Saturday, June 29, 2013

Portugal Travelog: Lisbon and Belém (Day 6)

Day 2 of our Lisbon trip started with another wonderful breakfast and the intention of traveling to nearby Belém to do some sightseeing. I got the bright idea (OK Rick Steves suggested it) of taking a tram the several mile trip so we used our new found geographic knowledge to make our way down to Praça da Figueira to take advantage of all the public transportation.

We made our way quickly to the metro station and with the help of some friendly locals, bought some day passes for travel on the busses and trams of Lisbon. Then over to wait for Tram #28 going to Belém. And wait. And wait. Several photogenic trams passed through only to continue on without stopping. Finally a giant, articulated super tram stopped and the by now enormous crowd surged aboard. We were polite and therefore ended up standing for the half hour hot box ride to Belém. We passed under the giant April 25 Bridge as we paralleled the River Tagus and finally exited the tram at the first Belém stop.

We found ourselves in tourist country in front of a giant structure with an even more giant line waiting to get in. We got a place in line and then I went ahead to find out what we were in line for. By the time I figured out we were indeed waiting to get into the very famous and on our list to visit Jerónimos Monastery we were already heading inside.

It was rather amazing.

This place has long been connected with Portuguese exploration. Vasco de Gama prayed here and is entombed here. It's opulence is in part a thank you from the King to the explorers who brought back riches to Portugal.

We toured the cloisters including the refectory before entering the upper choir area for another view of the main chapel.

As we finally left the monastery, it was most decidedly time for lunch. Belém however is a relatively touristy area with the good restaurants well documented and they were packed even in the mid-afternoon. We decided to keep walking back towards Lisbon proper until the tourists died away and then find the nearest restaurant. This was one of our better strategies.

Our lunch spot was an everyman's cafe on the street with one twist: the chalkboard special included a description in French. We dined on cod cakes with rice and beans on the side and grilled octopus. It was delicious! The place was fantastic too. 

Several tables away was a grandmother blessed to be taking her two grandchildren to lunch. They were more than a handful and she was constantly reprimanding and instructing them on how to behave. We gave her sympathetic glances and wished her good luck as they left together. It was a scene that crossed cultures and made us feel part of a bigger family.

After lunch we continued down the street past the entrance to Portugal's Presidential Palace a bit further to the National Coach Museum.

What? Yeah, the National Coach Museum. Apparently around 1900, foreseeing the demise of the horse drawn coach, Queen Amélia decided to preserve the royal coaches for posterity.

This didn't sound so exciting to me but I couldn't have been more wrong. The coaches were not only beautiful in their own right, but like any slice of life, they said a lot about day to day living during their time. When you kept in mind that these were royal coaches - the Maserati's and Rolls's of their time - it gives you an idea of what life was like during these times. On top of that the building all this was housed in was amazing. It turned out this location used to be home to the royal riding club.

After the Coach Museum we trudged back and caught the tram - much less crowded and hot this time - back to Praça da Figueira where we then waited for and caught the more historic tram #12E which took us up towards the São Jorge Castle. This tram was small, wooden, creaky and a total blast. It creaks and squeaks and jerks up the hills of Lisbon through tight squeezes and as mentioned in the all guidebooks - within inches of cars, building and pedestrians. It was a wonderful ride!

We disembarked near the apex of the tram's route (we hoped) and hoofed it with urgency further uphill as we were dangerously close to closing time for the castle. We arrived, queued and got our tickets to discover we had two hours more than we anticipated. Crisis averted.

The views from the castle grounds were astonishing. We had seen enough of the city at this point to recognize some landmarks from a brand new vantage point.

Looking to the East up the River Tagus.
Looking to the west and to the Praça do Comércio.
25 de April Bridge.

Praça da Figueira.
We climbed the ramparts of the castle proper. All over Portugal we noticed that the Portuguese leave responsibility for not being stupid more up to the individual than they do here in the US. Fewer handrails, fences etc. Here they did give a graphic description of what happens to the careless tourist.

We walked home from the Castle, slowly winding through the streets of the Alfama neighborhood which was a quiet, more reflective and residential area. We wandered right through the middle of a neighborhood BBQ and stopped at little neighborhood shops. At one point Meg was photographing another amazing bit of Portuguese tile work when a gentlemen got our attention. He graciously beckoned us to look at the tile work on the ceiling of the entryway to his apartment. We chatted a bit in broken English and it turned out he had visited Boston once and very much liked it. All over Portugal we found this level of hospitality and openness. 

We continued through the Alfama and gradually made our way back through the Baixa district and then back to our hotel. You see some kind of strange and beautiful things walking through the city sometimes.

No this is not a real person...

Back at the hotel we ordered room service and paired it with some cheese and dried sausage we brought from Salema. Tomorrow was a travel day and this would lighten our load. Plus we were beat!

Another great day in Lisbon. You could spend a week in Lisbon and not see everything you want to but we covered a lot of ground in our three days there. Tomorrow it would be off to Sintra!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Portugual Travelog: Lisbon (Day 5)

Our first fully day in Lisbon started with breakfast at the hotel. Our hotel was really nice and breakfast was no exception. All sorts of pastries, cheeses, cold meats, warm eggs and bacon along with fresh squeezed orange juice and small pots of steaming delicious coffee. The people watching was superb - I became quite convinced that Ron Wood was staying there with his young wife and new baby. One's mind can wander.

On to the day! We decided to start by generally following a walk from Rick Steve's Portugal guide. We left the hotel and crossed Praça Camoes and headed north to Miradouro de Sāo Pedro de Alcantara. Lisbon is a very hilly city and it's full of miradouros or viewpoints. This one included a beautiful garden as well as a fantastic view of the city.

Nearby is one of Lisbon's methods for dealing with the steep hills - the Gloria funicular. It's a tram that goes back and forth up a steep hill.

We were going downhill so the tram wasn't as interesting as it would later become. We wound down through the streets of the Bairro Alto - the neighborhood our hotel was named for - admiring the tilework that we would see all over town.

We had planned on visiting the Church de São Roque but decided against it as the noontime mass had just started so we continued downhill past a fast food place to Carmo Convent.

Lisbon suffered through a truly terrible earthquake in 1755. It devastated the city and incredibly you see the effects of it still today all over town. The Carmo Convent was just one of the many buildings which were nearly completely destroyed by the earthquake. It was never fully rebuilt and now houses an archaeological museum. We entered not really knowing what we would find and were immediately astonished by the now roofless structure.

We visited the small museum here and found it very hard to leave. It was a powerful and beautiful space. As we wandered slowly through the grounds, I realized we were being quietly serenaded by a solo accordion making the experience even more surreal. As we reluctantly left, I glanced down a side street and found the source of the music. Was that Sinatra's "My Way"?

We continued on our journey - mostly continuing downhill and mostly following Rick's walking tour finally - finally arriving at Rua Garrett which was bustling with people enjoying the fine Saturday afternoon. There were open air cafes, street musicians and lots of people hurrying on to something very important. I found it quite intoxicating.

I grabbed a table and ordered a couple beers. We sat in the sun and engaged in some serious people watching while a very funky version of "Hey Joe" wafted over us. 

We finished our beers and continued on our walk. We reversed direction going back down Rua Garrett. We passed a very active outdoor book sale and a very small brass band before entering the Armazens do Chiado mall. It was PACKED with young people visiting the food court and we paused in admiration before continuing downhill passing from the Chiado neighborhood to the Biaxa in the process.

The Baixa neighborhood lies close to the River Tagus. The terrain is quite flat - especially compared to the rest of the city. As with the rest of Lisbon it was devastated by the earthquake of 1755. When it was rebuilt - by military engineers to withstand the next big earthquake - the streets were laid out in a simple grid fashion and all the buildings followed the same squat design. The result feels  completely different from the other neighborhoods. This is the pedestrian only Rua Augusta in the Baixa district. 

We continue to move towards the River Tagus, eventually arriving at the Praco do Commercio which is an enormous wide open area opening onto the River and a view up to the 25 de Abril Bridge. It is a hub for public transportation, tourists and the occasional man about town.

At this point it was time to start looking for lunch. Actually well past time. We reversed direction and started working our way back in to the Baixa looking for a place to eat outside that wasn't too touristy. We wandered through the Baixa for some time and were moderately successful eating outside and having Black Scabbard Fish and mussels. Little did we know it, but we were directly south of Praça de Figueroa. 

Praça de Figueroa is another main hub for public transportation with a Metro station, trams and lots and lots of buses. It also near the famous Confeitaria Nacional where we picked up a couple pastries.

Clutching our pastries like stolen treasure, we made our way across Praça de Figueroa to nearby Praça Rossio which is a bit calmer and more pedestrian friendly. The pastries all through the trip were fantastic and these were no exception.

After reluctantly deciding not to go back and get more pastries, we continued north generally heading back to our hotel. Unfortunately now, the hills of Lisbon were waiting for us but before we attacked that, we visited the amazing Church de São Domingos. It was also largely destroyed during  the earthquake of 1755 and was rebuilt in a way to make it obvious what survived and what did not. It was quite astonishing.

Next - and on Rick Steve's advice - we visited a Ginjinha joint. You walk in, pay your money at a little "snack" bar and you get a shot of ginjinha - a strong cherry liquor popular in Lisbon in a little paper cup. Despite my thirst I was a bit apprehensive at this new experience. I quickly pushed on.

We visited the Rossio Train Station - a beautiful building - and then started to look for the best way to climb the hill back to our hotel.

We made our way to the Gloria funicular that we had seen just that morning. We waited for it. We discovered it was too expensive and hoofed our way up the hill, leaving it in the dust.

Back to the hotel for a quick recharge and then we walked up the street to the Sao Roque church that we had skipped that morning. This is a Jesuit church with a wooden ceiling and numbered trap doors leading to what used to be crypts.

We then strolled through the Bairro Alto looking for a place for dinner. This area is a blast - full of activity, bars and restaurants. We scoped out a place for dinner before arriving back at Praça Luís de Camões and returning to our hotel.

The Bairro Alto hotel.
With a bit of time to kill before dinner we visited the rooftop bar at our hotel. It is reputed to be one of the best views in Lisbon and we were not disappointed. However it was positively cold up on the 6th floor and we didn't stay too long.

We ate nearby that evening at a nearby wine bar. The food was simple and good - the waiter selected several Portuguese red wines for us to try (all delicious) and we had a wonderful time. The only problem was that our waiter was completely overloaded. We arrived to a nearly empty room and as we finished our meal, it was packed but there was stil only one waiter. This was the second time we had this problem in Portugal and we finally solved it by simply chasing him down and stuffing some bills in his hand.

We had a full day for sure visiting sights in the Bairro Alto, Chiada, and Baixa neighborhoods. Tomorrow we planned to visit Belem a bit down the Tagus famous as the port of departure for Portuguese explorers.