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.


Day 7 – Lisbon

Golden Gate Bridge clone

In the morning, we left for Lisbon. We passed more vineyards, this time with grapes of muscatel wine, a sweet dessert wine. No stopping, as we were aiming to get to the city just after rush hour. Like Rome, Lisbon is a city of seven hills. You enter over a bridge reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge (which was built by the same architect who designed and built the San Francisco landmark).

Our first stop was the Monastery of Jeronimos (Geronimo). This cloister is Gothic but in the manueline style. This style is more decorative than traditional Gothic, which is normally stark, due to King Manuel, who was married to the second daughter of Isabel and Fernando of Spain. He liked more sculptural details, evident in the columns and arches.

Interestingly, there was a huge earthquake, 8.9 strength, that devastated most of the structures everywhere in Portugal in 1755. Throughout the country, most of the important buildings and churches had to be repaired as a result of this earthquake. Due to the type of Gothic construction used in most churches, convents, and monasteries, you may see cracks in the columns, replaced stained glass, but the structures are totally intact. Can you imagine how frightened people must have been during such a monumental event?

Unfortunately, upon our departure from the Monastery, it began to rain. Of all our trips, we have been fortunate to dodge the rainy days we have experienced on this trip. I had my rain jacket but Jim packed his jacket in his suitcase. Our lame umbrella wasn’t much help, either. Oh well… We didn’t melt!

From the Monastery, we stopped at the famous Belem Tower. On clear days, you can see the mouth of the Tagus River, leading to the Atlantic (sorry no pictures – too rainy). That was how the explorers came in via ship. Today, the view was minimal. A few brave souls went up the tower, while the rest of us hung out at a nearby cafe for something warm instead of the 30-minute climb. The few who climbed the 100 steps of the tower couldn’t see much. We just checked our email at the cafe and waited for the brave souls who climbed up the 100 steps.

By the time we got back to our hotel, the rain stopped and we had the afternoon at leisure to could walk around or go to one or two of the many museums. We opted to relax, then walk around toward the river leading to the Atlantic.

We walked on the pedestrian street, lined with shops selling souvenirs, clothes and lots of shoe stores (my favorite). Jim is so patient and just waits outside while I stop in to check out the interesting items in the shops. Sometimes he will come in and look at shoes, but he wears a wide width and almost never can find shoes that fit. We were surprised in Madrid when he found a great pair that were wide enough. They are now one of his favorite shoes, other than flip flops!

Pedestrian street

Down the center of this walking street, you find a restaurant after restaurant down the middle and on the side streets, with outdoor tables everywhere. There are buskers playing music, a man manipulating a marionette playing piano, and break dancers, all looking for tips by displaying their talents.

At the end of the pedestrian street, you enter Commercial Square through an arch that must be three stories tall and very famous. As you walk through the arch, you can see the Tagus River. There are restaurants all around the enormous square and, of course, the ubiquitous statues in the middle (Vasco de Gama or Henry the Navigator, not sure which).

As we looked at where to eat, a sign on the square caught our eyes. It said, “The Sexiest WC in Lisbon.” Well, we couldn’t pass that up and if it included a real WC, so much the better. I went inside and discovered that it as run by Renova, a paper company that advertises toilet paper in beautiful, bright colors, as well as black and brown. For $1 EU, you go in and get a roll of toilet paper from the wall, taking the color of your choice. It was difficult to select which color.  As most of you know, we women never pass up an opportunity to stop at a baño. I actually bought two rolls to bring home, which made Jim’s eyeballs roll to the back of his head. He picked the bright yellow color, so he had a hand in this, too.

Time for a bite for dinner. We stopped on the pedestrian street again, where selecting a restaurant was a daunting task. We settled on one and ordered a pepperoni pizza (very thin, crispy crust) and a grilled vegetable skewer of eggplant, peppers, and zucchini. We cut up the vegetables and added them to the pizza for a fabulous meal. A couple of beers (love that Super Boch on draft) and we were happy campers. Of course, there was the gelato in the shape of roses. You can pick as many flavors as you want and as long as they fit into the cup or cone size, you can have a taste bonanza!

Did we mention that there is a whole store that specializes in cod croquettes with cheese inside (pastel de bacalhau) and port? The store itself is pretty elegant, too. They were yummy and busy with other tourists trying them.


Back to the hotel to enjoy a quiet rest of the evening and a little CNN. Every day, the news is breaking, so we don’t want to be completely out of touch. Maybe that isn’t such a good idea!

Day 6 – Cork Factory and Evora

We arrived last night and checked into our hotel tired from a long day of travel. After breakfast, the sun finally came out. We headed to the cork factory, where the harvested cork is made into a variety of items. The cork is on the outside of the bark on the tree. It is dead, like nails or hair, so removing the cork doesn’t kill the tree, as would happen if the bark itself was removed. The factory is surrounded by cork trees, but they actually own only one tree, 85 years old, to explain the process. All the rest of the cork is purchased from local farmers.
There are various qualities of cork. The same tree may have different qualities of cork, depending on where it is located on the tree. Sunnyside, shady side, upper, lower parts make a difference. The usage of the cork depends on the quality. The denser the cork, the finer the quality. Wine corks use the highest quality with the grain because the cork must allow the wine to breathe. Champagne corks are cut against the grain because you don’t want any air getting into the bottle. There are many uses don’t require the highest quality, allowing 100% of the cork to be usable in some fashion.
The harvested cork is boiled for one hour and pressed down, or else it would float in the vat. It is separated into qualities and then is boiled again to make it flexible. They make corks for wine and champagne, of course, purses, shoes, aprons, coasters, trivets, belts, lamps and even furniture. What doesn’t get used immediately is ultimately compressed for flooring or other uses or ground into various size pellets for insulation. The gift shop had many choices of items made of cork, including hats, shoes, purses, belts, iPad covers, placemats and so much more. You see them all over Portugal at various prices.
From there, we went into the Roman walled city of Evora, practically across the road from our hotel. It does remind you of the medinas in Spain and Morocco, most likely because of its proximity to both countries. We went into the main church, which dates back to the 16th century. The opulence was astounding.
Next door is the Chapel of Bones. Every inch of the walls and columns were covered with bones or skulls. It was quite eery.

As you walk around Evora, you see the beautiful sidewalks. They are everywhere in Portugal. They are like cobblestones, only smoother. I wonder if they are slippery in the rain?

Time for lunch… We had to try the local delicacy, the black pork. We went to a recommended restaurant and shared a dish of black pork cheeks with roasted new potatoes and a Mediterranean salad, complete with asparagus, mozzarella and tomatoes, shredded carrots and baby lettuce. The meat was dark but incredibly tender to cut and eat. The pigs are only fed chestnuts. We aren’t sure why the meat is dark and melts in our mouth, though. Maybe it is the chestnuts?

After lunch, we went to a local winery for a tasting. This area, Estremoz, is just outside of Evora. There are many wineries growing a variety of grapes for red, rose and white wine. The harvesting was completed in early September but I tasted one last fat grape on the vine. It was very sweet.

They gave us a tour of the facility, showing us where the grapes are crushed and fermented, aged in French oak casks and bottled. After the tour, we went into a lovely tasting room. In Portugal, they say it is important to have food with wine. They had some chicken croquettes, a couple different salamis, cheese, and crusty bread. The white and rose were okay, however, the red was the best of the three.
Now, back to the hotel in Evora. We had some time to continue souvenir shopping, but I think I am running out of interesting things to buy. Hard to believe! A good night’s sleep and tomorrow, we are off to Lisbon.

Day 5 – Tomar, Fatima, and Marvao

This will be quite a long day. We left Lisbon for Tomar, built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. This castle is known for some very special details. Like all the castles in Europe, they are fortresses, always at the top of the mountain overlooking the town.

Because this castle was also a monastery, it has a cloister for contemplation, with bedrooms off in the hallways. These special tiles have a 3D effect as you go into the refectory (dining room).

They also have chapels that are works of art. This castle is no different. The painted details are spectacular. The chapel is different, as it is an octagon, with beautiful views everywhere you look.

I couldn’t help taking this picture of a darling sleeping little girl. I guess she wasn’t really into the castle or the chapel.

Off we went to Fatima. This day is unique, as it is the day for motorcyclists to receive the Blessing of the Helmet. This may sound odd but you can’t imagine how many motorcycles and people were in Fatima for this blessing. The open area of the church (built in the 1950s) to receive the blessing.

The stores specialized in religious articles of every kind, including life-sized versions of the saints and the Virgin Mary. I can’t imagine where you would put these in your home but they are a little scary – sorry!

The kiosks also carry wax legs, arms, torsos, babies and more, which are supposed to represent parts that are in need of healing or prayers. The babies represent those that are ill or have died. Candles are purchased and there was a long line to walk by large wood-fired ovens to throw the candles and wax body parts into the fire. We never got a definitive answer as to why this is done but rest assured that the lines were very long and after, there were many people in tears.

Kebab Salad
Garlic Bread

We took a break for lunch before the crowds filled the restaurants after receiving their blessing. I ordered the kebab salad and Jim ordered garlic bread, based on the recommendation of the waitress. Both were exceptional, especially the garlic bread. A keeper!

Time to move on to Marvao, another fortress castle practically on the border of Portugal and Spain, visible from each side of the mountain. Although never breached, it stands as a symbol of how towns protected themselves. There isn’t much left to see of the castle, other than its proximity to Spain.

We are all looking forward for a couple of days in Evora.





Day 4 – Coimbra

University of Coimbra

The next morning, the weather wasn’t very cooperative. It started out very overcast and devolved into a rainy morning. Coimbra is a good-sized city, mainly known for the University of Coimbra. Housed in part in an old castle, the schools of medicine, law, literature, and other disciplines are in very WPA-looking buildings from the 1940s. The new students (male and female) wear black suits and long capes, reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School.

Our first stop was to the chapel in the old castle at the university. Although unused for regular services, it is rented for weddings and special religious events. The wall tiles are spectacular. The gold detailing is impressive and the organ is one of the oldest and largest still in operation.

From there, we went to the castle’s library. The books are from as old as the 12th century. The main room is three stories tall, with intricate wood carvings and Chinoise decoration in gold paint. The relationship between Portugal and China was very close when the library was built hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any photos. The books, however, may be borrowed or used under special circumstances, like writing a book or for a Ph.D. thesis. In any case, they are also digitized in the university’s main library for everyone to see and use.

By this time, the rain made its appearance in earnest. We had hoped to walk together down the winding streets to the central part of town. However, the flat cobblestone sidewalks can be slippery, so we all went down on the bus.

Now, it was time for lunch. Some folks went back to the hotel to rest, some to the Centro area, and some, including us, to the nearby mall. We knew we could find something for lunch there.

My main goal was to visit Primark, a discount department store I enjoyed in Madrid. This location was much smaller (Madrid’s location was five stories tall). It is a crazy place but very trendy and incredibly inexpensive. What can I say? It is in my DNA! I returned to the hotel with a bagful of various clothes and assorted other goodies. Good thing that I have plenty of room in my bag. No photos needed!

After a short rest, we went back to Il Tartufo for another great meal. Sadly, it didn’t live up to last night’s level. We just chose items that didn’t measure up. Once back at the hotel, we ran into a few members of our group enjoying some port, the special fortified wine of Portugal. We are now converted port drinkers. We slept well that night.

Day 3 – Aveiro, Guarda and Coimbra

Aveiro Canal

We left Porto after breakfast to head toward Coimbra. On the way, we stopped in Aveiro. This little town is on the coast, with much of the town lining a lagoon. It is known as the “Venice of Portugal” because of the many boats that traverse the canals. They were originally used to harvest seaweed.

We strolled around the old quarter and were particularly enchanted by the houses that are striped in vivid colors along the canal.

The fish market had some of the freshest fish around. The shops have a large selection of unique salts in a variety of flavors that are found in this town. I bought one with Mediterranean seasoning and another in a ceramic salt sellar that will be prominently on or dinner table.

Sea salt store
One of the unique salts

The pottery unique to this area was in many shops. I love them but it would be impossible to bring any home and Jim thinks they are creepy. Oh well…


The skies finally opened up and it started to rain. Time to leave and head to our next stop, Guarda.

Guarda is on a mountain top, almost 3000′ above sea level, in the Sierra de Estrella mountains. Its unique location as a castle and fortification provided a 360-degree view of any oncoming invaders. It even has an old Jewish Quarter, long since abandoned. There were three synagogues in Portugal at one time, one in Porto, one here in Guarda, and the other in Lisbon. The only sign that there was a synagogue here is a Jewish star on the street, but no building left. Our guide pointed out a small plaque on some houses near the front door (coincidentally where a mezuzah would normally be hung) that indicates that this home houses people who were Jewish but converted to Christianity. Whether they practiced their Jewish culture and religion in secret while outwardly being Christian is subject to discussion.

We arrived in Coimbra in the late afternoon/early evening. After getting settled in our room, we ventured out to get dinner. A few blocks away, we found Il Tartufo, a large, charming Italian restaurant. On one side of the main room was the open kitchen, and on the other side, a woman was making fresh pasta. She worked for hours making gnocchi, lasagna noodles, and a variety of other shapes, different ones each night. Her skill and diligence to make the best pasta was awesome.

Orecchete with pesto


We ordered orrechete (ear-shaped pasta) with an incredible pesto sauce, a salad and vanilla gelato that we shared. It was a treat for the eyes and mouth. There were many outdoor cafes, all full. We returned to the hotel very happy. The weather even cooperated – the rain ended.

Bank of Portugal

We walked around town and noticed some really beautiful buildings near the central square. Also, there was a canned fish store, selling tins of sardines, cod, and tuna. This is very popular in Portugal, although I think it is mainly a tourist destination.

We are tired and ready for bed. Tomorrow, we will be visiting the University of Coimbra.

Day 2 – Guimoraes and back to Porto

Today was overcast and possibly rainy. There was an optional tour to go from Porto to Guimoraes (pronounced Gee-mor-esch) or do a Douro River cruise to taste the wines of the area. With the potential of rain in the afternoon, we all opted to go to Guimoraes for a morning visit led by our guide, Romina.

This incredible town is filled with historical buildings and narrow streets (like most of all the Portuguese towns), and of course, a castle.

We had some spare time after visiting the castle and decided to walk up Santa Catarina Street, a walking street with beautiful sidewalks (all over Portugal) and a mall that mimics the streets of old Portugal. We didn’t spend much time there but enjoyed seeing the incredible church covered with painted tiles.

In the afternoon, we decided to return to central Porto to visit a bookstore that is quite famous. This is no average bookstore, that’s for sure. From the outside,

Exterior of Bookstore Lello

it is pretty unassuming. However, there was a long line to get in and an even longer line to buy the $5 EU admission tickets (for a bookstore?). We got in after about a half an hour, wondering what the fuss was about. Once inside, you know that although this bookstore has thousands of books, it is the design of the store that is intriguing. One of the young men helping funnel people in the line was dressed right out of Hogwarts and was a Harry Potter look-alike!

Once inside, you see two stories of beautiful wooden bookshelves, filled with books. It is the main stairway that everyone photographs, as well as the stained-glass skylight. There is a whole room with all the volumes of the Harry Potter series and a glass case housing signed first editions of several of the books. It is definitely a must-see…
McDonald’s with Crystal Chandeliers

From the bookstore, we wandered around the area, marveling at the beautiful buildings, the statues, and even the McDonald’s, which is filled with chandeliers on the first floor of one of the lovely old buildings. Of course, we had to stop in to gawk. Afterward, we decided that a cappuccino and another pastel de nata were in order. Oy vey… my waistline!

We had a late lunch at a restaurant near the stock exchange. The menu was very interesting but we decided to order the special of the day. It was a pork dish with a delicious sauce, surrounded by cabbage and carrots, sitting on a bed of potato wedges and roasted chestnuts. Wow! It was amazing. I don’t know if it is a typical dish of Porto but I hope to make it once home.
Bicycle cops

Here is a shot of the local Porto bicycle police. We could use a few of these guys!

Time to get back to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep for our next day of touring.

Day 1 – Porto

A number of those in our group did a “land only” package, booking our own travel because some arrived early and some, including us, are staying longer than the actual tour. Fifteen of the group are supposed to come in early this morning from Newark, NJ to start the tour. Those already in the hotel early met in the lobby for a welcome dinner. So far, those traveling with us seem very nice.

In the morning, we were ready to go on our tour of Porto. However, the others arriving this morning didn’t arrive. It seems that the Porto airport was fogged in and there were some engine issues regarding their flight. Once we realized that we would not be touring this morning, we took a taxi into town to see the train station, which is one of the most photographed buildings in Porto. We took a taxi to the train station, in the middle of town. It is a lovely building, with painted tile paintings on each side of the lobby,

We took a lot of pictures of the train station and then walked toward the water through beautiful winding streets, many of which have gorgeous wrought-iron balconies. There are many shops along the way, requiring at least a peek to see what was in the store. Once we arrived at the Ribeira along the Douro River, the gray skies didn’t keep anyone from taking a little cruise on the river, enjoying the food at one of the many restaurants along the water or walk across the bridge to the other side of the river. As the day warmed up by the river, we saw many water taxis and smaller boats ready to take folks down the river for a short cruise.

Francesinha Sandwich

It must have been a little early for lunch because there were plenty of seats at most of the restaurants. We settled on one and ordered a typical Portuguese dish, francesinha (frances-een-ya). This dish is something that really must be shared, as it is huge and filled with so many good things. It is a sandwich, kind of, filled with pork, ham, beef, and cheese, topped with another piece of bread and a sunny side egg, then covered with a tasty, slightly spicy sauce! It is not for the faint of heart…

As you can see, there are many building cranes for ongoing construction projects throughout Porto. The boats await tourists and there are buskers playing music to entertain the visitors.

McDonalds with Crystal Chandeliers

More walking around in town and we saw some beautiful buildings lining the squares in el Centro. There are many statues and building cranes everywhere, which contradicts the theory that Portugal is a poor country. We stopped into one of the most elegant McDonalds on the ground floor of one old building, too. 


When we returned to the hotel after lunch, we found out that the folks who arrived late were taken on a tour of Porto. We missed the tour by less than 15 minutes, allowing us to return to the center of town and continue looking at this beautiful city and eventually get some dinner later.

We passed parks and shops, many of which I couldn’t pass up visiting. There were souvenirs of embroidered hand towels, cork purses, wallets and hats of all kinds. There were ceramic tiles typical of the area and pottery. Keeping in mind weight and size in your luggage, my choices were limited. Somehow, I managed to find a beautiful apron that I will use a lot.

After the enormous sandwich for lunch, dinner had to be tapas and not much more. We found a charming place and enjoyed delicious crusty bread, olives, and beans, then a cod salad in a jar and a fabulous tapa of ham, goat cheese, covered in honey and raisins. After this light repast, we followed it with the most famous dessert in Portugal, pastel de nata.

This treat is a small tart, filled with cream and then caramelized in the oven. They are everywhere in the country, from $.35 to $1.50 EU each. Just down the street from our tapas restaurant was a shop that only makes pastel de nata and we were fortunate to get a couple still warm from the oven.

Now it definitely was time to head back to the hotel and await tomorrow’s adventures…

First Evening in Porto

After a shower and some unpacking, we decided to venture to El Centro of Porto to find something to eat, especially if it is typical of this area. The restaurant we found that looked great, Tapabento, right near the train station, is tiny and couldn’t take us until 9:30 or 10:00. Instead, we made our way up the street to a small, charming tapas restaurant, where we enjoyed yummy red wine, freshly baked bread to dip into our olive oil and balsamic vinegar, olives to savor (Jim, not me), and some delicious beans that you popped into your mouth like candy.

Cod Salad Tapa

We ordered three tapas to share. The first, a flaky pastry stuffed with mushrooms sauteed in red wine (sorry that there is no picture… we ate it too quickly), goat cheese with local ham, honey and raisins and a cod salad served in a mason jar. The pastry and goat cheese were incredible. The cod salad, less so, but typical of this area.

The restaurant owners couldn’t have been more accommodating. Loved it! After, we stopped in a gelato store for some nata gelato. If you don’t know what flavor this is, you will by the time we leave Portugal. It is cream and vanilla custard-like, and not too sweet. I loved it. Just down from the gelato store was pastel de nata store. This little gem is what Portugal calls its national dessert.

Two lovely young men were making the dessert, one forming the nata shell and one filling it with the custard. Then, it is baked, with a dark crust, and served warm. It must be a thousand calories each. Still, we each had one and had no regrets.

The area near the train station is all lit up, with hundreds of restaurants. We probably won’t have the time to try many of them but it is worth the effort. The inside of the train station is a marvel, with all the lobby walls covered in hand-painted tiles. The scenes are of centuries before, when Portugal was conquered by its many foes. There were many people taking pictures, just as we were told to expect.

Finally, a taxi back to the hotel, to get caught up with sleep and be ready for tomorrow, when we meet our guide and group to take a tour of Porto.

Finally in Portugal

So far, we have had an easy trip. Our 2:00 PM flight from Guadalajara to Dallas was on time. The four hours in DFW allowed us to have a bite to eat before boarding our almost 9-hour flight to Madrid. We were very fortunate to each have a three-seat row to crash on. With our blowup seat and neck pillows and plane’s blanket, we were pretty comfortable.

I got a few hours of sleep, which is pretty good for me. The inflight entertainment had lots of options, so awake time wasn’t too horrible. Flying a US airline (American) meant crummy food for dinner and breakfast this morning. When we return, we fly Iberia from Lisbon to Guadalajara via Madrid and Mexico City. I am convinced (or at least hoping) that the food will be an improvement over the long flight here.

For those who have been in the Madrid airport, it is huge, architecturally attractive and has amazing restaurants, food stalls, and shopping. Just looking

Long hallways to gates at
Madrid Airport

at the food, the Iberian ham, salads, and tapas, make your mouth water. We had a couple of hours there, which is sufficient to pick up bags and re-check them to Porto. However, it was not necessary, as our bags went straight through. We love Madrid and recommend it highly as a vacation destination.

Walking this airport is definitely a challenge, though. We didn’t see any golf carts or other mechanical means of getting to the distant gates. I guess you either hoof it or use a wheelchair! As you can see, our Porto connecting flight is at Gate 87 and they went up to Gate 95.

By the way, I used my brand new Czech/EU passport for immigration in Madrid. It was the speediest way to go. Jim went through the regular line with the other hundreds of travelers, taking over a half hour. Woo hoo!

And for anyone traveling to or through the US, definitely get the Mobile Passport app on your phone if you don’t already have Global Entry. It isn’t available at all US airports, but most, and it eliminates the waiting lines for immigration.
Nothing exciting during the one hour flight from Madrid to Porto. We didn’t have to go through immigration again, even though Portugal is a different country than Spain. Once you are in the EU, you are in everywhere. The Brits will have quite a shock after the end of October if they are out of the EU then.
Porto was pretty foggy. The 20-minute taxi ride to our hotel, practically overlooking the Atlantic (if we could really see it), and we are finally settled into our room. Jim is exhausted due to lack of sleep but we will go to bed at our normal time, even though we are six hours ahead of Guadalajara time.
We will have breakfast in the morning and then meet up with our guide and the group for a tour of Porto. The temps are cool, 68-70F for the high. No problem, because as we go south, the temperatures will be warmer.