Portugal - December, 2009

Back in August we began our yearly ritual of scouring the Continental Airlines web site in search of award tickets (frequent flyer miles) for Christmas week. Usually this begins on a sleepless night where Keith obsessively enters the three letter airport code for every international destination that Continental flies. Sometimes we're lucky and end up in a with free tickets to Paris or Belgium. Other years we strike out which begins an entirely new obsession which is to find inexpensive airfares.

This year we were super lucky and got 3 free tickets to Lisbon. Some of our friends who have family in Portugal questioned why we would want to go there in the winter when the weather is not ideal. To us, it is the perfect time since the crowds will be chasing the warmth on the beaches of the Caribbean. Plus, did we mention that the tickets were free?

Our flight arrived 30 minutes early and we were greeted with a line at immigration that would have probably taken 45 minutes to get through. Long immigration lines are just a fact of life when dealing with international travel. After two or three minutes of waiting, a very kind immigration agent who saw us patiently waiting with Elliot picked us out of the line and brought us to the diplomat line and we breezed right through. Reason #532 to travel with a kid.

Clearly, Portuguese weather forecasters aren't much better than their US counterparts, since the forecast was wrong again. When we stepped out of the terminal we were pleasantly surprised by the warm and sunny weather. We took the Aeroshuttle bus into the city, dropped the bags at the hotel and headed out to catch the Hop On-Hop Off Tour Bus which is a super way to see the city quickly and efficiently. In this case we headed out too quickly and arrived 30 minutes before they started operations for the day.
Second stop was the Monesteiro dos Jeronimos which surprisingly is not in the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book. We don't know why because the site is amazing. The structure was built to commemorate Vasco da Gama's successful return from India. It it also became a house of prayer for seamen leaving or entering port.
The Pastéis de Nata is the official pastry of Portugal (not really, but it should be). Pastéis de Belém, which was our first stop in Belém. Since 1837, locals have gone there to get them warm out of the oven and sprinkled with the cinnamon and powdered sugar.
Just around the corner from the Monastery is the Maritime Museum where you can review the routes of the great Portuguese explorers. There are also reproductions of the ships and technology that was available at the time. Corinne shows Elliot the route that Portuguese explorers used to get Asia from Portugal.
After finishing our city tour and checking into our hotel it was time for dinner. No matter how much research we do, our first night dinners are usually lackluster. To ensure that it wouldn't happen this trip we chose a simple restaurant that was highly recommended by travelers and locals. Simple fare, roast chicken cooked over a wood fire was our first meal and it was great. Afterwards we took a short walk through the Restauradores neighborhood and turned in early so we could get an early start the next day since we were all exhausted.
We planned to wake up early, but the blackout shades in the hotel room made us sleep in a littler later than we anticipated. We headed out around 10:00am for Sintra. We boarded the commuter train and arrived in town around 11:00. Then entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once arriving we immediately went to the Pena National Place which stands at the highest point in the town. In the 19th century, Ferdinand II turned a ruined monastery into this fantastic castle. It is fully furnished as if it was still occupied.
We always seek out activities that balance sightseeing and fun stuff for Elliot so we were surprised to find a toy museum in Sintra. It was a fun stop and Elliot really enjoyed the Playmobil exhibit and some of the vintage toys they had on display. Here is his best Batman pose!
The skies may not be so friendly if this Air France Barbie is your flight attendant.

Walking along through Sintra, we saw a small restaurant in the Market filled with locals with some grandma's doing the cooking. Since they had already sold out of the items we wanted to order, we ended up ordering some typical Portuguese dishes of sardines and bacalau instead. Elliot really liked eating the sardines because they were complete with the head, tail and fins.
Our third day began with a trip to the Lisbon Oceanarium which is the largest aquarium in Europe. Off peak travel generally ensures that you will won't have to deal with many crowds or lines. What we failed to consider was the that all of the local kids had off from school during this week and this was one of the more popular family activities. The line was not as bad as it looked and we were through it fairly quickly. The giant sea-monster above is made from flattened soda cans.
A cuttle fish was present in several exhibits at the aquarium.
A different cuttle fish was also present on Elliot's dinner plate that night.

Next, we headed up to the Castle of São Jorge.
We wanted to take the trolley up the hill but after waiting 20 minutes we decided to walk up instead.
It was a long walk up to the top, however we were rewarded with views of the entire city.
Elliot really liked the cannons.
After visiting the castle, we stopped at the de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral).
Finally, after walking down the hill we found our #28 tram which runs through the narrowest and steepest streets of the Alfama district. We jumped on anyway and took it back up just to ride it. This concluded our sightseeing for the day and we were off to Coimbra and Porto. On a whim (thanks to a Chowhound posting), we had a lunch stop in Mealhada, a town in central Portugal which is known for their suckling pig. We stopped at Pedro dos Leitões for leitão assado and knew that we had struck gold. We were rewarded with an amazing meal and a tour of the kitchen.
Elliot helped cook lunch!
It was a beautiful afternoon, and we made a stop at Conímbriga which was one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal. Some of the city walls are intact, and the mosaic floors and foundations of many houses and public buildings remain.
We continued on to Porto that afternoon, and after a long rainy drive, we checked into the hotel. The staff suggested that we try the local specialty in Porto called Franceschina. The dish consists of a layer of toast, covered with meat, cheese and tomato sauce. Certainly a great comforting food after a day of mostly driving.
A view of Porto from Gaia across the river.

We toured two Port Lodges and learned about the hisory and production of Port wine. In the caves at the Port Lodges are hundreds of oak barrels.
At the house of Sandeman winery Elliot posed with our guide who was in the full Sandeman costume. Elliot really took a liking to the Sandeman image which was all over Porto and the port lodge.
Elliot seemed to be having more fun than usual at the playground. Maybe it was the sip of port wine that he had earlier that day.

We began our last day in Portugal driving back to Lisbon but we scheduled a few stops along the way. Our first stop was in Fatima to see the Basililca of Our Lady of the Rosary. It was built to commemorate the events of 1917 when three peasant children claimed to have seen the "Virgin of the Rosary." The site enormous and hosts thousands of people on pilgrimage days. Sometimes you can scour the Internet for hours looking for a lead to a great restaurant and never find it. Occasionally you can find something exceptional by looking for clues. A 20 person line at BBQ joint or a taco cart is obvious but when it is the middle of the afternoon in a suburban town where the main industry is religious tourism, its not so easy. As we drove south from Fatima we carefully looked at each restaurant with the for the promise of finding something good to eat. After a few miles we found and passed Casa Manuel das Matas. It was a simple restaurant in a hotel, but what caught our eye was the overflow parking lot about 100 yards down the street. This was the clue that this place could get very busy so we turned around and went in for a look. As it turned out we had one of the best, and least expensive meals of the trip. Above is a simple looking baked rice with sausage and roast duck which was cooked over a wood fire.
Until this point in our trip we had been very lucky with the weather. We had some beautiful warm sunny days but also a lot of rain. Mostly the rain showers were brief and they occurred when we were inside dining, driving or on the train so they didn't affect us that much. That was about to change...

On the advice of our friend Ana we stopped to see the dinosaur tracks at Pedreira do Galinha which was on the way back to Lisbon. The tracks were made by sauropods about 175 million years ago. They were discovered here in 1994 in what was once a limestone factory. We were all very excited, but just like the movie Vacation with Chevy Chase, we arrived and the gates were closed. We didn't notice in the guide book that they closed for lunch and we only had to wait about 10 minutes for them to reopen at 2:00.
It was already raining and we found out that there was almost a mile walk just to get to the tracks. Since we didn't know if we would ever be back, we decided to go for it and deal with the rain since it was not that heavy and looked like it was letting up. We were very wrong. After 15 minutes of walking the sky got really dark. The rain got heavier and the winds were steady at 40+ MPH. We were completely out in the open so there was nowhere to take shelter. At that point we had no choice but to deal with the heavy rain and continue with our trek.

We lost one umbrella along the way and the other really didn't do much anyway since it was raining sideways. We were completely soaked and only got a glimpse of the tracks. Fortunately, we had our luggage with us so we all had dry clothes to change into.

Ok, we have to come clean. After eating Portuguese food all week the McDonalds was looking good for a late afternoon snack. It pains us to admit it but the Happy Meal does really make Elliot happy so it is a good motivator to use during our trips. Keith also wanted to try the NYC Crispy which had nothing to do with NYC. In case your interested, it's a quarter pounder on an onion roll with some bacon, lettuce, tomato and sauce. The best part is you can get beer with your lunch, even at the drive thru. Possibly in the happy meal, but we didn't ask.

Every metro station is unique and typically has original works of art. After a vacation of Cathedrals and Castles, Elliot really appreciated the marble knights on the wall of the Martim Moniz station.
We arrived back in Lisbon on New Years Eve for our last night in Portugal. Since we had an early flight we planned on an early dinner at Cervejaria Ramiro. When we got there it was packed with a line overflowing along the sidewalk. We found the end and asked the person in front if they knew what the system was which they did not. It was frustrating because the line wasn't completely organized and we really couldn't figure out if some people were bypassing the line because they were friends with the owner, returning from a smoking break or just cutting the line. We were at the mercy of the system but we knew it would be worth it. After 30 minutes we got through the front door and 20 minutes after that we had a New Years Eve seafood feast.

A great ending to a wonderful trip.

Best wishes to all our family and friends for a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!!!
Corinne, Keith & Elliot


Holly said...

Hi. Total stranger here, but really love your blog! I have been waiting on news and pics from your Portugal trip. Glad you guys had such a good time!

Ann said...

Your blog is so sweet. Keep sharing!