Monthly Archives: March 2014

Portugal, part three — Lisbon: babies and monks and birds

We spent the third and final leg of our Portugal trip in Lisbon. We rented a little apartment in Alfama, the oldest district in the city.

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Al and I were really into Alfama. In some ways, it felt quintessentially European, with its narrow, cobbled streets,  shrines sprouting out of public walls, and ancient churches. But in other ways, it felt decidedly developing world. There was trash in the alleyways, certain streets in the neighborhood reeked of fish, and the buildings were crumbling and peeling. Alfama reminded me of some parts of Brazil, and even of Mozambique.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

By the end of our time there, I had decided that Lisbon (and Alfama in particular) looked and felt how I imagine a Southern European city would have looked and felt forty years ago. Not backwards, of course, but not exactly cosmopolitan, either (and I mean that in the best way). Alfama was very neighborhood-y: people yelled at each other from windows, laundry hung out to dry over the streets, kids played in front of their parents’ shops. We saw the same people every day when we left the apartment (most of whom were old ladies in housecoats, doing their shopping), and no one seemed to be trying to sell us anything or otherwise adapting their behavior to accommodate tourists. We later realized that we were staying in the lower part of Alfama, which is decidedly un-touristy (except for a few fado bars), but on our last night, we ventured to upper Alfama, which, we discovered, is where all the tourists had been the entire time. I’m really glad we stayed where we did.

Upper Alfama

Upper Alfama

One of our favorite Alfama experiences happened one night after dinner, when we stopped in a tiny bar near the apartment. When we walked in, the bar was empty except for the bartender (a middle-aged lady) and a monk in full black robes. As soon as we bellied up to the bar to order our drinks, the monk started chit-chatting with us in Portuguese, telling us all about Portugal, port, his life as a monk (which appeared to entail getting up very early but also drinking fairly late at night), and the places he had traveled. When I hesitated over which type of port to order, he told me to get white port because it was “like a woman: sweet, soft, and full of soul,” or something to that effect. Oh, flirty Southern European monk! You sure have a way with the ladies!

At the monk/baby bar

At the monk/baby bar

Later, as Al and I sat there drinking port (and for Al, beirão, a sweet, surprisingly not disgusting herbal liqueur), a family consisting of three adults, a baby, and a toddler came in. Everyone seemed to be regulars (including the kids). I took a video (although it’s hard to tell what’s going on since the bar was dark and noisy, but you get the idea). From there on out, Al and I referred to that place as the “monk and baby bar.”

We did some sightseeing in Lisbon, too — we checked out the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Tropical Botanical Garden — but mostly we just enjoyed walking around, admiring the old buildings and the azulejos, and, of course, drinking copious amounts of port. (Oh, how I love port!) We also got to meet up with my cousin Allie and her boyfriend, Marlo, which was fun. They took us to some bars in Bairro Alto, one of which had a bossa nova band (from whom I requested “Chega de Saudade,” obviously).

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

I also went for some good runs and saw some of the funky graffiti and sidewalk art along the river. In our wanderings, Al and I also encountered lots of caged birds, which was both sad and weird. I’d never before been to a place where people just hang bird cages (filled with birds) outside of their homes and places of business.

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Now, a word on food. Al and I concluded by the end of our time in Portugal that gastronomically speaking, the Portuguese do three things really well: 1) baked goods; 2) port; and 3) preserved fish. I also enjoyed the simple sheep’s milk cheeses and the marinated olives we got everywhere.

Queijo azeitao - scoopable, delicious sheep's cheese

Queijo azeitao – scoopable, delicious sheep’s cheese

Apart from those things, though, Portuguese cuisine struck us as being pretty nondescript. Unless you’re REALLY into salted codfish, you probably won’t come away from Portugal with a strong impression of their food. But if you have a thing for seafood in cans, hoo boy, you’re gonna love this place!

Into preserved fish? You've come to the right place.

Gorgeous packaging on preserved seafood

One thing the Portuguese do NOT excel at, we found out, is food photography. I started taking photos of all the horrendous food photography I saw, usually prominently displayed in the windows of restaurants, because so much of it was so revolting. Here are just two of my favorites, which were actually framed.

Congealing grease, anyone?

Congealing grease, anyone?

The fact that I can only positively identify 2 out of four of these foods is not a great sign.

I can only positively identify two out of four of these foods.

But you know what? Terrible food photography aside, we ate pretty well in Portugal. And we drank REALLY well. Overall, what I liked most about our time in Lisbon was wandering into cafes and restaurants in Alfama and not seeing any other tourists. We were never bombarded with gimmicks or up-sells or even particular attention, wherever we went, and it was really refreshing. To borrow a phrase from every Lonely Planet guide ever written, the city was very “atmospheric,” and we were sad to leave.

Obrigada, Portugal, por uma visita ótima!

Portugal, part two — Sintra: gardens, castles, and creepy toys

For the second leg of our Portugal trip, Al and I took the train from Santa Comba Dão back to Lisbon, and then another train from Lisbon to Sintra, a city about 20 miles outside of Lisbon, known for its beauty, quirkiness, and abundance of castles and monuments. We stayed at the utterly charming Cinco Bed and Breakfast, which had great views of the city and a friendly cat named Jack.

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The first day, we arrived fairly late in the afternoon, hot and tired from six hours of travel, so we decided to keep it low-key and hike up a giant hill to Sintra’s Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros). [About that decision — here’s the thing about me and Al: we’re constitutionally incapable of actually being low-key. We always say we’re going to “chill” and we never actually do. Even when we’re sitting on the couch, we’re both always doing something. It’s a sickness. But we are who we are, I suppose]. So, we hiked up to the Moorish Castle, which was originally constructed in the 8th-9th centuries, which is an astonishingly long time ago, if you stop and think about it. The castle has fabulous views of the city, which is lush and green and populated by all sorts of interesting looking mansions and castles.

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

We spent some time up there, looking around and taking obnoxious selfies, then we came back down to town and did a fortified wine tasting at a local wine shop. The Portuguese call fortified wines “vinhos generosos,” and the lady pouring them for us certainly was generous. We tried madeira, port, and moscatel. My favorite was the white port, which I’d never tried before. Boozy and delicious.

That's a lot of fortified wine. Not that I'm complaining.

That’s a lot of fortified wine. Not that I’m complaining.

After that, we returned to the B&B, where we had dinner (cheese, prosciuttio, bread, and wine — the usual) and watched British TV. We had both missed British crime dramas and since Sintra’s dinner scene seemed overpriced and touristy, it was much more appealing to sit on the couch, see the sunset, and watch Hercule Poirot solve some crimes than to venture out into the night. We’re old, what can I tell you?

The next day, I went for a run in the morning and took photos of some of the interesting things I saw around the city, including some weird animal sculptures in the local park.

Frog sculpture at the local park

Frog sculpture at the park

Then, Al and I went to the Quinta da Regaleira, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a sprawling estate packed with unique architecture and carvings. It was refurbished in 1892 when it was owned by the Barons of Regaleira, a rich family from Porto, who hired Italian architect Luigi Manini to design the estate. Manini was, apparently, into some weird stuff, as the Quinta da Regaleira is filled with references to the Knights Templar, Masonry, alchemy, and the Rosicrucians.

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Al’s favorite part of the Quinta da Regaleira was a deep well that you could walk down, which led to a series of caves and waterfalls.

Emerging from the underground cave

Emerging from the underground cave

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

We also enjoyed the fantastical animal carvings.

Switched at birth?

Switched at birth?

Before packing it in for the day, we stopped by the Museo dos Brinquedos (Toy Museum), which was fascinating. All the nightmarish dolls one could ever want!

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Finally, before leaving Sintra, we had to eat lunch and do one more wine tasting at that little wine shop. Then, we bid the town tchauzinho and headed back to Lisbon for the final leg of our journey.

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Next stop: Portugal, part three: Lisbon.

 

Portugal, part one — the Dão wine region: heavy on biking, light on wine.

This past week, Alastair and I took a vacation to Portugal. It had been on the top of my list of places to visit for years, and since we hadn’t gotten a chance to go while we were in London, as soon as Al got the opportunity for vacation, we took it. (Incidentally, for my insane husband, who has traveled more than anyone I know, Portugal was his 99th country visited. 99th!! We think he’s going to hit 100 this summer when we go to Belize. Like I said: insane (in the membrane)). Anyway, our trip can be neatly divided into three parts: 1) the Dão wine region; 2) Sintra; and 3) Lisbon. So, without further ado, I give you: Portugal, part one: the Dão.

Azulejo, Nelas train station

Azulejo, Nelas train station

In the Dão, we hoped to bike through lush vineyards while stopping frequently to taste wine. That was pretty much our entire plan. But, as we soon found out, things would not go exactly to plan.

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Making the best of things = kind of our strong suit.

Immediately upon arriving in Portugal, we took a couple of trains from Lisbon to Santa Comba Dão, the tiny town where we’d be staying at an agro-tourism cabin. We have no real interest in agro-tourism, unless you consider drinking large amounts of wine to be agro-tourism, but the place we were staying, Quinta da Abelenda, advertised that it was situated near a bunch of vineyards, and it rented out bikes, so it sounded perfect for our purposes. We pictured ourselves biking idly along country roads, stopping every couple of kilometers to booze it up in some beautiful vineyard. I had a really clear vision of us laughing over a baguette and clinking wine glasses in a sun-dappled meadow. What a fool I was!

Quinta da Fata

Quinta da Fata

We arrived in Santa Comba Dão quite late at night and went to bed as soon as we got in, after lighting the cozy wood stove in the cabin. The next morning, we were eager to get a move on our wine adventure, so we asked the proprietor of the establishment what route we should take. He seemed utterly baffled by the idea that visitors to the well-known wine region in which he owns tourist lodgings would be interested in tasting wine. He literally — literally — scratched his head with confusion and told us that it would perhaps be possible, in some theoretical sense of the word, to taste wine, in the same way that going to Jupiter is possible. But he didn’t have any clear ideas on how we would go about doing it.

Wood stove in our cabin

Wood stove in our cabin

We decided, since we had gotten a late start on the day, to just try for a full day of wine tasting the next day, and take the bikes out instead, assuming that we’d pass at least a few wineries along the way. Our cabin was situated along the Ecopista do Dão, a paved biking and walking path that stretches ~50 km (~30 miles) from Santa Comba Dão to the bustling city of Vizeu. So we set off on our bikes for a leisurely journey.

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Fifty kilometers and zero wineries later, we were crabby, sore, hot, starving, and thirsty. We walked our bikes around Vizeu, a pretty disappointing town, considering the vast effort expended to get there, until we found a restaurant, where we shoved food into our mouths like urchins. When it was time to go, I found that my butt was actually too tender from the last three hours of biking in jeans to remount a bike, so we found a bus to take us back to Santa Comba Dão. After quite a to-do involving taking the wheels and the handlebars off the bikes so that they’d fit in the hold of the bus, and then struggling to put everything back together again once we arrived at our destination, we sighed with relief to be back in Santa Comba Dão, butts intact. However, we found that the bus had dropped us off quite far from the cabin, and since I physically could ride no more, we had to walk our bikes several miles back to the cabin, as it was getting dark. Then we got lost. I think the low point was walking our bikes in the pitch dark along the side of a highway, semis and cars roaring by us, with no clear idea of where the hell we were. I should also add that we were hungry, I was cold, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my butt hurt. Not my finest moment.

Ecopista path

Ecopista path

The next day, we awoke with renewed vigor, determined to go wine tasting if it killed us. Long story short: the Dão did not feel like opening its welcoming arms to two eager wine tourists, and we were stymied at every turn. Long story long: We took a train to a town called Nelas, where we had heard that there might be wineries that actually allow people to taste their wines. After fruitlessly driving around in a taxi and passing several wineries, none of which were open, we finally made it to Quinta da Fata, a beautiful winery that, lo and behold, had wine available for tasting! [Cue heavenly choir!]

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Although Quinta da Fata does not do traditional “tastings,” the bottles are very cheap (and very good!), so they encourage people to just buy a bottle and sit outside to drink it. So we did that, and it was lovely. The woman who owns the place was very kind and gave us an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities, the house, and the bed and breakfast, all of which were empty when we were there. After sitting in the sun, admiring the view, and sipping some wine, we left feeling optimistic about our prospects for finding other nice wineries in the area. That optimism ended up being misplaced, because the next place we went, while open, told us they couldn’t do a tasting because the wines “weren’t the right temperature” (huh?), so we just bought a couple of bottles and took the train back to Santa Comba Dão, accepting defeat.

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

That evening, we sat out on our porch at the cabin, admired the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that came to say olá, drank some of the wine we had bought, ate prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, and read. Here’s a fairly uneventful (but short) video of what our evening looked like.

Once we accepted that we were not going to have the wine tasting experience we had anticipated, a burden was lifted, in a way, and we felt free to enjoy just sitting around and watching the world go by. I think there’s some sort of life lesson in there, about keeping expectations low, not trying to plan everything, going with the flow, and so on. Lesson learned, I guess. I think we had such high expectations for wine tasting in Portugal because we had done a similar thing in the Wachau Valley of Austria in 2010 and it was magical. As I recall, everything was easy and charming and boozy and fun. But actually, re-reading my blog post from that trip, I see now that a similar thing happened then, in which our expectations, at least at first, did not meet reality, and we had to adjust. Lots of the wineries were closed, we were turned away by an angry ogre at one of them, and it poured rain on us as we were biking. I had sort of forgotten about all of that. I guess it’s easy to forget mishaps in the past because they all get lost in the fond haze of vacation nostalgia.

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Overall, though, the Dão was beautiful and relaxing. We did eventually taste some nice wines, and I’ll never forget our cozy cabin with the wood stove and friendly horses. I’m calling it a success!

Next post: Portugal, part 2: Sintra.