A glimpse of Portugal

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Europe » Portugal
July 11th 2012
Published: July 27th 2012
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With only 4 days in Portugal - 3 on the mainland, and one in the Azores - we had to maximize every minute, and plan ahead. After a bit of research, we decided to spend one day each in Porto, Sintra, and Lisbon, before flying to the Azores for a day, and then back home.

We flew into Porto from Dublin, and took the Metro to the center of town, where our hotel was located. Upon exiting the Metro station in the town center, the view was breathtaking, and reminded me of everything I love about Europe. We found ourselves in the middle of a wide avenue, with very grand, old and beautiful buildings surrounding us on all sides. We couldn't stop staring, but had to make our way with our luggage to the hotel a couple blocks away. We checked into our hotel, which we loved (Infante de Sagres; it was the only 5 star hotel on our trip) and set out to explore the center. We didn't have to walk far. Everywhere, there were people sitting outside cafes, drinking and talking with their friends. It was a Friday night, so I don't know if this is a weekly or just weekend thing, but so many people were out enjoying themselves. We also saw a big crowd literally dancing in the street to some music. The city had a very social and friendly energy about it.

In the morning, we set out to explore the rest of the town. Sadly, being on such a tight schedule, we had to leave that afternoon, so we went down to the train station to book our train before spending the next few hours exploring. The train station itself was impressive, with many wall murals made of white and blue tiles. These tiles are something we saw throughout Portugal. We walked along cobblestone streets to get to the main pedestrian shopping area, and spent a little time there. Could have spent a lot more, but we were on a tight schedule. We then discovered a huge ancient cathedral overlooking the city. It was magnificent, and the views were spectacular. Seeing all the tile roofs, we really felt we were in a Mediterranean country, a big contrast from the country we had just left, Ireland. There was also a fish market nearby and the vendors were yelling. All of these sights and sounds in our first day in a new country were really exotic and exciting. I was already falling in love with Porto, and hoping that the rest of Portugal was as magical.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal (after Lisbon, the capital) and the home of port wine. We didn't even have time to tour the wineries, but we also found out that a lot of great soap is made in Porto, and we visited a shop and bought a few great smelling bars. We took a funicular down to the riverfront and walked along the charming boardwalk for a little while, before realizing we had to hurry back to catch our train to Lisbon. I was sad to leave Porto. It was such a charming town, and we hardly got to explore it. As it would turn out, it was my favorite place in Portugal.

We took the train to Lisbon, about 3 hours, and shortly before arriving, saw a crowd of hundreds lined up along the train tracks, chanting and excited as if they were awaiting the arrival of a dignitary or some special event. A few minutes later, the reason for the commotion was revealed when we saw the arena and several large signs announcing a bullfight later that evening. My guidebook also mentioned that this small town outside the capital was a major bullfighting destination during the summer. We didn't see any bull fights, however, and continued to Lisbon. As soon as we arrived at the station, we took a taxi for a 30 or 40 minute ride to Sintra.

Sintra is a hillside town near Lisbon, which was the summer residence for the King and Queen of Portugal. Many poets and other artists also stayed there over the years, including Lord Byron, who wrote: "I must observe that the village of Sintra is the most beautiful in the world". The two most famous places in Sintra are the Moorish Castle and the nearby Pena Palace, where the royal family would stay. Both are near each other in the hills overlooking the town. We visited both, and were impressed with the views from the castle and the views OF the palace, including its gardens and lakes with white and black swans. The narrow, cobblestone streets of the town of Sintra itself, and the excellent restaurant we found, where we ate once for dinner and the next day for lunch, added to the enjoyment and ambience of this touristy but charming small town.

As we only had one day in each place in Portugal - Porto, Sintra, Lisbon, and the Azores - after a day in Sintra, we took a taxi back to Lisbon. We arrived in the afternoon, and would be leaving for the airport the next morning, so our main objective was to see the main sights as quickly as possible. The first one of these was the Torre de Belem, a small fortress on the water, that was featured in many pictures and postcards (and, this being Portugal - tiles!) we had seen. It really was a lovely sight. Next to it was a boardwalk along the water, and a bridge that looked exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We then took the famous Santa Justa elevator, for a view of the city. We also visited a couple of the main squares. We ended our evening with a nice dinner accompanied by Fado music, traditional and nostalgic Portuguese folk music. There were three different singers, and they were all very good. Despite all we saw and did, Lisbon didn't have the charm of Porto or Sintra. In many areas, it seemed deserted or depressed. It lacked the energy and vitality of many capital cities. It seemed like a place down on its luck, and in many areas felt like a Third World city. Although our time there was very brief, especially for such a large city, we managed to see all the main sites, and it was not a place where we wished we had more time. I am glad it wasn't our first experience in Portugal, as Lisbon simply did not have the energy or charm of other places.

When I was booking our trip, it turned out that it was a bit cheaper to fly back to the U.S. via the Azores and not directly from Lisbon. The Azores are nine islands that are a Portuguese territory, and whose residents are Portuguese, but they are located in the middle of the Atlantic, almost halfway between Europe and North America. We arrived at Punta Delgada, the largest town on the largest island, Sao Miguel. In mainland Portugal, we didn't rent a car, but here we did. These both proved to be good decisions. Immediately, we started touring the island. The island of Sao Miguel has many beautiful lakes, though the beaches are nothing compared to many islands and beaches I have been to around the world. But the lakes, many of them viewed from the mountains, are reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. The most famous of these are in a place called Sete Cidades. It is a volcanic crater with twin lakes. The view from the mountain overlooking these is breathtaking. Driving along the island, we noticed rhododonderons everywhere, colorful birds, and a very pastoral sort of landscape. The pace of life seemed very slow and laid back. We got caught in a "traffic jam" on the way back, as we were stuck behind a woman herding cows, who was yelling at us and at them.

The town of Punta Delgada, the largest in the Azores by far, is still small and sleepy. There were a few restaurants open, but the food was surprisingly disappointing. It turned out that, despite being an island, their specialty was beef and not seafood. They also didn't know what we were talking about when we asked about the cherry liquor, which was everpresent in mainland Portugal. The next morning, we rented bikes and rode along the shore to a couple beaches. As I mentioned, the beaches were not spectacular, which may prevent the Azores from becoming a major tourist destination, but it was nonetheless a lot of fun to bike around and observe the laid back lifestyle. In every square and street corner, it seemed like a few people, mostly men, were sitting or standing around talking. This was a weekday and was the middle of the day. At one point we stopped and asked a man who was standing around with his buddies to take our photo. A few hours later, we were surprised when we arrived at the airport passport control window and the officer asked: "Did your picture come out OK?". I was a little confused, until I realized that the passport control officer was the same man who took our photo that morning!

Our flight from the Azores was delayed by 4 hours, and we missed the connecting flight in Boston as a result. The flight TO the Azores from Lisbon was also delayed, by about 2 hours. So keep in mind if you are flying to or from the Azores, that your flight will probably be delayed. This probably goes for a lot of islands in general, and was certainly in line with the laid back pace of life there.

We thoroughly enjoyed our brief visit in Portugal, and wish we had more time. Highly recommended are Porto and Sintra. I'm sure there are also many wonderful places in Portugal we didn't get to see this time. Maybe someday...

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