back to Dublin the next day for surgery. I did enjoy my full day of lying on a gurney in the hallway admiring the painted ceilings.
The day started full of promise. I wanted to take Tram 28 up, to get the iconic tourist experience. We waited…and waited…and waited until finally a tram stopped with room enough for us to push our way in. Given Portugal’s dominance in the sardine canning industry, it’s little wonder they excel at cramming people into those tiny tram cars. Once at the top, the views from the Castelo S. Jorge are amazing. The castle terrace was already full of aspiring models in various poses, working to fill their Instagram pages. Rounding a corner we entered the castle museum, the scene of my unfortunate fall. My advice for your visit is to refrain from looking around in admiration at all of the medieval artifacts they have on display while you are also navigating the stairs.
Two paramedics showed up. One was a no-nonsense, experienced woman that was clearly in charge, the other an adorable young man who smiled sheepishly every time he had to try to communicate with us. As they moved me by stretcher from castle to ambulance, my knee flared in torment every time we took a major bounce over the cobblestones. With each bump, the young paramedic crinkled his forehead in sympathetic apology which helped take my mind off the pain. After I was loaded, they started the very tricky maneuver of turning the ambulance around, the senior paramedic driving while Dennis and the second paramedic sat in the back beside me. The castle streets weren’t made for vehicles this large, and as she was making her turn we heard the most tremendous crack! The very large window behind Dennis and the paramedic suddenly spiderwebbed into a thousand little pieces, most of which thankfully fell outside. Dennis and the paramedic turned to look at each other, the paramedic’s eyes and mouth both round with shock, then quickly morphing into the look of someone desperately trying to stifle his laughter. The driver glared at him while they covered the window with plastic, and we drove the rest of the way to the hospital in uncomfortable silence.
The trip wasn’t a total bust, we got to stay in a very nice hotel. Many thanks to the wonderful people at the Hotel Britania for all their help, both in getting me back to my room and in getting me home. They were so nice that when Dennis called down to get some ice for his scotch they even brought up a huge bucketful thinking it was for my knee. Dennis made good use of it.
Not bad for a work week
When the opportunity came a few years later for me to take a work trip back to Lisbon, it’s understandable that Dennis didn’t want to let me go. He only relented when my work colleagues agreed to never leave me unsupervised and count out loud all the steps as I descended. So I got to go back in 2018.
It was interesting spending a working week in Lisbon, I got to see a whole different side of the city as I walked with the other commuters to the office in the morning and went out to business dinners at night. My work colleagues thought I was SO bougie making them accompany me on two shopping trips to the Louis Vuitton store on Ave d. Liberdade to buy my niece something she’d been looking for and couldn’t find in the states. I did get to add in a little sightseeing time as well (always a perk of business travel). Finishing work early on Friday, we spent the afternoon along the riverfront in Belem. We visited the magnificent Jeronimos Monastery, walked by the Belem Tower and the Monument to the Discoveries, and then finished by treating ourselves to delicious Portuguese tarts at Pasties de Belem. The monastery is among the most beautiful I’ve visited. It was nearly empty when we arrived, and so had a quiet moodiness about it that made me imagine monks tucked away in dark corners copying manuscripts. The tarts are a national treasure, developed by nuns as a way to use up extra egg yolks, and while the line to buy them is long, the heavenly smell wafting out of the bakery made the time fly by. Eat them while they’re warm to get the best experience.
I was able to schedule my flight home for Sunday so had Saturday free. I chose to take a day trip with Viator to see Sintra and Cascais. The Pena Palace in Sintra is one of the most spectacular castles in Europe, a remarkable sight as it peeks in and out of view on the winding path up. The palace isn’t that old, built in the 19th c, but what it lacks in age it makes up for in charm, all gargoyles and crenellated romanticism. I enjoyed the tour of the luxuriously appointed interior, and also enjoyed standing on the balconies overlooking the valley below, imagining I was an Iberian princess waiting for her knight to return from fighting the Moors. After our tour of Sintra we spent some time on the beach in Cascais, a oceanside town so beautiful I want to live there. With its rocky outcrops and abundant succulents it reminded me a bit of the Monterey coast.
Cruising up the river of gold
For my third trip to Portugal, in 2019 we took a river cruise with some friends. We went on Viking’s River of Gold cruise and had a wonderful time. This was our 5th river cruise and our first with Viking; they didn’t disappoint. We started our trip in Lisbon and while I had seen many of the sights before, I fell in love with this beautiful city once again. On subsequent visits to any city, I’ve found that I feel less pressure to rush around and see all the major sights and can spend more time relaxing, soaking everything in. One part of the city that was new to me this time around was the Alfama, the old Arab influenced district. We walked there from our hotel and got lost in the labyrinthine streets, pausing at times to look over the red tile rooftops stretching out to meet the river beyond. Tiring, we sat in the square in front of the the Museu do Faso and just people watched for awhile. I found myself fixated on a heated conversation between two lovers across the square, wondering what the fuss was about, until it was time for us to make the long winding trek back down to our hotel.
Next we traveled up to Porto, a lovely city known for the blue tiles adorning its buildings. We boarded our ship, which was docked on the far bank in Vila Nova de Gaia, the center of the old port wine industry. That vantage point provides amazing views of the Porto skyline. There’s much to explore in Porto, and as we were walking around the old town I imagined what life was like for those Golden Age wine merchants. We visited the Cathedral and the train station, both beautifully decorated with blue tiles. While train stations aren’t always must-see tourist attractions, the murals inside are not to be missed. After a couple of days sightseeing our ship cast off up the Douro valley.
Most of the river cruises we’ve taken are more about the ports of call than the actual cruise. While this cruise does dock in several interesting places, the star of the show here is the Douro river valley itself. This is Portugal’s wine country, and the scenery along the shore rival the beauty of Napa, Burgundy, or France’s Champagne region. We traveled in November, a perfect time to see the vineyards changing colors. Excursions to small villages we stopped at along the way heightened the experience, with fantastic food and wine everywhere. The Mateus Palace was a highlight, a small palace in an idyllic garden setting, some parts of it feeling like they belonged more in the dark hedges outside Kings Landing than in sunny Portugal.
Another outstanding excursion was our day trip to Salamanca, Spain. After a long bus ride we had time to explore the town. The action takes place along the pedestrian area between the Plaza Major and the Cathedral, a wonderful place to stroll and lose yourself for a few hours. And yes, I did drag Dennis into the inside of the cathedral (many of you know how much he loves churches)! I should say cathedrals, because there is a new and an old joined together, one built in the 12th c and the other from the 16th. I preferred the old cathedral, and was especially taken with the apse, filled with a remarkable tableaux. It was also interesting to browse around the University, with beautiful architecture and walls covered with students names written in red. The older graffiti is said to be in a mixture of bull’s blood and olive oil, and brings the history of the University alive.
To cap off our Portugal holiday, we extended a few days to celebrate Thanksgiving in the city of Faro. Faro is a fantastic place to explore, a small city with a lively harbor. We took a Ria Formosa boat tour at sunset, enjoyed spending time on some of the outer islands and got a great view of the city as we were heading back in. Faro is also a wonderful base to explore the rest of the Algarve. I fell in love with the Algarve coast, one of the most beautiful shorelines I’ve seen in the world. When we drove out to Sagres point, I really did feel like I was at the end of the world. Standing at the top of the high cliffs I experienced a sense of vertigo and had to back away. The sense of fear I had wasn’t helped by the local fisherman balancing on small ledges, casting their lines into the water hundreds of feet below. It’s a wonderful spot to take in the sunset and dream of when you can return to this beautiful country.