De volta a Portugal!

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April 19th 2014
Published: April 19th 2014
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Oh hey, back in Portugal for the first time since 2006! With direct flights on SATA for under $600 we really didn't have a choice. ...

We left for the airport around 6 for our 8:50pm flight figuring it could be a madhouse with all of Boston and the surrounding school systems having April vacation. Well, this was indeed the case, with dozens of school groups everywhere, except that most of them were foreign. Our second unforeseen enemy was Holy Week, since most Western Europeans seem to get a full week of vacation for it. Security took at least an hour to get through, and when we finally got through and sat down at Cisco Brewery for dinner and a beer we were told that were out of food on account of the busy day. Um...ok. We were instead welcomed to go over to Così and bring over sandwiches to have with our beers. Fine. In the meantime our flight was delayed a bit...then we watched as An Air France flight took 45 minutes to board at our gate while we sat there with no update. The only option was to get wine flights at Vino Volo...then more wine...until finally around 10 (our flight was scheduled for 8:50) we began to board. Slight chaos ensued as the gate sign switched to Dubai, since that was the next flight, and all the morons thought they were boarding a flight to Dubai. We were airborne in a reasonable amount of time, with Chris and I in the middle of an exit row with plenty of leg room. To our surprise they served a very late dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes, and since I can't turn down food I naturally ate basically all of it. We maybe slept an hour of two on and off, but it wasn't long until 5 hours had passed and we were landing in Lisbon.

Once off the plane and onto the Tarmac we boarded a shuttle bus to the terminal and were through customs with our luggage in no time. We were originally scheduled to land at 8 - we didn't have everything until 10ish and I had already last-minute changed our schedule around after learning about Easter Sunday national museum closing - but I tried not to start off in a bad mood. Oh, and it was overcast...Anyway, we headed straight to the metro to catch a train to the city center. Lisbon's metro is very clean, straightforward, and as far as I can tell quite sufficient, so this was a plus. As luck would have it, two French girls approached us while we were at the ticket and gave us their metro passes, each of which had enough for one ride, since they were leaving the city. Óptimo. Our hotel, booked with American Airlines points, is right in the city center off of Praça Dom Pedro IV, named after Brazil's first emperor, which lisboêtas call Rossío. It's a lovely plaza I remember well, flanked by the neoclassical National Theatre and with two fountains and a large statue of Dom Pedro IV. The hotel itself is pretty bleh - entrance is super modern and crisp, then you go into a time warp and it's pre-revolution Portugal meets 1960s style. The room itself is small, but we have a private terrace overlooking a nice plaza and various bars and restaurants on several levels (Lisbon is built upon 7 hills just like Rome, San Francisco,etc.) The receptionist was somewhat scary - I feel she is Moldovan for some reason - and seemed intrigued at us wanting a bed "de casal" and not "twin". Regardless I was happy to be able to check in a few hours early and not have to venture out feeling gross.

As I'd mentioned, I had to switch up the itinerary because of Easter-related closings, so once freshened up it was off to Belém, a district/suburb 6km west of the city center. A maybe 5 minute walk from the hotel landed us at Praça do Comércio, from which Tram 15 apparently departed for Belem. My recollection was that last time we had taken an old-school tram, but apparently they have since integrated modern tram cars. What seemed like 5,000 people, mostly tourists from Spain, crammed onto the car, and I was literally on 1 leg smashed against a ticket thing for the 30-ish minute trip. We also didn't pay, since they didn't accept bills, only coins, but that's what they get for having an honor system that is inconvenient for patrons. First stop there was the famous Antiga Confeiteria de Belém, where we sat down to much-needed pastéis de nata, crisp pastry nests filled with custard cream. The recipe has been kept secret since the place opened in 1837. It's definitely a tourist trap, but they are delicious and the place has been expanded to accommodate basically a Mongol Horde of people, so finding a seat was easy enough. Caffeinated and carb-fat-sugar-loaded we were good to move on.

We first passed through two gardens, the Praça Alfonso de Albequerque and the Praça do Império, both of which border the breathtaking Mosteiro dos Jerónimos - but more on that in a bit. The first major monument lining the Rio Tejo is the Padrão dos Descubrimentos, or the Discoveries Monument. It's basically a 52 meter high limestone caravel flanked by various famous Portuguese who contributed to the Age of Discovery like Vasco da Gama and Fernão de Magalhães. Henry the Navigator appears at the helm, and it was upon the 500th anniversary of his death in 1960 that the monument was erected.

Next up along the water was the Torre de Belém, a chess piece-like monument erected in 1515 to defend Lisbon's harbor. It is an incredible (UNESCO) Manueline-style structure with intricate representations of flora and fauna from the Age of Discoveries etched into it. We waited maybe 45 minutes to get inside thanks to 1) Spain's takeover this weekend and 2) the 100 person max. capacity but it was worth it. The only downside was the red/green light system used to get people up and down the one-person-wide passages. My faith in humanity was lost seeing now truly inept people were at understanding when they could go up and when they could go down.

After the tower we were a bit hungry and sunburned so we headed back toward the tram drop-off area to find someplace with outdoor seating. We settled on a nice place whose name escapes me and enjoyed some large mugs of Sagres beer, cod cakes, and shrimp in garlic and oil. Per usual the waitstaff was surprised when I responded back to their English in Portugese, but sorry, I'm not here to work on my English. Once we'd had our fill we walked over to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the former Monastery of the order of Saint Jerome. Commissioned in 1498 by Manuel I to celebrate Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India, the monastery is a truly incredible work of Manueline Architecture and another UNESCO World Heritage sight. Thank god we had purchased a joint ticket at the tower that allowed us immediate entry; otherwise we'd have waited an hour in the scorching sun. But anyway, housed in the attached church are the tombs of not only Vasco da Gama but also the famous 16th century poet Camões. The various archways and columns - such intricate stonework - and not to mention the azulejo tiles - make us want to redecorate the apartment to mimic Portugal. Losers, we know.

We had plans to visit the coach museum, but given we were gross, sunburnt, and running on little energy we decided to head back to Lisbon, take it easy, and do some shopping in the Baixo. All of my old favorite Spanish chains - Pull & Bear, Zara, Bershka - as well as Benneton, no longer in Boston - were beckoning. Definitely did some damage at Bershka, and it's most exciting because no one in Boston will have these tanks! After a bit more meandering, which included sips of ginjinha, a local sour cheery liqueur, we went back to the hotel to finally shower and figure out dinner plans. It was such a gorgeous evening we opted to ditch our former restaurant plans to be able to sit somewhere outside. Unfortunately in this busy area, harassment from restaurant hosts is commonplace and inevitable. NO, I DO NOT WANT TO EAT AT YOUR STUPID-LOOKING restaurant. And no, for the hundredth time, I don't want your sunglasses or hash or marijuana to everyone else that has been harassing me all day. We ended up all the way back at Praça do Comércio and had a seat on their nice, not-at-all-crowded patio. My plan to have snails was foiled when they ran out, but we had great little fried squid, crab-stuffed cones with orange caramel and fennel, veal croquettes, and buttered goat cheese along with bread, olives, and a bottle of red from the Alentejo region. Much to our surprise began an odd light show projected on the building of our restaurant, with hundreds gathering to watch, but it made for a really fun evening.

On our way back we stopped to grab a small pastry to split called "Travessos de Lisboa". It looked like flaky pastry filled with something, obviously delicious, so I ordered one but also asked what it was exactly. The clerk had no idea, then asked her colleague, who said it was filled with "gila" - guessing at the spelling here. "A typical sweet filling" they said in Portuguese. Still have no idea what I ate, but it was a funny exchange and the pastry was tasty. I've now been up for well over 24 hours so time to say, "boa noite, e até amanhã!"


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