Portugal Summary

So, how was the trip? Many friends told us how much they loved Portugal. Our expectations were high. While we could have done most of the trip on our own, being on a tour with a guide who is a fount of knowledge, having hotels booked, luggage handled, and transportation between all the sights makes travel very easy. The only downside this trip was that the group was pretty large, 23 folks.

We have been spoiled in the past because our previous Smartours trips were 7, 9 and 18 travelers and we found that everyone really jelled well. This time, there were 18 women and only 5 men and some came in groups together. They pretty much stayed together, so it left others on the outside. We didn’t mind much, as we love to be together as a couple. We entertain each other very well.

The discussion on the way back to Lisbon after seeing the Algarve was whether we would do another Smartours trip. Although we have a trip booked in May to Japan, it isn’t with this company. However, we would definitely consider another Smartours journey, especially if it isn’t too large of a group. Here’s hoping…

As for Portugal itself, it was enjoyable but not the wow we were hoping for, despite the raves from many friends. The history of Portugal is tied closely with the Catholic church. After we saw our umpteenth church, monastery, and convent, we wanted to see more. We did like the architecture, the design of the sidewalks, and the people. The typical Portuguese food was just okay. The port and beer were fabulous and definitely saved the food. When we had other cuisines, we definitely enjoyed them more. All in all, it was a good trip, just not steller!

I hope that you have enjoyed reading my blog. I really do it to remind us of where we have been and what we have done. If others want to travel with us vicariously, that is great, too. Thanks for your comments. Until the next time…

Day 16 – Lisbon to Madrid to Mexico City

We said goodbye to our host, Kies, and got on the road to Lisbon, about 2-1/2 hours away. The Algarve is always sunny, according to the people there, with only 30 days of rain a year. And yet, it is very green most of the time thanks to excellent irrigation systems.

The hills are beautiful and the toll road is wide, well maintained and a pleasure to drive. Jim elected to have me drive the entire trip while in the Algarve and I enjoyed it. Our little FIAT 500 hardly used any gas (at about $6.00 EU/gallon), with only two fill-ups the whole week. and, we drove a lot. It is tiny, however. The cup holders in front couldn’t accommodate my travel mug (maybe an espresso cup?) so I used the one in the back and it just about fit.

As we cruised at 140 kph, we were being passed by cars that zipped by in a flash. They had to be going at least 160 or more. Were we on the German Autoban??

We arrived at the airport, turned in the car and then had to wait almost two hours for someone to come to the Iberia desk to check in our luggage. At the Lisbon airport, there is almost nothing to eat and it is probably one of the ugliest airports. When it was built, it was far outside the city of Lisbon. Now, it is practically in the center of the city, only 20 minutes away. If you can avoid going to Lisbon’s airport, all the better. There is talk of building another airport, far outside of the city but with finances an issue, it may not happen for quite some time.

The one hour flight to Madrid (which is one hour ahead), gave us another four hours until our next flight to Mexico City. The difference in airports is striking. Madrid airport has a plethora of eating choices and the shopping is amazing. I know you will not believe me but I am totally shopped out! We each have some Euros left and won’t be using them any time soon. Maybe we should spend some? Instead, we had dinner and will see if anyone traveling to Europe in the near future needs Euros before they leave.

The flight from Madrid to Mexico City was the least enjoyable of any flights in recent memory. We thought that the American flight to Madrid from Houston was bad, with some of the worst food ever. However, we had a whole row of three seats to ourselves and could lay down to sleep, thankfully. The Iberia flight on the return trip (partners with American) was ten times worse.

We had two of the four seats in row 48 in the center, aisle and next. That wasn’t too horrible. The row in front of us practically hit our knees when the seatbacks were upright. When they reclined, the video entertainment screen was inches from our faces. That was not the worst part, at least for me.

After a duplicate dinner as the one on American (just awful), Jim took a sleeping pill and was out almost immediately, snoring. The man next to me had a girlfriend in the seat in front of him that he had to pet and touch endlessly while leaning over taking up my space. When he finally fell asleep, his leg twitched and hit my leg the whole time, not to mention taking up the entire armrest! So, for 10-1/2 hours, no sleep for me. Traveling in coach is getting worse and worser! One of these days, we will be able to upgrade. Until then, more travel and less comfort.

Okay, next issue… We were not able to get our boarding pass for the flight from Mexico City to Guadalajara because although it was an Iberia flight, it was operated by Interjet, an excellent Mexican airline. With only a little over 2 hours in Mexico City and long lines at immigration, we were able to ask folks to let us get in front because of the limited window of time. They were very accommodating.

Getting our bags to transfer them to the flight to Guadalajara wasn’t difficult, just time-consuming. Next, we had to go to the Interjet counter in the domestic part of the airport to get the boarding pass. The confirmation number wasn’t recognized. We were told we had to go to the Iberia counter in the international part of the airport, at least a kilometer away, with limited time left. So, we huffed and puffed to get from domestic to international desks.

Once there, no one was manning the Iberia counter. With a stroke of luck, there was an Interjet office nearby and they found our reservation, gave us good seats and a boarding pass. Of course, we had to go back to the domestic departure area, another kilometer away, to board that flight. We missed our original flight at 6:40 AM but got on the 8:00 AM flight. The Interjet planes are spacious, flight attendants helpful and you actually get a full bottle of drinks at no charge!

We were ready to be home, especially after the debacle in Mexico City. As much as I thought a long, drawn-out trip might be interesting, I am now in agreement with Jim that 2-3 weeks is plenty. We miss our house, our dog and our routine. The next travels will be a week at the beach in November and a week in Phoenix to celebrate my uncle’s 100th birthday and aunt’s 90th. It definitely will be a celebration. No blog for those trips but next May – Japan!

Day 15 – Portimao and the Kloegman’s

This was a good day to visit Portimao (Port-ee-mau). From the highway, it looks huge, compared to some of the other towns nearby. Maybe it is because everything is painted white and it just glows! After parking the car in a free lot and paying an “attendant” $3 EU to watch the car, we had breakfast at about the only place open. It was near the marina, convenient, and obviously very popular because it was packed.

Afterward, we walked along the marina, where kiosks were trying to get people to go out on the boat trips to see the caves and grottos. Since we did that in Albufeira, we kept on walking. Besides, we had lunch plans with former Ajijic friends who now live in the Algarve and only had a couple of hours to kill.

At the end of the marina, there was a sign that we could go out on a boat for an hour to see more of the town. Pedro, our guide and “captain” was a sweetheart and showed us the now-empty monastery, a castle formerly owned by a princess with its own beach, called the Princess Beach (duh!).

There was another castle that is now owned by a billionaire (don’t know from where) but this huge residence has hosted members of the English royal family, monarchs, and heads of state from various European countries. when the castle is occupied, their flag is flying. (You can see the flagpole if you look closely.) I thought this would be a perfect invitation to robbers, knowing whether someone was at home to rob the place! Pedro got a kick out of that.

The Arade River divides Portimao from Ferragudo, a small town where most of the fishermen live. It isn’t a tourist area and they unload and process their sardine haul there. They go out around 2:00 AM to begin fishing, returning in the early afternoon. This will end soon, as they are near their quota of fish. They adhere to the rules so they don’t overfish.

Most of the buildings on the Portimao side of the river near the harbor are brand new. There are lots of condos and high rise buildings. In the closed-in marina, there were huge yachts and a vintage four-mast schooner that still operates, although mainly for special events. The pirate ship that we saw earlier and takes people to see the caves was also in the marina area. We were able to see it close up. No pirates that we could see!

 

If you notice the sea wall in front of the condos and high rise buildings, there is a black line. That marks how much higher the water is at high tide. We were there at low tide and the difference is three meters or about ten feet.

 

We also saw a small sailboat called “Helena” London. Interestingly, we saw a yacht in Marbella, Spain called “Helena” also from London. Obviously, I am very popular or I have a secret stash of boats all around Europe.

After our one hour with Pedro, we used the GPS to find Deborah and Paul Kloegman’s house in Silves (Sil-vesh) about 15 minutes away. They lived in Ajijic for several years and, among other things, were very involved in our local theater. Paul directed and acted and Deborah, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge, is an amazing actor and was in plays at our local theater in Ajijic.

They travel quite a bit from their base and hope to be back in Mexico again next year (with Paul possibly directing another play). Lunch was grilled sausages, hamburgers, a delicious salad and pastel de nata for dessert. We had a very enjoyable time with them.

We made our way back to our villa room and I tried to get caught up with my blog, while Jim relaxed. Since we were pretty full from lunch, dinner time came and went without a meal. I remembered that we had two eggs and some cheese left from our supermarket shopping earlier in the week. So, how do you cook the egg without a stove? Easy! You put the egg in a coffee cup and add boiling water from the hot pot. I changed the water several times to see if I could soft or hard boil the egg. Finally, it was time… I cut open the shell and the yolk was hard, while the white was runny! Whaaaat? Oh well, we ate it anyway. Obviously, I was never a Girl Scout or went camping!

Tomorrow, we leave Portugal after two and a half weeks of travel. Our flight isn’t until 4:45 PM but we will drive up to Lisbon from the Algarve at 10:00 AM, stopping for breakfast along the way. It should be an easy trip back, going from Lisbon to Mexico City, then Guadalajara.

 

Day 14 – Sagres, Lagos and Alvor

We drove east to see the towns near Spain when we arrived in the Algarve, so we decided to go west to Sagres. It is located at the very bottom southwest tip of Portugal and a very pivotal location to ward off invaders. The Sagres Promontory is a huge fort with cannons and a lighthouse to guide the sailors around the point while keeping invaders from attacking the country.

The wind was sharp, whipping around us but at least it was a warm wind. As you walk to the edge of the rocks approaching the fort, you wonder if anyone could actually invade this place. We walked all around the point, reading the signs describing how this is a bird and plant sanctuary, with unique species of both inhabiting the rocks. Unfortunately, we saw neither the birds nor most of the unique plants native to this area.

Just to the north of the point, there is a beach below, with waves that are supposed to be a surfer’s paradise. We saw many young folks with their surfboards ready to take the plunge. They have to wear a heavy wetsuit, as the water is not only choppy but quite cold. Today, the waves weren’t too big, so they had to wait and wait for just the right wave.

Time to move on to Lagos, the next largish town east of Sagres. It was a pretty unremarkable place so the stop was pretty quick. We realized that our GPS had disappeared, so we stopped into a little place with WiFi to get online. The waiter was pretty funny. He knew exactly why we stopped in. We ordered a couple of beers and he brought us two mugs. Haha, they were the size of shots! The real mugs came soon after but we got a good laugh.

The next town was Alvor. Friends from Ajijic said they stayed there and loved it, which made it even more enticing to visit. We immediately found it to be charming, inviting and definitely a place to have dinner.

Of course, there were narrow streets and beautiful balconied buildings but there was music in the square, a merry-go-round, many restaurants, and some interesting shops that didn’t sell souvenirs. The beach was small, mainly unused. However, it was late in the day and the water had to be like ice cubes.

After scouting out the zillions of restaurants, we decided to go to one that had a mixed grill of chicken, lamb, black pork and beef to share, plus salad and veggies. Good thing we were hungry! It was very tasty and a good end to the day.

 

Day 13 – Carvoeiro

After packing up from the penthouse, we drove to Carvoeiro, less than a half an hour away from Albufeira. It is a good thing we have GPS on our phones or else we wouldn’t have found our way around. However, we can only get it with WiFi but If you don’t already know, once you get the map and directions, it stays on your phone, even without WiFi. And believe me, we would still be driving around trying to find our new place without it! If you lose it on your phone, you are stuck until you get WiFi again.

Casa Sereno is owned by a Dutch couple who have four apartments, plus a casita that they rent. The room is not huge yet has all the amenities you need, including a fridge, hot water pot, Nespresso coffee maker, covered porch and a pool and grounds that look like an Italian villa. No TV, which is just fine. The pool looked wonderful but at a temperature of 18C, that water will never touch our bodies!

The drive to Casa Sereno is narrow, windy and looks just like Italy or France,  unlike the eastern side of the Algarve. The roads are lined with cedar trees and that form a boundary between properties. And, the roundabouts, a staple of Portugal, eliminate the need for stoplights or turns. You just have to count the exits from the roundabouts to know where to go.

Carvoeiro centro is fairly small. Even with our minuscule car, parking was near impossible. It seems to be very difficult everywhere we have been in the Algarve. Once we found a place up the hill from the ocean, we just walked down and took a stroll on the beach. Although smaller than the one in Albufeira, there were more people enjoying another beautiful sunny day at the beach.

We found an interesting place to have an early dinner near the beach. Jim had a seafood pasta dish and I had a pita with turkey, pesto and cheese. We keep getting farther and farther away from typical Portuguese food. There were very few American English-sounding people there (and everywhere, for that matter).

We made it an early night and I worked on this blog. Tomorow, Sagres and more…

 

 

Day 12 – Albufeira

Since we really hadn’t explored much of Albufeira, we decided to find the beach (Playa da Pescadores) for a walk on the sand. You can’t park very close by, so we found a parking space (not an easy thing to do) and walked to the beach. We were surprised to find streets that were filled with a plethora of tourists visiting the souvenir shops and what must be over a hundred restaurants. There is every kind of cuisine, that’s for sure, even Mexican.

We found the beach, which is long, has brown soft sand, and minimal surf. There were people in the water, despite the fact that the Atlantic is very cold, at least for us folks. We could hear every kind of language spoken, although not much English (American or Canadian, that is). The Algarve is the preferred vacation destination for the Brits, French, German and Dutch mainly.

After a nice walk, finding shells everywhere, we decided to have a snack at the Shalom Burger Bar. A couple of beers and onion rings – yum! Believe me, the choices of restaurants made it difficult to decide where to go. We enjoyed the snack and then decided to go to the archeological museum nearby. It looked pretty interesting but was closed on Mondays. Oh well…

A stop for me at my favorite accessory store, Parfois, and I was a happy girl. If you go online (parfois.com), you will love what they have. They are a Portuguese company that has stores in many countries around the world, except the US and Mexico it seems) and will ship almost anywhere, including the US. Sadly, not to Mexico. The prices are amazing for the quality and style. I bought a scarf and could have purchased much more if it wasn’t for airline weight limits and my suitcase size. Darn!

After walking around, we decided to stay for lunch and return to the same Burger Bar. Jim had a pulled pork sandwich that was huge and so delicious. My hamburger without a bun was very tasty, too. By the time we finished, we didn’t need to go anywhere for dinner.

As we walked around, we saw incredible sand sculptures in the pedestrian area. The tree-lined streets were so enjoyable, filled with restaurants and music.

 

We returned to the apartment and I was really looking forward to a warm bath in the jetted tub. The water was warm enough but the jets didn’t work. One more thing to mention to the property manager. Truthfully, this penthouse had some nice amenities, like a nice view, which was the draw in our renting it. But otherwise, it lacked the simple amenities we would have expected… like a comfortable large bed, good pillows, and sheets, beach towels, soap, extra roll of toilet paper, laundry detergent, coffee pods for their coffee maker and bottled water, just to name a few items. The property manager was very nice about bringing some of these items to us, even though we thought we should expect soap, at the very least!

Another beautiful sunset and an end to a nice day. Tomorrow, we leave for Carvoeiro for three more nights in a new VRBO. It is only 20 minutes away… Cross your fingers!

Day 11 – Albufeira

We made breakfast in our apartment with the items we bought at the grocery store. The coffee maker uses pods, which we bought. However, since we are novices to this type of coffee maker, we didn’t know that we bought the wrong size pods. Yikes! The property manager came through once again with a few pods.

This morning, we decided to go to the marina and check it out. We booked a boat trip to see the famous Algarve caves, grottos, and maybe see some dolphins. There were many restaurants at the marina, perfect to get lunch before going out. Above the restaurants are condos that are brightly painted and offer the residents a lovely view of the marina and ocean.

There is a plastic life-sized dolphin filled with plastic trash. Obviously, this is a reminder of what the ocean and other waterways are dealing with. It is so sad.

Dolphins in the distance

This boat is a pontoon boat that holds 12 passengers, plus the guide and captain. It goes super fast to catch up with dolphins if there are any. The guide said that a pod (or more) of bottle-nosed dolphins were spotted and several other boats were scurrying over to see them. There they were! Wow! Even the guide said that he hadn’t seen this many in a long while. Every once in a while, one would jump high in the air, like at a dolphin show. it was impossible to capture them in a still shot, although I have lots of videos I took. They even jumped out of the water but not in my pictures.

After half an hour of following them, we turned toward the coast to check out the caves. We zoomed from the dolphins to the coast at breakneck speed. Many of the caves are quite famous and there were many boats viewing them. 

We went in and out of many caves. They were pretty spectacular. Inside some of them, there are beaches, only accessible via kayak or swimming, which we wouldn’t recommend. You have to fight for your space in between the boats and that could be treacherous! Still, you can see that they were pretty popular.

We ended up at Simply Ramos, a restaurant located on one of the busiest streets in Albufeira. There were many dance clubs with DJ’s, the loudest music you can imagine, 20-somethings trolling to meet other 20-somethings, gay bars mixed with souvenir shops, and restaurants for every taste (even Mexican). Jim has been keen on eating the bacalhau (codfish), grilled or sauteed but keeps finding presentations that don’t interest him (served with an omelet?) So, he ordered ribs and I ordered a chicken breast. No reason to take a photo, since neither dish was very memorable, although tasty.

Tomorrow, more exploring in Albufeira…

Day 10 – Albufeira

Most of our group returned to the Lisbon airport for their return home, via Newark. We could have hitched a ride to the airport to pick up our rental car, but they were leaving too late for our needs. Taxis are wonderful and cheap.

We got a tiny car, a Fiat 500, and it was a hoot to drive (five-speed standard transmission, for a change). Once outside of Lisbon, the roads are not crowded and easy to maneuver. Albufeira, our destination, is only 2.5 hours away. That gave us plenty of time to drive around the center of town and meet the property manager for the apartment we rented through VRBO at 2:30.

The apartment is a penthouse, overlooking the marina and the Atlantic. It is very bright and will be a good spot for us for these four days. The view of the Atlantic and the marina below is quite nice, but the sunset last night was spectacular.

We have a washing machine, which is a good thing, considering we have two weeks of dirty clothes. No dryer, so we hang our things on a drying rack on the balcony. You have to use clothespins because the wind is pretty fierce in the evening and otherwise, the clothes would blow away.

The balcony is absolutely huge, probably 500 sf alone! There are four lounge chairs, outdoor table, and chairs, plus enough room for a dance floor. Sadly, no hot tub! The unit below has one… Maybe we should become friends??

One thing we have noticed, both at our various hotels and here as well, is that there is absolutely no usable light in the bathroom over the sink or near the mirrors. And, there is no counter space. What gives? We had to move the bedroom lamp (the only one in the apartment and it is small, plastic and junk) into the bathroom, so we could see at all. And no lights in the living room either, other than an overhead fixture. I guess the owner of the unit didn’t want to take any chances with renters who might steal or misuse furnishings.

The property manager is very nice and did what she could to make us comfortable. She expected us to bring towels for the pool? How about soap and another roll of toilet paper? Or maybe a little laundry detergent to get us started? We did make a grocery store run for laundry detergent and some other necessities. Fortunately, we had some soap and body lotion from previous hotels. But, it would be nice, especially at hotel rates, to have a few amenities upon arrival.

LBV is Late Bottle Vintage – Yum!

By the way, we are now hooked on port wine. We bought a great bottle of ruby port, which we love sipping at the end of a meal and white port, which is also good and makes a wonderful drink with tonic and lemon as we had in Lisbon. I hope that we will be able to bring some back in our checked luggage!

Tomorrow, we will find some fun things to do…

Day 9 – Obidos and Lisbon

After breakfast today, we went to Obidos (pronounced Obidosh). This walled city was built in the early 8th century, then renovated in the 12th century. (Four hundred years to deteriorate? Now, that is good construction. Of course, it may have taken another four hundred to get the contractors to complete the job!)

If you have been to Carcassonne in France or the Alhambra in Spain, this is similar. The castle was closed (repairs again) but the narrow, winding streets have not changed, except they are now souvenir shops, cafes and purveyors of the famous drink here (and Sintra) of a sour cherry liqueur served in a thimble-size cup made of either dark or white chocolate. You sip the drink, then eat the cup! Sorry, no pictures. Too many people partaking…

As you drive to Obidos, there are wind turbines everywhere. Owned by Spanish companies, they erect them and buy the surrounding land, since no one wants to build or live around a turbine. They then sell the energy back to the Portuguese government. Supposedly, Portugal wants to become partners with these Spanish companies to reap the benefits and lower the amounts they pay to the Spanish firms. It is an expensive proposition but well worth it. Over the summer, when it was very dry here, there were numerous fires, many of which were near the area where turbines were to be built. Suddenly, land prices went down, causing speculation that the fires could have been started by the Spanish companies. Hmmm!
The morning clouds have disappeared and the sky is blue and cloudless. Each morning, we feel a chill but by the afternoon, it is in the mid to high 70’s… perfect weather. On the drive to Obidos, there are towns encroaching the countryside and vineyards. It is a beautiful, pastoral sight.
Once in town, we wandered around, hearing beautiful music from local troubadours, while checking out the stores. We sat at an outdoor cafe, sipping a cappuccino and enjoying the view of Lisbon from this high perch. We were tempted by the smell of freshly baked bread but deferred. The shop looked like it could have been there for centuries. The church with its lovely courtyard was a magnet for visitors and, of course.
As it got warmer, I didn’t need my jacket, so I put my purse and iPad down on a table to remove the jacket. Shortly after, as we were leaving Obidos and I looked in my purse for my iPad and it wasn’t there. Oh NO, that is a huge loss for me. All my pictures, email, and entries for this blog were in it. Our guide turned the bus around and she, Jim and I ran into town to find the place where I must have left the iPad. Several folks on the bus said they would pray to St. Christopher that it will be found!
Well, we ran through all the streets, hoping to find the location of the table where I put my purse and iPad. Jim finally found it, went inside the shop and the owner said she saw it and held it for us, positive that we would be back. My sigh of relief could be felt by everyone! St. Christopher came through.
Once back in Lisbon, we took the tram (electrically powered and older than dirt) that circles around the central part of the city to get a look at areas we may have missed. We passed by the local port with a huge cruise ship docked there. The visitors from the ship were everywhere, trying to soak up Lisbon life and souvenirs in a few hours.
Afterward, we walked from square to square to see the shops, people watch and just enjoy the city. There was a very large, very loud, group of university students near our square, just like in Coimbra. The ones in black with the capes (a la Hogwarts) are the new students, being initiated by the older students. It is their form of orientation. This is a tradition throughout Portugal. Supposedly, it isn’t hazing but friendly welcoming. Interesting…

We ended the day sharing a gelato (again). Sticking to vanilla mainly, we have been doing a taste comparison of vanilla gelato in all the cities. I mentioned the gelato store yesterday that forms their scoops in cones and cups to look like flowers. We had four flavors together, vanilla, dark chocolate, pistachio, and melon. I couldn’t pass up trying all the flavors! Another good day…

Day 8 – Sintra and Lisbon

Today was especially good. We drove from Lisbon to Sintra to visit the Pena Palace, a fairy-like castle that took thirty years to build. We got there early, to avoid the lines that inevitably start in the late morning. From the bus, there is a shuttle to take you to the castle itself and we got one for our group very quickly. You can also walk for free (the tram costs $3 EU) but our shuttle was included.

As you can see from the outside, the colors, various styles of architecture, details, Moroccan and Chinese influences, all play a part in making this castle a destination for many tourists. Its location gives you a unique opportunity to view Lisbon from this high point miles away.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the castle. We understand that this policy changes daily, depending on the number of tourists there. If everyone stopped to take pictures inside, the lines would be unending. As it was, by the time we left, around 11:00 AM, the line just to get into the castle was hundreds of people long. Jim and I walked down easily and waited for the shuttle at the bottom, where there was a huge line to get the next shuttle. Perfect timing for our group.

Portuguese pottery

Of course, we had to do some window shopping and stop for a coffee for Jim and cappuccino for me, plus a pastry or two…

We decided to relax a bit and then checked out the rooftop bar to catch the best views of Lisbon. It was a spectacular day. We got there just as they opened, at 5 PM. It was breezy, yet warm. I got some pictures of the surrounding hills and a cruise ship just departing from the port. We ordered smoked salmon tapas, a sangria for me and a draft beer for Jim. It was the perfect light meal to end the day.