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Essential Portugal

Prazeres Cemetery, Lisbon

Prazeres Cemetery, Lisbon

Despite how little I knew about the place, Portugal had been calling my name for some time. The place had me dreaming of sunny hills with beautiful orange orchards maybe because Portugal sounds like the Romanian word for orange –Portocală. So Noodle and I decided to make the trip there this spring. Portugal is a small country which makes exploring it quite easy and affordable. We arrived in Lisbon and got on the airport shuttle to city centre. We were delighted that our hotel,  Residencial Alegria, was located on a quiet street overlooking a small park that even the local homeless seemed to enjoy. Without a direction in mind, we walked the streets of Lisbon and took in the city life on board Tram28. We visited Prazeres Cemetery and walked among the beautiful mausoleums that rest some of Portugal’s prominent people.

We spent the next two days visiting the neighboring cities of Sintra and Cascais. The morning of our trip to Sintra, we had breakfast at a Lisbon street cafe and made sure to stock up on pasteis de nata (custard tarts) for the trip. Only 45 minutes by train from Lisbon, Sintra was definitely the highlight of the trip. We got off at the charming train station and started the climb up the road sheltered by beautiful trees. The warm weather and the pasteis de nata treats made the climb to the top a sinch. The hilltops of Sintra host the ruins of a medieval castle build by the Moors during the 8th or 9th century and the Monserrate Palace, a fairytale like palace built in the 19th century and used by the Portuguese court as a summer palace. The views around us were breathtaking. We ended the day with dinner at a restaurant that used to be a stable for the Knights Templars and then made our way back to Lisbon.

Medieval Moorish Castle, Sintra

Medieval Moorish Castle, Sintra

Cascais is a fishing town on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and its main attraction is the bay. We walked along the pathways that surround the bay and during the hotter hours of the day we relaxed in a park with beautiful peacocks. In the afternoon we visited the local fish market where the catch of the day was up for bid. We watched the variety of fish passing in front of our eyes while the locals entered their bids in small electronic devices. For dinner we savored delicious grilled fish for a bargain price.

Our fourth day in Portugal we made the three-hour train ride to the city of Porto. To our disappointment the weather had changed drastically to cool and rainy. Since we were traveling on a budget we decided to skip all the museums and historical buildings that had a cover charge and enjoy the medieval architecture that Porto is known for. So we walked under the on and off cold showers and my repetitive whining for having to climb yet another hill-side street. Laugh if you will but I hate walking on a an incline, especially before breakfast, and this city is built on a giant hill. Since Porto is the birth place and the only place in the world to produce port wine, we decided that there is no better place to sample the thing. So we crossed the bridge over Rio Douro to the English port houses. Noddle had decided he wanted to visit Taylor’s Reserve house so guided by a sketchy map we wondered around trying to find the damn place. Unlike some of the other port houses who were lined up on the main street in plain sight, Taylor’s reserve was nowhere to be found.  Just when we were about to give up, Noodle’s amazing navigational skills kicked in and we were able to find our way. For only 3 euros we were able to get on the next tour of the cellar and sample 3 types of Taylor’s port, one white and two red.

View of Porto

View of Porto

The rain continued to fall so we decided to take refuge in a cafe to figure out our next move. The hotel was far and going back was out of the question so we decided to keep walking the streets of Porto in the hopes of sitting down for dinner early. We had made reservations the night before at a sushi restaurant called Kyodai recommended by Lonely Planet but the reservation wasn’t until 9 PM. Hungry and cold at 8 o’clock we made our way to the restaurant in the hope that we could get an earlier table. We got there and discovered that just like many other restaurants in Portugal, our restaurant wasn’t opening until 9 PM. Frustrated we made our way to a nearby square where we discovered a little port bar nestled inside what looked like a cavernous structure. We decided to shelter from the rain and warm up with a glass of port by the gas heat lamps they had going. What a wonderful invention the port wine, it was just the kind of thing we needed to sweeten the bitter experience of the day. When the time came we made our way back to the restaurant and this time the owner welcomed us in. It was a small space, maybe only five tables and we were the first ones to arrive. Trained in Japan, the owner spoke Japanese and English and took the time to explain the menu and cater to us exclusively. The menu was set and so was the price. Most Portuguese restaurants bring to the table small appetizers that customers pay for only if they chose to consume them. It was no different this time except that unlike the small bowl of olives and bread we had received in the past for an extra euro, the appetizer was a dish of sashimi and the 12 euros charge, called entry fee, was automatic. The Portuguese are known for their delicious seafood dishes and it was no different this time. The fish was fresh and it was prepared with Japanese skill and simplicity. I took the opportunity to use the little Japanese phrases I could remember from my stay in Japan. What a great way to end the evening! The next day we made our way back to Lisbon.

Our sushi meal at Kyodai, Porto

Our sushi meal at Kyodai, Porto

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