Portugal trip report

Portugal Trip report

January 2009

The time have come for our January 16-24, 2009 study trip to explore Portugal in every single aspect: history, architecture, Jewish Heritage, gastronomy and wine.

We have a small group of selected 9 agents from different parts of USA arriving Lisbon

I flew from Newark to Lisbon (Lisboa) on Air Portugal.

January 16. Lisbon. Arrived 5am. TAP Flight was on time. Service was OK, food is not exciting. I traveled with my friend/collegaue Kate. We arrived and took taxi to our hotel Ritz Four Seasons for 19 euros. We arrived and were greeted at hotel.http://www.fourseasons.com/lisbon/

This is the best hotel in Lisbon. Excellent service. We’ve met hotel’s manager who welcomed us. We checked in and went to check out hotel’s fitness center and spa. Fitness center has outdoor running track at hotel’s perimeter with great views of Lisbon. We saw Pilates machines, and there are quite a few personal trainers (no extra charge). Then we went to the spa. There were no appointments available for the same day so we settled for steam room and sauna. It relaxed me. I could not sleep on the plane so I really got exhausted.

My room was very spacious, light, nice bed, with a balcony and good views. (7th floor). We met another member of our group and three of us went for breakfast which was excellent and very creative. I got internet wireless connection for 22 eur per 24 hrs, so I worked today a bit. My friends went to town, by tram 28 and explored on their own. For 1.5 eur it does loop of town and went to the castle.

I scheduled a lunch with my Portugal supplier and travel partner Nuno. He is delightful young man – an owner of the company whom I’ve been working for few years and who organized this tour to introduce Portugal to the travel professionals. He picked me up at hotel and we went to local characteristic restaurant which specialized in seafood. I had fish of course, and it was very good. For desert we had almond ice cream with chocolate. We had a tour of Jewish Lisbon at 2pm so Nuno dropped me off to meet a guide and 3 of my travel agents for whom I scheduled this tour. We went to synagogue where we had about 2 hr conversation with rep of Jewish community.

The Jewish communities in Lisbon were in the past essential to the life in the city. Jewish people were the advisers of Kings and Queens, doctors and even some of the explorers, geographers and mathematicians that transformed Portugal into the wealthiest nation in the world in the 16th century. 

We went to only Synagogue of Lisbon (Shaare Tikvá). We had interesting conversation with member of Jewish community which has 1200 members. Many people commute for services from the suburbs.

Unlike other European countries, Portugal was not participating in the WWII. It was neutral. Therefore, Jews escaped holocaust. The country then was ruled by dictator Calazar. When Hitler demanded to give away Jews, he replied: We do not have Jews. We have Portuguese. True, Portuguese Jews have mixed blood with Muslims (Moors) and Catholic. Many of them converted at the time of inquisition…. According to some researchers, Calazar protected Jews there some speculations that he might himself have some Jewish blood. His middle name is Oliviera which is Jewish from inquisition time.

There also was an ambassador from Portugal to France Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who during the Holocaust disobeyed government orders. He issued visas enabling Jews to travel from France to Portugal. He was dismissed for disobedience and died impoverished. For his efforts, he was later recognized as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," Portugal’s only honoree. He is Portugal’s “Shindler”.

After synagogue. We went to the site of the 1506 Jewish Massacre near the Church of São Domingos. Afterwards we walked down one of the most well preserved Jewish Quarters in Portugal in Alfama.

After tour, we came to hotel and had at 7pm reception with hotels manager.. We’ve met other members of our group, 9 people altogether. It is a nice group and I know 7 people out of 9 from previous travels and business arrangements, all fun and well traveled. We bonded well and we look forward to our exploration week together. The manager of Four Seasons Consalo Clemete talked to us about hotel and told us in case of any questions or problems or future needs for clients to contact him directly.

After cocktails, we took taxi for seafood restaurant “Lisboa Noite”. Trendy seafood restaurant. Three of us shared 2 main courses – grilled prawns with lobster risotto and also spaghetti with seafood. Delicious. Taxi in Lisbon is very reasonable. 20 min was approximately 7 euros. There were many young people in downtown, drinking, talking staying outside pubs. Very vibrant town. Late to bed (midnight). I am at this point 48 hours without sleep so I collapsed and slept through until 7am wakeup call.

January 17. Lisbon - Belem - Sintra - Lisbon.

Great breakfast at Four Seasons with interesting small dishes. All fresh squeezed juices, special of the day Mango Passion and orange. Great cheeses and bread, fruits.

After breakfast, we headed to Sintra, the UNESCO World Heritage, with palaces, stories and legends to testify. It has terrific views and very romantic. We also visited Cascais, the fisherman village. We visited the Pena National Palace on the top of the Sintra's mountain range. Then In Sintra we had free time to explore and lunch.

Then we went to small town Belem, and visited Lisbon’s landmarks and monument to explorers. Portugal used to be a colonial power and had many colonies around the world. Their famous explorer is Vasco Da Gama – national hero. Belem was lucky to survive earthquake. Belem tower is landmark of the Lisbon area. We also visited Jeronimo’s monastery which is an impressive church built by King Manuel in the mix of Gothic and Renaissance style. Cloisters were beautiful.Many of ornaments have sea elements (shells, ships, coral, seaweed).

There is also interesting waterfront park with a monument to the Discoveries and a floor marble map of the world where you can follow the years of Portugese world discoveries. There was also a sea-plane monument which from I understand is a tribute of the first flight on a seaplane to Brazil from Portugal but it happened in 1970’s or so so I do not understand it’s significance. At that time many planes flew to Brazil. Maybe only one seaplane..

In the afternoon we went to Lisbon, "the Seven Hills City "- with references that go back to the times of the nation's birth (12th century), throughout the glorious age of the Portuguese Discoveries (16th century) – which was presented on the Jerónimos Monastery and the quaint Tower of Belém - all the way to the modern 21st century present on the busy life of Lisbon's downtown - the Baixa. Lisbon was prosperous city in 15 and 16th century whenVasco de Gama and other explorers opened trade route. They discovered Brazil and it’s gold made the country richer. Then on all Saints Day, in 1755, the city was built by tremendous earthquake. Most of the Lisbon was destroyed. Fires started by church candles carried through the city on this saint day. People ran to the river. Big mistake - huge tidal wave swiped them in the water. 30,000 people out of 270,000 people were killed. After the earthquake, the prime minister Marques de Pombalordered to rebuilt the city. Despite opposition, he succeeded to rebuild in a progressive style, like Paris. In fact, Avenue Liberdade with wide boulevards and squares reminds Champs Elysees. One can see the remnants of pre-earthquake Lisbon in Alfama and Bairro Alto districts. Baixa is the post-earthquake planned lower town leading to the river.

Back to hotel at 6pm , refreshed and went for dinner and hotel’s inspection at historic Pestana Palace hotel and historic monument. It is not located in the center however, it is very unique property. It is a real former palace built by King Emanuel built it. Celebrities like Madonna and President Bill Clinton stayed there.Very special place but not in the center of city. Good for people with their own transportation and who wants idyllic environment. 

Dinner menu at Pestana Palace consisted of:

Cream of pumpkin soup with roast chestnuts and herbs cream

Grilled swordfish with squid, shrimp, and clams concasse.

Sao Tome chocolate tart with hazelnut pralin and carob ice cream

Coffee and small pastries

We liked soup. Seafood was good but swordfish was somewhat dry. Chocolate tart was no that impressive..

January 18. Lisbon - Evora - Marvao - Castello de Vide - Belmonte

Today we were going west towards Spanish border to see countryside. The area is called Alentejo. 5% population lives there, mostly agricultural area. They produce cork and marble from natural area resources. We saw on the way cork trees with bark cut off from the trunks. When they cut the trunk off, there is waiting period approx 9 years when bark grows again. Cork trees only grow in Mediterranean climate and here it is an important part of country’s economy. 50% of the world’s cork comes from Portugal. Also other parts of agriculture are olive oil production, grains (barley, oats, etc). For stock, they grow cows and black pigs. Black pigs are unusual that they are free range, roaming on the plains and their skin is not pink but grey. Summers are hot so people are taking siestas. Working early am from 4am and then later after 4pm. Architecture was pretty with white whitewashed houses. The population is frugal so the food specialties of that area includes asorta – dish from the bread which is soaked with garlic, coriander and olive oil and boiled. They also use eggs for baking and cooking and – white for starch and yolk for cooking.

Our first destination was Evora, (World Heritage City, classified by UNESCO). A "rendezvous" with Portuguese history and genuine house styles from the South of Portugal with their white washed façades. In Evora, we also visited cathedral. Then we went to a very interesting chapel: the Capela dos Ossos in . In many bone chapels, or catacombs, the bones are strewn around with little purpose. At the Capela dos Ossos, the purpose of the bones is carved into the entryway, "Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos" or "Our bones that are here await yours!" The 16th-century monks who built the Chapel of Bones wanted you to contemplate the rather transient nature of life, and they used a macabre sense of humor in bringing the point home.

This is second chapel I am seeing in Europe. The previous was in Kutna Hora in Czech countryside. We started talking about possibility of condicting “bone tours” in Europe. Two chapels we’ve seen in Europe with bones, throw in more catacombs in Rome and you can make a grim business talking interested tourist to “bone tours”!

We had Lunch in Evora . Some of us had a fish soup and I had “migash” – boiled bead in garlic and coriander. Something like our staffing. It was somewhat bland…

Then, we continued trip to the village of Marvao. It is a small hilltop village at more than 800 meters high and it's surrounded by the old castle walls from (13th -17th century). It is completely walled with a great castle on the mountain. However, it was foggy, windy and cold when we arrived there. We walked quickly in the village, looked in the warm tourism office at the pictures how this village looks in good weather L and left. It might be very beautiful in summer.

Since this was the day dedicated to discover the deep countryside of Portugal, we were continued to the next destination - the beautiful and ancient Portuguese village of Castelo de Vide.

Located among olive groves and chestnut trees in the cool mountain region of Sao Mamede, Castelo de Vide is often referred to as the Sintra of the Alentejo. Scattered with monuments, this pretty spa town is a place of roses, fountains, orchards and old houses. Steep alleyways lead up to the castle through a 16th-century village, which is enriched with some of the most impressive Gothic entrances in Portugal.King Denis began building the castle but it was his son, Alfonso IV, who completed it in 1327. It was successfully defended by an Anglo-Portuguese force against the Spanish in June 1704. The town's oldest chapel, the 13th-century Salvador do Mundo, boasts a much-admired painting called Flight into Egypt by an unknown artist. The Jewish Quarter located in the east side of the Medieval town has cobble streets and well-preserved houses. Its synagogue dates back to the 14th century.

Our final destination for a day was Belmonte where we arrived in the dark.

We stayed overnight in Posada Convento Belmonte - It is a historic property, reconstructed former Convent of Nossa Sehnora de Esperanca.

Next morning, we had beautiful views. It is located on the wooded slopes of the Esperanca mountain.

Since it was a convent, all rooms are former monks cells . The size was good however. Maybe they rebuilt it. My room was Father Gabriel’s (Frei Gabriele).

All posadas have good restaurants reflecting local cuisine.

The dinner at Posada Convento Belmonte had :

First course – Partridge soup, with some kind of nuts (either chestnuts or cashews or peanuts). It was very good. Then it was salmon, excellent. We thought next would be dessert, however we were served sorbet for refreshing palate and it followed by unexpected another course – meat – black pig – pork and mashed potatoes with “Jewish” sausage – chicken sausage disguised as pork – historically converse Jews pretended to eat pork… Dessert was a crepe with almond paste inside, orange sauce on top topped with ice cream. The dinner was accompanied with red and white wine for each course. Delicious but two courses were too much for me. Nevertheless, worth just to try local dishes.

Internet was available but not in all rooms. I was lucky I guess so I worked late.

January 19. Belmonte - Dauro Valley

Next morning , Posada Belmonte awarded indeed excellent views but alas, the weather still was rainy. We had breakfast at posada. It was much simpler than Four Seasons but also very good extended continental buffet. Breads, cheeses and milk products in Portugal were all excellent.

We had time to explore Posada’s delightful nooks and crannies and courtyard.

There was another 6 people group from the same company we were touring with, Tours for You and they were touring parallel to us. However our version was professional and packed with inspections and high energy trip. We intersected with another group in few hotels and compared our impressions.

This morning, the plan was to visit synagogue in Belmonte and continue north Dauro Valley and wine region. First we went to synagogue of Belmonte and had a meeting with Jewish community representatives. We found out that there are 120 members of community in Belmonte, most of them descendants of converso Jews. They have a kosher butcher, and religious school however they do not have rabbi. Rabbi when needed, for weddings,barmitzvahs, are called from Lisbon or Israel. It was a very interesting discussion. After synagogue we strolled narrow streets of Belmonte, it is a very pretty town . Then we departed for Viceu. It is a larger city, it was not much sightseeing but convenient stop on the way to Dauro to stop for lunch and some shopping. The rain was on and off but at this point we were happy that there is no wind and fog! After stop in Viceu, we continued to Douro region. The scenery was pretty and we saw river, mountains, woods. Our guide Joana told us on a way a history of local people (Portugal in general and this particular Dauro region). Douro river represents the soul of the natives and where the wine production is decisive to this population.

We went to Vila Real for a visit to "Solar de Mateus". Here we’ve found found the delicate Baroque Style decorating a traditional building. The construction of this Manor House was possible due to the wealth that Port wine brought to ancient and traditional Portuguese families.

It was cold and raining and the palace was cold inside. Afterwards we ran outside to the warm bus and continued our way to Dauro valley for wine tasting which is the internationally renowned wine of this region. We visited a winery Pacheca and a wine tasting with an owner and learned about the producing methods.

Then we arrived to our hotel Aqua Pura Dauro Valley which is considered is the most exclusive and charming hotels in Portugal. 

The hotel is very impressive and location is very beautiful. Hotel had an excellent spa and swimming pool with water showers. We also were able to use steam room and sauna to warm up at the end of cold day. The rooms were very high tech. Once you arrive at reception area, there was some subdued lights which looked like fire and receptionist were at the fire. Very interesting setup. We also thought the lights were too low everywhere and it was dark in the hallways. It was supposed to relax people and make an impressions of relaxation, spa but to us it was hard to get oriented. Rooms were very high tech with many buttons to operate and were so tired after long day and we did not have enough time to figure out how everything works in the room. These rooms are good for one person or a couple but not for friends/roommates traveling together since bathtub is in the middle of the room, and looking at the large window with a great view. Shower and toilet have glass doors so not enough privacy however it would be very romantic for a couple. We also inspected other rooms and suites and they have family suites and apartments.

Overall , beautiful hotel.

We had nice dinner at hotel’s restaurant.

January 20. Dauro Valley - Guimaraes.

We continued our journey towards Braga, an important religious capital that exhibited its power and importance in the past times, through the original sanctuary of "Bom Jesus of Braga", with its magnificent baroque staircase (with a story to tell on its artistic chapels).

We had lunch in the scenic town of Ponte de Lima. We tried a unique gastronomy and the singular locally produced Green Wine (Vinho Verde) for lunch. Then we went to Viana do Castelo, the capital of Minho region with a lovely panorama over the Atlantic (a visit to the Santa Luzia Belvedere facing the shoreline). The day ended at Guimarães, the "cradle" of Portuguese nationality. We visited the historical centre of Guimarães, the first important city, of the kingdom of Portugal with references that illustrates more than 800 years of history. In Guimarães, we checked in into yet another historic posada. We had port before dinner and had a tour of posada. Afterwards we had a gastronomic dinner which included the tasty cuisine, of Northern Portugal. Afterwards, we had coffee and port at the cozy fireplace in the bar. My room had beautiful view of the valley. It was very cozy, and the floors were heated. It is a very nice 4* posada.  

January 21, Guimaraes - Porto

IN the morning, rain continued unfortunately. We checked out of Posada and had a tour of Guimaraes. It is a lovely town and was a capital of Portugal once. Afterwards we continued to Porto. By noon we arrived Porto visit to the Wine Cellars, in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here you'll finally visit the place where Port Wine gains its generous taste, never forgetting a technical explanation on all the processes involved. We walked waterfront in Porto and found small restaurant where we had lunch. The owner was friendly and treated us well. It was cold in the beginning, but they turned on heat. We ate fish specialties and had wine. They even had fresh sardines which usually not the season here. Fish was very good. In the end, the owner brought his own supply of some kind of liquor , very strong, he called it fire water. It was his present. J

After lunch, we went to Ferreira cellars to taste port. We learned difference in red, white, vintage and tawny port. Bought wine souvenirs there.

After lunch, we visited historical centre with important monuments as the St. Francis Church, all covered with gold (about 600 kg) in its interior, an extraordinary artistic work of gilded wood carvings. The elegant and ancient "Stock Exchange Market" with an unique beauty, exhibits the careful and detailed 19th century taste. Then, we visited the north historical area of the city, on the most traditional commercial street of Oporto - the pedestrian street of Sta. Catarina.

Afterwards we went to our hotel in the business area of Porto, 5* Atlantic Tiara Park. Since we are staying in a variety of architecture and style luxury hotels, this one is very modern, businesslike. Great toiletries – Hermes! Very comfortable but off center. Before dinner, we walked to nearby Sheraton hotel and spa to inspect it and had dinner there at Porto Novo Restaurant. It presents the best in Traditional Portuguese Cuisine through the mastery of the renowned chef, Jerónimo Ferreira.

January 22, Porto - Coimbra - Lousa

During the morning, we shopped for 2 hrs in Porto and then walked to the Infante de Sagres Hotel where we inspected it and had lunch. It is wonderful historic hotel right in the center. After lunch we continued to the city of Coimbra which is place of the famous prestigious university of Portugal. It was one of the most important capitals that Portugal had and it is still a reference considering its beauty. We visited an extraordinary masterpiece of the 18th century: the library of Coimbra's University. That library was very dark wit small windows. We also learned that in order to protect books, the bats were used in he library! The bats ate insects which destroyed books. 

Then, we continued to our overnight stay, Lousã, in the surroundings of Coimbra. This is the tranquil typical small town of the interior of Portugal, surrounded by the green of the Lousã Mountains. This hotel is one of the charming new boutique hotels of Portugal, inside an ancient palace. We had dinner there. It was cabbage, salted cod and potatoes. Not everybody liked it but I did.

January 23-24

In the morning, we head south to visit Fátima, considered to be the World's Altarpiece. Then we went to Batalha Monastery church, an icon representing the significance of the religious orders in Portugal and a reference to one of the most important moments of history - The Aljubarrota Battle. After lunch, we'll move to Alcobaça, famous for its 12th century monastery. This monastery is not only a beautiful architectural example, but it has also the monuments in memory of King D. Pedro I and D. Inês de Castro (characters of a true romantic Portuguese story from the 14th century, their Romeo and Juliet.

On our way to Lisbon we will visit Óbidos, a small medieval village, with walls surrounding it and protecting a heritage of narrow streets, whitewashed houses embellished with flowers and whrought iron windows that once again invite us to travel back in time. It was a beautiful fairy tale village. We’ve strolled there, done our shopping and went back to minivan continue to Lisbon.

On arrival to Lisbon, we checked into our next hotel, small boutique hotel Bairro Alto in Alfama.

In the evening, we went for a Portuguese farewell dinner, to listen and experience the "Fado" music (a genuine Portuguese music style), in one of the best restaurants of Lisbon: Casa de Linhares. It's the national song style of Portugal. Fado means fate and it's always sung with emotion (when it's performed by a good singer, which sometimes it's hard to find). It reminded me Russian romantic and gypsy songs.I wish I understood words but it was beautifully sang.

After Fado we came back to hotel, we thanked our guide Joana and our host in Lisbon, Nuno.

Next day was time to go home. Myself and Jane stayed extra day and to our luck, the weather was very nice. We just chose to walk, shop, sit at cafes and had a delightful day. That was a time for sales in Europe and I found a nice leather jacket and leather boots. Portugal leather is so nice and less expensive then Italian and Spanish..

In the evening we went to local trendy restaurant recommended by hotel staff. We ended up talking and even sharing meal with a tourist from San Francisco who traveled alone.  Next day, I had breakfast at hotel, and took taxi to airport. TAP flight was on time however I did not like a fact that they take people to the plane on a bus. We spent 45 minutes on a bus! Flight was comfortable though. The plane was not full so I had extra space. I had enough 3 hours to get luggage and check into Continental flight in Newark. It was dragging heavy suitcase. But I wanted to take all this wine with me J

At 11:30pm I arrived Tampa and that completed my Portugal trip.

A bit of caution. That was a travel business familiarization trip. I do not advice to copy itinerary. We had intense touring, tasting, checking out hotels, making connections with local suppliers and hotel’s managers. Now I am able to plan my client’s trips successfully. You need to spend more time in Lisbon and depending on your interests in mid- or North Portugal. In summer would be advisable to finish with time on the beach. 

Contact me at info@mytravelfind.com if you plan a trip to Portugal !