If someone says, “Let’s go to Portugal!”, you probably think of Lisbon but our first stop was Porto since there’s a direct flight from Carcassonne that put us there in an hour and a half. It is truly what our next door neighbor here described as vibrante that we might call “lively” with a sense of excitement that we both felt when we arrived at the airport and especially once we were settled into our holiday rental apartment right in the middle of the tourist section. As much as we enjoyed our days there, we eventually had to move south to the nation’s capital, Lisbon, and then an hour and a half west to Evora, our true goal for this trip to visit the friends who had invited us there.
Just as in Porto, we bought an inexpensive visitor’s card that gives you access to the public transit system plus free or greatly discounted entrances to numerous museums and other attractions. We generally do a good job of investigating the sites we want to see on vacation and how to get there but we missed the fact that during the first part of June each year, Portugal celebrates the birthdays of several saints together in one massive week long, or longer, festival with parties, dances, and parades, with beer, wine and other cool beverage kiosks on every corner. With such a joyful atmosphere surrounding us we almost didn’t notice that many of the interiors of the historic sites and museums we had hoped to visit were closed because of the holidays. Oh well, just another reason to go back, right?
Although we might not have been able to go inside a lot of places, we definitely used the mass transit system to see everything we could from the outside, starting with the St. George castle, high above the city, that’s still most easily reached by a wooden trolley car, not unlike those seen in San Francisco, from the 1930’s. While on that side of town we made a stop at the cathedral that too was not open for visitors but this time because a dozen couples were getting married at the same time. Since this is the oldest part of town, portions of it have very narrow, picturesque streets while the wider connecting roads are filled with outdoor cafes, most serving the traditional cod fish that can be prepared in at least 400 ways.
Another traditional food all over Portugal, but a secret-recipe one found only in Lisbon is a custard tart called pastéis de Bélem. The waiting line we saw outside the door of the bakery with the same name led us across the street to try the pastéis de cerveja or “beer cake” where the recipe does not seem to be such a secret. A short walk from there is the Jeronimous Monastery where explorer Vasca da Gama spent the night before sailing off to discover the sea route to India. Not far away is the Monument to the Discoverers plus the Belem Tower, a small fort that once protected the city from ship attacks.
For a complete change of pace and to reach the initial goal of this trip, we took a train about an hour and a half west of Lisbon to visit friends in Evora, with its rich Roman history that can be seen most prominently by the Diana Temple built around the time of the Roman conquest in 57 BC. We easily saw the historical highlights of the city from a tuk-tuk tour that our hosts kindly provided for us. Other remnants from that period are the baths, now inside city hall, and the aqueduct that was reconstructed in 1537 on top of the foundation laid 1500 years before. We skipped a visit to the Bone Chapel, reminiscent of the Catacombs in Paris, in favor of a short journey outside of town to see the standing stones of Cromlech Almendres. Laid out in circles starting about 6000 BC, the stones align with the sun, moon, and stars.
After 3 relaxing days in the country, we were back on the train to Porto and the quick flight home giving us just enough time to write down some handy tips for our return to Portugal.
- Every person we encountered spoke English. Before visiting another country, we always learn at least the most basic phrases in their language. In the 3 cities that we visited, before we could get out our greeting of bom dia, we always heard “hello” accompanied by a smile.
- At restaurants, bread, butter, olives and other snacks were brought to our table unordered. If we ate any of these we were charged for each piece even though we had not specifically asked for them.
- On the train platforms we could never find a diagram to indicate the approximate location of where each carriage would stop. Consequently we waited where we estimated the center of the train would be and then as the engine pulled through, dashed to one end or the other to find our seats.
- Train seat numbers were indicated on the outside of all carriages, but the carriage numbers were not always clearly marked. That made it easy to sit in the right seat number but in the wrong carriage, as we did once.
- A website that we used to find the top tourist sites in each destination was Planetware.