Pastries (and other goodies!) in Portugal

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of Portugal  , Estremadura,
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Hi everybody!
Portugal is one of the few western European countries that we hadn't visited so far, but all that changed when we took a 10 day trip there at the end of May. We flew into Lisbon and spent three days in Lisbon before heading to the fishing villages and (cold and windy) beach north of there. We then crossed the country diagonally to the southeastern corner before driving the southern coastline to what used to be the end of the known world. Along the way we found incredibly warm and friendly people, delicious pastries, fresh fish that even Chris-who-doesn't-like-fish liked, cheap lodging, beautiful beaches, standing stones, and desolate landscape.

We flew into Lisbon late on a Friday evening and, after finding our hotel, took a cab into the old center. Melanie was initially struck by the similarities with Brazil - especially the spacious intersecting boulevards with drivers going every which way and sidewalks made of the same black and white marble stones as she has seen in Sao Paulo. For Chris, Lisbon, which sits on 7 hills, was more reminiscent of San Francisco with it's old trams and narrow hilly streets.

While in Lisbon we rode the famous Tram 28 - a famous old tram that transverses the old towns of Lisbon giving a good overview to tourists. During the day we visited the Tower of Belem, which has guarded the Lisbon harbor since 1520. The Belem neighborhood celebrates the sea voyages and Portuguese navigational greatness in the Monument to the Discoveries and the Monastery of Jeronimos. In this modern age we often forget that Portugal was once a great sea power. In the early 1500s Portuguese navigators discovered the route from Europe to Brazil, were the first to round the tip of Africa, discovered the route to India and led the first circumnavigation of the globe (the latter under Spanish sponsorship). The giant Monument to the Discoveries reminds us of the discoveries of Portugal's early explorers while seafaring motifs proliferate in the cloister at the Monastery of Jeronimos. Belem is also where the famous Portuguese custard pastries originate, so naturally we went to the bakery where they were supposedly invented. Chris found these custard-in-a-cup delicacies delectable whereas Melanie, who is not such a custard fan, found them simply really good.

A big highlight of Lisbon is the Oceanarium. Built for Expo 98, this is the biggest aquarium in Europe and well worth the price of admission. In addition to seeing lots of different fish and ocean life there are exhibits on the oceanarium itself and behind-the-scenes looks at how it all works. They grow their own plankton, algae, coral, jellyfish and other animals in order to minimize what must be taken from the sea. The process of quarantine for new entities and the way in which the heath of the animals is monitored is also explained. It's easy to see why relatively high admission prices are necessary to maintain such a fabulous set of exhibits and the main tank ecosystem.

Another highlight is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. This beautiful museum houses the collections of a wealthy Armenian oil tycoon who collected valuable objects of art. It is the only museum we've visited whose only theme is "really beautiful and valuable things". There's nothing educational about this museum, It is simply incredibly valuable collections of Grecian glass, Persian tile, Persian rugs and velvets, Chinese porcelain vases, Japanese wooden boxes, European silver, paintings from all eras, French furniture with gorgeous wooden inlays, manuscripts equal in beauty to those in the Dublin library , religious scenes carved in ivory, Lalique jewelry, silver and sketchings, and more. All of this is housed in a custom-made building that combines warm wooden floors, functional concrete walls and ceilings, and glass outer walls that visually bring in the surrounding gardens. In sum, it feels like an absolutely perfect space to house such a collection.

From Lisbon we took a couple of day trips to towns along the Western coast. This coast is quite rough as the water has come all the way from the U.S. prior to hitting the shore! It is generally very windy, beautiful, and "fresh" feeling, but completely unsuitable for swimming. We visited the towns of Ericeira, Sintra, Cascais, Nazare, and Obidos.

Ericeira's coast contains the remnants of the fortifications from when this town provided an important defense. It's a lovely town with white-washed buildings, a small church and a beautiful rocky coastline. The afternoon we were there we happened into a brass quintet concert on the main square and lots of locals enjoying the concert.

Sintra is a town full of big old houses. There are several palaces, some of which sit on incredibly huge plots of land, available for tour. Unfortunately we arrived too late to tour any of them, but we enjoyed walking around the town and seeing the exterior of these big mansions. Sitting way up very high above Sintra is a Moorish Castle built by the Arabs in the 8th century. We drove up and up and up and it was STILL way up there! The castle also was closed by the time we got there, so again we admired it from a distance and enjoyed the surrounding park land. Sintra has an unexpected amount of parkland for a town its size, which makes it a very green and pleasant place to spend the late afternoon/early evening.

Cascais has a lovely harbor, a nice old town, and is full of good restaurants! This is where Melanie learned to eat grilled sardines and Chris had his first taste of the local meat specialty - pork with clams. Melanie thought she'd get to eat the clams because Chris always claims to dislike seafood, but alas Chris found these to his liking and Melanie had to be satisfied with her sardines. As in Lisbon, we encountered very friendly service with a waiter who didn't have anything better to do than talk to us for the evening.

Nazare was probably our favorite of the west coast fishing towns. The town's beach is REALLY LONG and wide and bordered on one side by a dramatic cliff. The cliff is topped by the old town, which is accessible via a funicular, and the main street (at least at the end of May) is populated by more locals than tourists. This town really felt like it was living from both fishing and tourism - not just tourism.

Obidos is not a fishing village, but is a fully walled city a bit inland from the sea. it is possible to walk the entire perimeter of the town on top of the wall - which we did. This is not recommended for those who are unsteady or afraid of heights. The walkway circles the town above the rooftops and there isn't any railing! This certainly wouldn't fly in the United States! If you've paid attention to previous blog entries, though, you know that wall walking is one of our favorite activities. We thoroughly enjoyed looking down on the whitewashed buildings with their orange tiled roofs - despite the light rain shower midway through the walk.

Obidos also has some wonderful tile installations. The first one is encountered when entering through the town gate. The second installation covers the walls of the Church of Santa Maria in the center of town. The church's walls are fully covered with 18th century tiles. Beautiful!

After Lisbon we stayed at a Marriott resort in Praia D'El Rey, just north of Lisbon. This resort is beautiful, in a contrived sort of way, and completely remote from everything else. It would be a great place to get away from everything and do some golfing, but it isn't even convenient to another town for dinner. The next town over is Peniche - a 40 minute drive. The long lovely beach was met with a rough ocean, making it great for long walks but not much else.

From Praia D'El Rey we drove to the heart of Portugal to the town of Evora. Evora is full of Renaissance architecture and, a few kilometers outside, there are some Megalithic standing stone formations. We wandered Evora's winding streets, took a picture of the Roman temple, ate wonderful Portuguese food, visited the Chapel of Bones,
slept in a 512 year old house, drank port in a tiny (we think private) bar and tried to figure out why this town was included in the book "1000 Places to See Before You Die". Evora is a nice enough town, but other than the bones chapel, the peacock colony in the park and our 512 year old accommodation, we didn't see what the Big Draw was.

Driving from Lisbon to Evora and then from Evora to the southern coast we discovered that the interior of Portugal is mostly scrubland. The scenery would not be called beautiful. It is mostly desolate with very few towns or villages along the way. One interesting feature, however, is a preponderance of stork nests. We passed many large high voltage electric distribution lines with 1-2 stork nests perched on maybe half of the supports!

Once we entered the Algarve things got more interesting again. Inland from the southern coastline, in the mountainous region of the Algarve, cork is produced. Portugal is the largest exporter of cork in the world. The trees are stripped of their bark (the cork) from about 8 feet above the ground to the base of the tree. It was a strange site to see these bark hollows stacked up along the road and trees missing the bark from their trunks.

We arrived at Portugal's southern coast in the town of Tavira. Tavira is separated from the sea by acres of salt marshes. The town is divided in two by a river that empties into the sea. It is a town that still feels "authentic". It has many churches, a nice public square on the river, and the salt marsh preserve. There used to be a small fishing village in the preserve which has since been converted to a hotel. Unlike the Marriott resort this place had very natural landscaping and felt completely remote, yet was only a 5 minute drive to the center of town and some excellent seafood restaurants!

After a night in Tavira, we drove along the southern coast through Lagos to Sagres, the south-western tip of Europe. At one time Sagres was thought to be the end of the world and it was windy enough to feel like it! We walked around the Sagres fort - a huge block of land sitting behind a fort wall (one side) on top of a cliff (3 sides). From here we could see San Vicenze, Europe's most western point. There were also many local fishermen with lines dropped over the cliff edges.

From Sagres we backtracked slightly to the fishing village of Salema. Salema is probably the smallest town we stayed in. Although there is one hotel and a handful of B&Bs we rented a room from a woman named Rosa for eur 40 per night. Our room was actually a small apartment with a mini-kitchen, a small sitting area, a bedroom and two balconies - one overlooking the street in front and one overlooking the valley behind (with a peek at the ocean). The travel writer Rick Steves aptly describes Salema as a town with a split personality - half for the tourists and half for the fisherman. It does seem to be full of crusty old fishermen in one corner and British families on holiday in the other. We had the best seafood of the entire trip in Salema - served by the friendliest, warmest people we've met in any of our travels. We spent a day doing nothing but sitting on the beach watching the English kids play beach games and reading - which we thought was the perfect way to end our vacation before driving back to Lisbon and returning to Amsterdam.

Until next time,
Melanie and Chris

Lisbon: Lisbon Marriott Very big hotel a bit outside the old town. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful and, although you can't just walk out your door into the tourist area, cabs are cheap and plentiful.

Praia d'el Rey: Marriott Praia d'el Rey Resort Very nice facility, if a bit Disney-esque in it's landscaping and Mariott-ordinary in it's furnishings. If you really want to be far away from everything and you like golfing or sitting on the beach, this is a good place. It really is 40 minutes to the next town though! The staff was not up to Marriott standards in our experience. Upon check-in we changed our reservation from 4 nights to two and were told we would still have to pay for all 4 nights. It took quite some negotiating and a day's wait to finally resolve the issue and they weren't even nice about it. This is not the sort of service we've come to expect from Marriott. Overall, we would not recommend staying at this property.

Evora: de Casa S, Tiago. A 512 year old house run by the warmest old man ever. He speaks no English but is the best at giving directions on how to drive from one place to another in this city of pedestrian and one-way streets. There are 2 parking places available and he is quite adept at navigating any car into the barely-2-car garage. Includes a nice breakfast.

Tavira: Vila Gale Albacora. The buildings in this former fishing village have been refurbished into very nice new rooms. The landscape is beautiful and it's very relaxing, with access to a small beach and a boat that runs to the island where people go to be at a beach on the ocean. There's a beautiful outdoor pool. The chic indoor pool and fitness center are available at an additional charge. The breakfast buffet is amazing!

Sagres: Casa do Cabo de Santa Maria. This clean, functional, incredibly inexpensive box of a room was chosen for it's proximity (right next door) to the restaurant where we were having dinner. We had already spent too much time looking for a room and had just found the restaurant that was the whole reason to come to Sagres in the evening. Already hungry, we decided that for 35 euro we could easily sleep here and walk next door for dinner then tour Sagres the next day. The lady minding the place didn't speak any English but was very sweet and the room, although small and plain, was perfectly fine for the price.

Salema: Rosa's house on the the fisherman's street. (Rua dos Pescadores) See description in the text above.

* Casa da India: Snack shop recommended on Trip Advisor. Completely filled with locals and local color. Portuguese menu only and very limited English from the staff. The sangria and Chris' grilled chicken was terrific; Melanie's cod was completely inedible.
* Cervejaria Trinade: This one-time convent, one-time brewery serves terrific Portuguese food in a beautiful setting. This is a large cafe frequented by locals and tourists, alike. The walls are beautifully tiled and the food is delicious. Chris had a great pork steak and Melanie had a pot of mixed seafood.
* Sur Sangam: Italian/Indian restaurant in the pedestrian old town of Lisbon. As we traveled through Portugal we discovered that Italian/Indian combo restaurants were pretty common. The restaurant was run by Indians and the Indian food was great - except for the naan - which tasted like pizza crust!

Cascais: Restaurante O Bertel. Very friendly waitstaff. Melanie learned to eat grilled sardines here and Chris had amazing pork with clams.

Nazare: Cafe Aleluha. Very casual fish cafe on the street facing the ocean. More grilled sardines!

Peniche: Il Boccone Pizzeria. Excellent pizza late at night!

Evora: Restaurante Bar Burgo Velho. Very good traditional Portuguese food in a small family restaurant.

Tavira: Restaurante Quatro Aguas. Lovely restaurant on the bay at the edge of the salt marshes. The fresh fish was wonderful and the setting beautiful. The staff were friendly, but were not as experienced or attentive as one would expect at this upscale restaurant. Still, it was a very enjoyable and delicious meal.

Sagres: Vila Velha Restaurant The food just got better as the trip went on! This restaurant had more amazing fresh fish and a wonderful dessert of walnut ice cream, caramelized banana and chocolate sauce.. The service was friendly and warm and the atmosphere is very cozy.
* We also ate lunch at a little restaurant on the square leading to the fort road. We had amazing mini-mackerel in olive oil and garlic and sandwiches. We got the fish because in the morning we had seen some local guys sitting at a picnic table in front of the restaurant eating them.

Salema: The food really did just keep getting better. We had 3 of the best meals of our trip in Salema.
* Restaurant Lourenco is a wonderful family-run restaurant serving terrific fresh fish with a smile. Dad doesn't speak a word of English, but welcomes you with a big smile to have a seat while the son waits on any English speaking customers - with an equally big smile. We would have gone back the next day, except they were closed.
* Mira Mar Restaurant is situated overlooking the beach and serves food at least equal to that at Restaurant Lourenco. We went there for lunch and it was so good we went back for dinner. Chris had the same dish both times - spaghetti with clams. They have a very nice tapas plate which we split at lunch and Melanie had the very large and yummy fish stew (including clams and shrimp-in-the-shell in a tomato based soup) for dinner.

Throughout our entire stay we supplemented the above meals by sampling the wares at the many pastry shops throughout Portugal. Before arriving there we had no idea that the Portuguese made such terrific pastries, but we're quick learners!

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