Wednesday, June 02, 2010

From Rio Tejo to Rio Duoro: Bank Holiday Weekend in Portugal

Did we make a trip back to San Francisco, CA and not tell anyone? Nope, look again. It's not the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, it's Pont 25 de Abril (celebrating the 1974 Revolution) in Lisbon, Portugal, which was built by the same company as the famous Golden Gate Bridge in 1966. Looks similar, eh?

For the second May bank holiday, Keenan and I took a long weekend to Lisbon and Porto for sun, culture, and patel de nata (Portuguese custard tart). My Berkeleyan-turned-Oxford-based Ph.D. friend kindly offered her beautiful Lisbon flat for us to stay (obrigada!) and it was so lovely! We loved our time in Portugal! It may be a small country by European standards, but it is lively and full of charm.

My friend left us with her keys, a lengthy list of things to do, along with several restaurant recommendations, which I will list at the end of this post. We started off Friday morning with a long walking tour from her flat through the neighbourhood of Graca and Alfama district. From the church, there are beautiful miraduoros (viewpoints) of the red rooftops of Lisbon and Rio Tejo. If you have a leisurely afternoon, take a book with you and enjoy the stunning view of the city  and Castelo de Sao Jorge high above the city (see the above photo). 

Heading south, we meandered through the steep narrow alleyways of the Alfama district, the former Moorish neighbourhood during the 15th century, and finally to Praca do Comerico where we jumped on the light rail #15 to Belem. Lisbon itself was a lot more hilly than I anticipated; I found myself huffing and puffing as I made my way up the steep hills. It did make me a bit homesick, just a little. I can't believe it's been exactly one year since I officially moved to London. Where does time go?

After lunch of bacalhau, the Portuguese specialty of salted codfish, we made our way to Belem where we spent the rest of the sunny afternoon. Belem is a lovely neighbourhood just 30 minutes west of Lisbon via the quick tram #15. It is famous for two reasons: 1) it is home to Lisbon's finest monuments including the UNESCO heritage site Monsteiro dos Jeronimos and Torre de Belem and 2) it is also home to the famous Pasteis de Belem, known for the best pastel de nata around town. You cannot miss this famous institution with the blue and white overhang and long queues out the door. Not to worry, the line moves very quickly, but I do recommend that you order a box of these delicious egg custard -- they are delicious!


There are also several nice museums in the area as well; check out Museu Coleccao Berardo, the new contemporary art museum (free admission). The ultra-modern exterior of the museum reminded me a lot of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but the exhibitions weren't as impressive as the Getty. We also visited Torre de Belem where we enjoyed great views of Pont 25 du April and the cool breeze from the river. Wow, I almost thought I was in San Francisco minus the 85F degree weather! The nearby gardens also offer a nice respite form the crowds and the heat.

The neighbourhood of Belem:

The next day, Keenan and I went to Sintra, a major tourist attraction some 40 minutes (3.40 Euros RT) northwest of Lisbon via the suburban train. It is home to some impressive palaces -- the exquisite Pena Palace, which was one of the highlights of our trip to Portugal; Castelo dos Mouros with some beauthiful panoramic view of Sintra-Cascais National Park; and Palacio Nacional de Sintra, the summer residence of the Portuguese kings when Lisbon is beyond sweltering. Perched high on rocky peaks of the Serra de Sintra, the architectural style of the Pena Palace is exemplifies the Portuguese style of the Romantic period. It is a gorgeous estate and the interior of the palace is equally unique as well; the setting surrounded by the lust forest is like a scene straight from a fairytale.


I should warn you that the Pena Palace is quite far from Sintra town so catch the tourist bus instead, and save your energy for a leisurely walk around the estate instead. However, the Castelo de Mouros is an easy walk --  just a few hundred metre from Pena Palace. The views are also amazing from this 10th century fortress.

Castelo de Mouros:

Back in town we spent the rest of the day in the neighourhoods of Baixa, Barrio Alto (bars galore), and Chiado (shopping galore) taking in the laid back city vibe of the Portuguese capital, sipping vinho verde (fizzy young Portuguese wine) and soaking up as much sun as possible. While we had nice summer weather last weekend, there is no guarantee if and when the sun will return; we had to soak it all in while we can! We were really sad to say goodbye to Lisbon as we could have stayed a few more days to enjoy the nearby beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, but I trust this won't be our only trip to Lisbon. From here, we made our journey north, to Porto, home of the famous Port wines.

As promised, here are some restaurant recommendations from my friends who grew up in Lisbon. We went to Ramiros for a seafood feast of shrimp, oysters, and crab...ummmm. It's a very locals-type place, but the seafood was fresh and delicious. I share my father's love for seafood; it was so good that even my father would approve. 

Bica do Sapato, next to the river by the Santa Apolónia metro station (beautiful space, excellent food - a kind of Portuguese "nouvelle cuisine," but the portions are satisfying; the restaurant has three different spaces, the cafeteria is the most affordable one);

Charcutaria, in the Rua da Misericórdia, close to the Bairro Alto neighborhood (food from the southern Alentejo region);

Travessa, in an old convent in the Madragoa neighborhood - the convent itself is in the Rua da Esperança, the entrance to the restaurant is at the back (excellent Portuguese and Belgian food);

Varina da Madragoa, at Rua das Madres, 34, also in the Madragoa neighborhood (very affordable and usually decent);

Ramiro, at the beginning of Avenida Almirante Reis (somewhat tacky atmosphere but the best place for seafood; it is advisable to go early, the wait can sometimes be long);

CAM cafeteria at the Gulbenkian Foundation (pleasant for an affordable lunch while visiting the museum across the garden; the line is usually long before 2 pm, but it moves quickly);

Pastelaria Versailles, in the Avenida da República, next to the corner with Av. Duque de Ávila (a nice place for an afternoon tea);

Café Nicola, at Rossio (a nice place for a coffee);

and a "tasca" in the Rua do Sacramento à Alcântara, the first restaurant on the left when coming from the Largo da Armada (excellent grilled fish, especially sardines).

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