Our last day in Portugal! We managed to pack a lot in, but there was a lot we didn’t have time for. Next time!
After waking up, it seemed prudent to attempt to extract our car from the garage. Had it turned into a faff, we wanted to make sure there was plenty of time to … do something? We hadn’t fully fleshed out our plan b. Fortunately, everything went off smoothly. We lingered over some pastries and coffee and discussed our plans for the day.
Before leaving Coimbra, we wanted to visit the Roman forum. It was incredible – two stories of intact Roman structure, with passage ways and endless arches. It’s crazy to think that it’s still actively supporting the modern structures on top of it, 2000 years later.
Leaving the site, we jumped in the car and set our GPS for Nazare, a small fishing village on the coast. This was one more part of Portugal we’d wanted to see, and there was just enough time to squeeze it in. Nazare is surely a bustling beach town in the Summer, but on our visit things were pretty quiet. It’s a gorgeous beach, with the village of Sitio towering above it on the cliffs (connected via funicular).
We sat in the sand, watched the surfers, and then had some grilled fish for lunch. It was all terribly relaxing.
The last hour of driving to Lisbon was easy, and we had plenty of time to poke around the Lisbon airport. The flight to Paris was quick, and we got to spend the night in the totally fantastic and fascinating CitizenM hotel at CDG. It’s a small chain of hotels designed for “hip young mobile travelers” (like us!) with small but well designed rooms and everything you need for a quick layover. It was hard to get Kat to leave in the morning.
Now, we’re on a plane bound for Minnesota. The trip was great, and a great break from the world. We’re both still sick, and have plenty of work to catch up on, but it was worth it.
Now it’s time to start planning the next one…
After a late night of coughing (wooo! Wild-And-Crazy in Europe!!), we slept in a bit. Around ten, we met up with our guide for the day, Marta. The plan was to do a “gastronomy” tour in the morning, and a history tour in the afternoon. Of course, since we’re in Europe, even food has history.
Our meeting point was a medieval house just a few steps from our hotel. It’s one of the oldest houses in Coimbra, and makes it clear that people used to be a lot shorter. It’s not a trick of the camera – the whole house is just a little disjointed.
The first stop was a pastry shop near the hotel, where we learned about how each monastery developed its own variety of pastry. Basically, monasteries were using lots and lots of egg whites to starch their laundry, and started creating uses for egg yolks. Therefore, you’ve got many types of pastries that are variations on combinations of egg yolks, sugar, and (sometimes) almonds. Over time, the varieties spread beyond the original monastery, though many retained a name that harkens back to the creators.
Next, we visited a pharmacy for cough medicine. The pharmacy was celebrating its 200th anniversary. You know, like the CVS down the street.
We strolled the streets of Coimbra, with Marta pointing out a lot of things we never would have noticed – for example, the markers in the ground denoting the path of the Camino Portuguese, which ends at Santiago de Compostello, just like the Camino Frances (click back to 2011 on this blog for more details on that). One fun section shows where the Camino crosses paths with the pilgrimage to Fatima. One group of pilgrims is heading north towards Santiago, the other is heading south to Fatima. They meet in a small square in Coimbra, and presumably, exchange high-fives.
We learned about the suckling pig dishes that are popular in Coimbra, as well as boiled goat in red wine and a lot of other tasty items we hadn’t yet tried. Marta was a fount of information, with answers to all our questions.
One of the coolest stops was the Cafe de Santa Cruz. After the King closed all the monasteries in the 19th century, there were a lot of empty monasteries lying around. This one got turned into a coffee shop. The bathrooms are in the old confessionals. Symbolism.
We walked up the hill to the market, which is a newly renovated building (European Union!). We got to sample some of the local bread which is based on corn rather than wheat (since they don’t grow wheat in the north), and marvel at the volume of fruits and vegetables that are in season. One thing we learned is that they have a lot of rice in the north of the country, due to the nature of the river system. We’d seen a lot of rice on menus, but assumed it was an artifact of the Age of Discovery trading.
The food tour ended with a tapas-style lunch. One of the interesting items in the lunch was a chicken sausage, which was invented so that the Jews could eat sausage with the Christians (or pretend to be Christians, depending on the situation).
We had a short break between tours, which we used to shop for some gifts. Then we met back up with Marta for the history part of the tour.
We walked around the city along the path of the wall, learning about the different types of cobblestones and the evolution of the city. We stopped inside the Santa Cruz church, which has an amazing organ – it basically had trumpets sticking out of it, that make a charmingly amusing noise. We were lucky to hear it being played. The church has the tomb of the first King of Portugal as well.
From the “downtown,” we climbed up to the stop of the city, where the University sits. We visited the Botanical Gardens, which was originally established to grow plants for the pharmacy students. It grew during the Age of Discovery, and now houses plants from throughout the empire. It also has a really cool aerial jungle gym of zippiness and ladders and swings. We were very jealous of the children who were getting to play.
Near the botanical garden is the aqueduct that fed the castle that originally sat on top of the hill, and which was rebuilt in the 16th century. It’s an odd trick of the eye – it absolutely looks like the water would have to flow up hill.
Then it was on to the University of Coimbra, founded 725 years ago. Under their fascist system in the 20th century, a lot of the original buildings were replaced with Stalin-esq structures (think West Bank of the University of Minnesota or anything in Soviet Russia). However, a few of the original buildings remain, including the reason we were in Coimbra in the first place – the library.
We couldn’t take photos inside the library, but you can take a look online to learn more. It’s a beautiful space. The walls are two feet thick, for temperature control. It has special little doors to let in bats, so they can eat any bugs that might be inside. The books are still available to researchers at the University, and the space itself is truly a temple of knowledge.
One convenient feature of the Coimbra library – it has its own prison. When the University was founded, it was responsible for administering its own justice. Damaging a book in the library might warrant a few days stay in prison (though you were still expected to attend class), while more serious crimes might land you in the solitary confinement cell.
The whole University was buzzing with life – 725 years means there’s plenty of time to develop traditions, and the students have obviously embraced it. Each discipline has a unique set of traditions, with their own colors and rituals. We saw student groups playing music, dancing, and engaged in different types of celebrations. Many of them were wearing the black cloaks that are typical of the University, which gives the whole place a Hogwarts feel.
We wrapped up our tour by looking at a few other sites around campus, and one of the other churches in town. The blocks on this church each bear the mark of the person who was responsible for carving it (because that’s how they were paved). A few of the stones also have some arabic writing. Nobody is sure whether the arabic writing was added by as a bit of graffiti, or if the stones were repurposed from a mosque.
For dinner, we wander the alleys of Coimbra for a while, before settling on a small place not far form where we ate last night. We got a chance to try the goat boiled in red wine that we’d learned about earlier in the day, and it was fantastic. Although Portuguese food isn’t as vibrant or exciting as some other countries, done well, it develops some really deep and comforting flavors.
The goals for today were manyfold. First: See the northern parts of Portugal. Next, eat delicious cheese.
Ok, so maybe the goals were more like twofold. In any case, we succeeded.
Based on a very thin thread of evidence, we picked as our goal the town of Celorico da Beira. We picked this town because a bit of Googling had hinted that it had a “cheese palace,” though what exactly a “cheese palace” is was less clear. We knew that the delicious soft sheep cheeses we’ve been eating this week came from the north part of the country, especially around the Serra da Estrela park. Celorico da Beira is right at the northern tip of this large national park.
Looking at the map, there was one particular road between Evora and Celorico da Beira that held a certain amount of “petrolhead” temptation. Think Northern Italy / Swiss Alps, but in Portugal and full of trees.
We started the day in the rolling hills of Alentejo, with its boulder-strewn fields filled with furry cattle and sheep. We watched the landscape transition to the more moutainous terrain of the north. The scenery was gorgeous, and Kat was often flustered that there wasn’t adequate shoulder to pull over and take pictures of the landscape. The drive was easy (aside from a brief kerfuffle while attempting to buy diesel) and we crisscrossed over “ribers” and fields as we wound our way north.
As we turned off the motorway and headed into the park, the scenery got even more dramatic, with vibrant colors and twists and turns. We saw what we think were cherry trees blossoming in the fields between rows of grape vines. The first half the drive in the park was a very well maintained (EU money) road, with new bridges and nice shoulders, though still plenty twisty. The halfway point of the park is marked by the town of Manteigas, where we stopped for a coffee. We think this town, and perhaps the whole area, sees ski tourism in the winter.
From Manteigas on, the road got more “rustic” and the turns got more dramatic. We climbed up above the tree line, with sweeping views and barren land. The crest of the mountains were covered in large granite boulders, slowly eroded by wind and water. Eventually, the road began to drop, and we exited the park, turning north for Celorico da Beira.
As we turned towards town, a large Castle loomed above the houses. Which, seemingly, isn’t all that uncommon in Portugal, as we had passed many towns with castles in varying states of decay. As we entered Celorico da Beira, we followed the signs for the “Solar do Quejio,” which, having the word for cheese in the name, seemed like a good bet for the cheese palace.
Eventually, the signs started pointing to streets that were increasingly un-BMW friendly (this is a small car, but not that small), so we parked the car and set out on foot. At the top of the hill, we found the Solar do Quejio. We don’t really know what it is – maybe something like a trade group for the local farmers? In any case, there was a small display about cheesemaking inside. Then we asked if there was anywhere we could sample the cheese, and were lead upstairs to the tasting room. It’s .. obviously the offseason. Everyone was a bit surprised to see us. In any case, the old man working there prepared us a plate of cheese and toasts, with a glass of wine and some water. It was delicious and unique.
From there, it was on to the castle. We followed more signs, not expecting much. However, it was rennovated in 2007 in a serious way, and we were really blown away. Though legend says the castle is Roman, and there are signs of a Roman temple nearby, it was likely built after the invasion of the Moors in 711. It was rebuilt and rebuilt again over the ages, and the structure today was most recently modified in the early 20th century.
There were great interpretive signs scattered around (with English) and a stage for concerts. The community treats it as a meeting point and place of pride, and it shows. In the tower, we found a lone woman working behind a desk. She insisted that there wasn’t a fee to enter (despite signage to the contrary) and invited us to explore at will. On the second floor of the tower, there’s a small collection of documents and computers for research – again, part of making the site open to the community. On the roof of the tower, we got an impressive view of the valley below, along with a Not-In-The-USA approach to safety.
Revved up by the experience at the castle, we followed another of the magical “brown signs” (the ones pointing to historic sites) for a necropolis. After guessing a few times, we pulled down a dirt road and found the foundations of building that must have been excavated at least 10 years ago. Luckily, Colin was feeling adventurous and continued further uphill to a fascinating boulder delicately balanced on the hill above. Surrounding the boulder, and carved out of the bedrock, were dozens of coffin-shaped holes.
We don’t know a lot about this site – no signage here, and the details on the internet are sketchy. The best guesses are that it’s somewhere between 1st and 12th century, and contains as many as 40 burial sites. The foundations nearby turned out to be those of a church. The whole site is arranged around the precariously balanced boulders. You can imagine someone could arrive at this site and decide that it’s surely the work of a more powerful being.
It was getting late in the day at this point, so we set the GPS for Coimbra and hit the road. The only notable thing along the drive was a large truck heavily laden with cork bark ready to be processed.
Our arrival in Coimbra included a unique experience. We followed signs for a city parking garage, and pulled in. The attendant (a nice old man) explained that it was €5 for 24 hours. I said we were staying until Sunday. He said that they were closed on Sundays. I got ready to back out, figuring we’d need to find somewhere else to work. He thought for a bit, and then told me to go ahead and pull inside (after paying my €5). Then he had me get out of the car. Thoroughly confused at this point, he explained that on Sunday it will be locked and gated, but showed me how to trigger the gate. Then he gave me a set of keys to the parking garage, so we can get in, and showed me where to hide them (under a dustpan) when we left. He showed us to our spot and sent us on our way.
Today was our only full day in Evora, so we did our best to pack in some regional-adventuring and seeing the rest of the sights in town. First stop of the day was the town market, a fancy new building with stalls for meat, cheese and vegetable vendors. It seemed like the sort of space that gets built in response to EU regulations about markets. In any case, we got some amazing local salami, cheese, bread, fruits, and cookies. A picnic lunch for all of €5.
The next stop was the Cathedral of Evora, which happens to be right next to our hotel. The highlight of the visit was finding the spiral staircase that led up to the roof of the cloisters. It provided an great view of the city and a chance to see some of the features of the building up close. As with most of the sites in Evora, we had the entire thing to ourselves.
Then it was time to get in the car and head for some of the megalith sites outside Evora. At the Almendres Cromlech we wandered among the rocks and marveled at the age (way before Stonehenge). Driving into the site, we were wondering what had happened to all the “olive” trees, which had their bark missing. Arriving at the site and seeing one up close, we realized they were cork trees – as in wine bottles – and the bark had been recently harvested. It was a lot of fun to poke at.
From the Almendres, we went to the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro, a megalithic tomb that was “excavated” (as in dynamite) in the 1960s. Again, we had the site to ourselves, and got to poke around the massive structure. Pictures don’t do the size of it justice – these are some really big rocks.
After a picnic and a visit with some cows, we circled back to Evora (with a brief stop at a winery/olive oil producer, which was mostly closed for the season). We got a snack at the bakery (and we finally cracked the code to ordering Kat’s preferred coffee), then visited the Museum of Evora. It’s mostly under renovation (the perils of traveling off-season), but has a really cool collection from a proto-archaeologist (as in, guy who liked collecting things that were dug up) from the 18th century.
After the museum, we caught up on work, and then I went off on a Colin-esq adventure. The new Fiat 500X hasn’t been launched in US Fiat dealers yet, and we’re in Portugal during the Twin Cities Auto Show. Sad about missing a chance to see it in person, I located the local Fiat dealer and set off on a walk. Fortunately, they had a demo-500X on hand, so I got to poke around. Portuguese car dealers are decidedly lower pressure than American dealers.
Finally, it was time for dinner. Tonight, we made reservations at Tasquinha do Oliveira. It’s a husband-and-wife place, serving Alentejo food. We had some amazing cheese, beans and cod, chicken, crab and quiche as starters. Then, Kat had a even-better-than-the-pork roast lamb, and I had a stew (which was very reminiscent of a caldo verde or similar).
The only slight negative of the evening was the group of studying-abroad/spring break American MBA students, who managed to use “bea” and “adorbs” within the first moment of entering the restaurant. We contained ourselves, and enjoyed the night regardless.
And now it’s time for another night of meat sweats.
Pork pork, pork pork pork. Pork.
Oh right. Well, we’ll get there.
This morning, we caught an Uber out to the airport to pick up our rental car. As an aside, how cool is the future? You tap a button on an iPhone app and a car shows up at your location, wherever you are. (aside: yes, Uber is a horrible company. But the concept, the concept is pretty magical)
Originally we’d booked a Renault Twingo. The man at the rental booth initially thought we should upgrade to a Clio. I asked if they had any Alfas, and we got to talking cars. He suggested maybe upgrading to a BMW 6-series cabrio because “It’s a diesel! It’s more economical!” … this man thinks like I do. In the end, we ended up with a more modest upgrade to a diesel BMW 2-series touring, an odd sort of wagon thing that isn’t sold in the states. It’s very nice, and Kat is a bit smitten. It randomly beeps. Do all BMWs do this? I feel like they do.
We set out from Lisbon with only one goal: leave Lisbon. Sufficiently Out Of Lisbon, we pulled over to come up with a plan. The end goal was Evora, and the mission was to avoid the motorways. We plotted a route on a paper map, then punched it into the iPhone GPS and got on our way. The route took us through the backroads of the Alentejo region. We saw storks nesting, gorgeous fields and olive groves, and plenty of cattle. Our lunch stop was at .. a town. We found a cafe, and communicated as best we could that we were looking for some food. (The nice old lady indicated that she spoke a little french, but that wasn’t of a ton of help) Success.
We hit the road again, and ended up at .. another town. This one with a castle. We went for a stroll. It was very quiet, and the castle was sadly closed. But the sun was warm and wonderful.
At this point, we were ready to head for Evora. Upon pulling up to the place that the iPhone indicated as our hotel, we had a moment of confusion. A nice man in a suit came out and began helping us. We don’t normally stay in places where nice men in suits come out to help you. Turns out, we’re staying at a very fancy converted monastery. It’s got gorgeous terraces and colonnades, a swimming pool, and endless corridors.
First stop after checking in was the Bone Chapel, built to remind us of our own mortality. Sufficiently mortalized, we followed Rick’s walking tour of Evora to get our bearings. Evora is very reminiscent of Lucca in Italy, for good reason. Both are ancient walled cities, with strong Roman roots, and plenty of remaining Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance architecture.
After the tour and a bit of a rest, it was time for dinner at Tipica Quarta-Feira. It’s a restaurant without a menu. It costs €25 per person and they’ll bring you what they want to bring you. It was fantastic. Perhaps the best meal of the trip. From the mushroom caps and roasted cheese to the Alentejo pork roast and dessert, we gorged on everything. The service was fantastic, and they filled Kat’s glass of Ginjinha more than a couple times. It’s a tiny place, and apparently a hit with the locals. A family was there celebrating a birthday, and after singing, the restaurant presented the child with a tiered tree of Kinder-suprise eggs. I was a bit jealous.
Now, we’re at home, suffering through the aftermath of our porkathon. So much pork.
Today dawned with a simple mission in mind: pastries.
Err, pastries and history. I mean, mostly history. Barely any pastries at all.
We caught the tram to Belem, a historic suburb of Lisbon that wasn’t destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. Belem is home to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (a monastery), as well as the Belem Tower. It’s also home to the more recent Monument to the Discoveries.
But nevermind all of that, first we needed The Best Pastel De Nata in Lisbon, which is to be found in Belem, though not at the place that made the pastel de nata famous. Instead, it is (supposedly) a nondescript cafe down the street. While we have not (yet) sampled every pastel de nata in Lisbon, we can say these were mighty fine.
Suitably fueled (we may have gone back for a second round …) we visited the monastery and marveled at the dramatic architecture. The monastery was built (well, rebuilt) to celebrate Portugal’s newfound wealth and power in the Age of Discovery, and the themes of the discoveries are present throughout. The ceiling is an intricate web of carved stone ropes, and faces from all of the Portugese colonies pop out of the walls. Vasco de Gama’s tomb is there as well.
The cloister, next to the church, is a bright and beautiful space. We were lucky enough to stumble upon a play being put on for a bunch of students, using a really clever form of staging. The actors were standing on short step ladders, within the crowd, moving around and interacting with the viewers. Though it was in Portuguese, it was still very compelling.
After the monastery, we wandered along the waterfront, taking in the Monument of the Discoveries and the Belem Tower.
Having had enough Manueline architecture, we caught the tram back to Lisbon. We got off right in front of the Ribeira Market, which as of last year became the Time Out Market. While it still has a handful of traditional vendors selling fruits and vegetables, this place is mostly hipster central. The food was absolutely fantastic. Arranged around the hall, you’ll find small stands (many outposts of fancy restaurants in town) selling a handful of dishes. Kat had a pork cheek with creamed potatoes and cabbage, and Colin had a sandwich of the very-porky variety. The sandwich, it should be noted, was on a menu that also included “the yuppie” and “the punk.” This is a place we could happily return to many times.
After lunch, it was time for our main course of history. We decided to do all three of Rick Steves’ walking tours of Lisbon, back to back. These took us through all of the historic neighborhoods of town – The Barrio Alto, the Baxia, and the Alfama. Rick’s tours keep you moving, and well snacked. Even though we’d been in some of these areas the last couple days, it was great to have the added coherence of the guidebook. It was winding and fascinating and was a nice way to wrap up our time in town.
For dinner, we had an amazing meal of Portuguese Tapas (are they still tapas when served by hipsters? when do they become ‘small plates’?) at a place right around the corner from our apartment. The conceit was that every item on the menu was smoked in some way. Hipsters win the day, and once again, the two of us ate very, very well for under $40.
Tomorrow it’s off to get lost (hopefully not too lost, just fun-lost) in the countryside!
Yeah, that’s right, I put Roger Moore below Connery and Craig. But we’ll get there. First, travel! This is a two-for-one post, because yesterday we were too sleepy for blogging.
We had an easy travel day, leaving Minneapolis in the evening and arriving in Amsterdam in the morning. A three hour flight got us to Lisbon, and a cheap cab ride got us to our AirBnB. We’re staying just outside the “Barrio Alto” neighborhood.
After a shower and a change of clothes, we hit the town – the best way to fight jetlag. We walked to the waterfront, and then strolled east. They have a copy of the Golden Gate bridge here (no, really), which you notice right about the time you’re saying “boy, this city is a lot like San Francisco without all the feces.”
The waterfront was packed with people just hanging out. “Just hanging out,” is the sort of thing Europeans tend to do very well. We, being not-Europeans, hung out for a little bit, then got restless and kept walking. We wound our way through, and up, the city, into the Alfma area, where we got a cheese-and-meat snack.
Lisbon is gorgeous and fun, and very different from other European cities. It’s compact, relatively quiet, and very friendly. There is a notable mish-mash of antique tiles and graffiti adorning every surface. The streets in the historic portions of town are narrow and winding and make for an adventure in getting lost.
After our snack, we made our way to dinner, at a fish restaurant near the train station. It was excellent, though we were starting to fade a little bit by that point.
Monday morning, we took the train out to Sintra, an easy 40 minute ride from Lisbon. Most sites in Lisbon are closed on Monday, so a trip to Sintra made a lot of sense.
Sintra is an odd place. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is the type of many-layered place that you can’t find in the States. It’s been, variously, home to Moors, Monks, Kings and Tourists.
Our first mission was some “queijada” pastries – little cheese tarts that Sintra is famous for. They were quite delightful, though think more “cheesecake” than “cheese.”
Fueled up, we embarked on the hike up to the Moorish Castle. Actually, make that the “Moorish Castle.” While there was indeed a Moorish castle here, the present-day ruins were recreated by King Ferdinand II. You’re given free-reign, and just get to wander around, climbing where you wish. It’s gorgeous, with views out to the Atlantic.
After Castle-ing about for a while, it was on to Disneyland. But first, a brief stop so Colin could register for classes for the Summer, as the registration window opened at 1:00 pm.
Right, now, on to Disneyland!
The Pena Palace is an odd place. You can read the Wikipedia article to understand just how Disney-esq it is (or just how Pena-Palace-esq Disney is). Definitely odd. But good odd, not like weird wooden carvings of babies odd. The king who built the palace was indeed a relative of the king who built the castle that inspired Disney. The exterior and interior are equally mesmerizing and honestly don’t look a thing like any other palace either of us has visited. It was a baffling turn into every room.
It’s a very large site, with the opportunity to wander as you wish. A large park surrounds the palace and is covered in winding paths. We climbed to the highest point, the Cruz Alta, for a view of the fog rolling in from the Atlantic.
Some of our favorite parts of the grounds were the fern garden and the duck houses. The ducks have some seriously nice houses. Duck palaces maybe.
By now, it was time to head back to Sintra, and back to Lisbon. We took a “short cut,” which turned out to be a bit more of a “slightly creepy alley with high walls on either side and oh crap now it’s filling with water” cut. No pictures of this one, because, you know, wet. We did have a delightful meal in Sintra where we enjoyed the Portuguese version of tapas.
So far, we’ve managed to try a few kinds of fish, including bacalhau, the national favorite dried-salted-cod. Portuguese food is simple and hearty, and we’re quite happy. The Portuguese people have all been friendly, and tolerant of our faltering attempts to speak Portuguese.
Tomorrow our plan is to explore the neighborhoods of Lisbon and enjoy the history of the city. Also pastries, but more on that tomorrow.
We’d like to get off.
After a genuinely bad run of weeks, we’ve made it to March 7th and our long awaited trip to Portugal. In fact, I write this while flying somewhere over the Atlantic, on a plane equipped with heretofore unheard of international in-flight wifi.
First off, why Portugal? Quite simply because we haven’t. Knowing we wanted to get to Europe this year, we started talking about places we haven’t been. Portugal rose to the top of the list for being easy and affordable. Recent visits by friends confirmed that it was a good idea.
The plan is to head to Lisbon for a couple days, then rent a car and head out to Evora, a city inland in the high plains. From there, we’ll head north, and meander our way to Coimbra, a historic University town. Then it’s back to Lisbon and home. We’ll try to see a lot of the country in a week, without trying to keep a crazy schedule. We’re both in need of some carefree wandering.