This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sintra, Obidos and Nazare

Adio Lisboa.  So much more to explore here and sadly not nearly enough time. The small hill town of Sintra was first on our list of places to visit today.

We instantly fell in love, as we have so many of the Portuguese cities and villages we have visited. Sintra boasts both a Moorish and a Portuguese castle each sitting on separate hilltops. Due to lack of time we visited neither, but due to it being off season we were able to stop and photograph them.

We also spent a couple of hours just wandering through the old town below the castles, meandering the narrow streets and taking photos from towering, romantic vistas of the surrounding countryside. In one of these streets we came upon a small patisserie full of locals. We ordered our now customary cafe con leche along with a few small but attractive pastries. This place looked so perfect you'd think you were in sort of Portuguese Disneyland. The warm and friendly staff served a wonderfully thick, rich cup of coffee blended with the hot, scalded milk that swirled within the cup. Can we even get coffee that tastes this good in America or is the combination of the coffee with the romantic and exotic location?
We finished our stroll through the little town and headed next to Obidos another perfect little village nestled within the ancient walls that surround it. Like so many other cities we have visited, it has suffered for thousand years from one invader after another. First the Celts in the 300's, followed by the Romans, the Visigiths and the Moors.

The wall is 45 feet tall and the steps up to it step and uneven and when you get to the top, beware. There are many places where the inside edge of the wall is a sheer unprotected drop. We managed it and we're rewarded by fabulous views from above the city inside the walls and out across the rolling hills that lie outside them.

Two main narrow streets wind through the town, the upper and lower. They both start near the main gate in the wall. Inside the gate entry way, high up on the wall is a beautiful tile mural made in the local blue colored tiles. Below it sat a lovely old woman patiently sat made her embroidered towels and other hand sewn things for the home. We meant to buy one of her dish towels, only 10, but when we left she was no longer there.

Inside Obidos is mostly shops, a few small hotels, a couple of churches (which were closed) and the castle, at least part of which is a Pousada.

A couple of hours in Obidos seemed about right and we headed back to the car for the drive to our final destination today--Nazare. On our way out of town we stopped to take a couple of photos of the Obidos aqueduct built in the 16th century.

Nazare is a beach town and crazy with sun worshipers in the summer months. But this time of year you practically have the place to yourself.  That has its old and bad sides. It is often cold and windy, especially after the sun goes down. Because the weather is so often on the chilly side tourists stay away and consequently many of the restaurants and businesses are either closed or have limited hours. Because of this problem we wound up having dinner at Mr. Pizza instead of a nicer place we had hoped to try.

Nazare is also a lower and an upper city, Sitio, connected by a funicular that rides up and down the sheer cliff giving riders stunning vistas of the lower city and the mile long beach.

We got checked into our hotel and headed out to the funicular. Our hotel choices provide one of the upsides to travel this time of year.  Prices are much lower and there is always room in the inn. We were able to stay in nicer hotels as a result of the off season prices and many of them were half empty.

At 5:30 the church bells began to peel and remained ringing for at least a half hour. The procession pulled together and began to march into the square and then into the street. Hundreds lined the streets and as the elements of the processional slowly walked by, they joined the ranks until there were well over a thousand marching through the street with purple Lenten banners, silver lanterns held high, floats held up by the faithful carrying the cross on one, a statue of Christ on another and a mysterious black draped coffin-shaped object on the third. All were decorated with flowers. VIP's walked under a canopy and bringing up the rear of the procession was a band made up of locals from 8 to 80, all dressed in band uniforms. Those lining the sidewalks fell in behind the band as they played their solemn music.
It was another of those reasons one travels. A serendipitous moment when you come upon something that feels as though it has happened for a thousand years and you momentarily become a member of a community. Amazing!

We were freezing up there in that hilltop village and as the procession marched by the lane leading up to the funicular, we split off and headed back onward the hotel. After warming up for a while we steeped across the street for that dinner at Mr. Pizza. By 9:30  we were asleep. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Highlights of Lisbon

Up and out early today. We had three walking tours to take that would take us through some of the highlights of Lisbon.

There is a Metro underground station right out the front door of our hotel. We bought all day transportation passes for 5 that allowed us to use the Metro, the buses, the trolleys and the funicular that takes you up to the Barrio Alta (upper city). It is a real deal and the transportation system here is one of the best I have seen in any city in the world.

Sao Roque Church ceiling
We subwayed three stops to the funicular, a cute, very old trolley car that takes you up a short, but very steep street to the Barrio Alta. at the top we walked over to the Sao Roque church. It is a stunningly restored church with a ceiling painting as beautiful as any I have ever seen. Several of the side chapels are also must sees, especially the next to last on the left with Christ on the cross but surrounded by dozens of the cutest little cherubs you ever saw.

Down the street we came upon a little patisserie that we stopped in for a bite of breakfast. We ordered to cafe de leche and two lovely baked items. But the highlight was the people watching. This was a true neighborhood cafe and the folks lingering over their morning cappuccino and roll possessed some of the most wonderful faces you'd can imagine. I wish i could have photographed some of those sun burned and lined faces from years of sun and hard work.

Off we went until we found the trolley line we thought we wanted to take. We saw a lot of the city but suddenly the trolley came to a halt and the driver told everyone they had to get off. He left the trolley and walked towards a cemetery  across the street and disappeared leaving all the passengers wondering what happened. We all milled around getting to know each other a bit and after about 15 minutes, the driver suddenly reappeared and after we all reboarded, without a word, he continued on his route.

Eventually we figured out where we needed to be and that was in the opposite direction we had gone. So we made the decision to take another trolley and head for Belem district, about a 30 minute ride out on the edge of Lisbon.

Here we explored the beautiful Monastery of Jeronimo cloisters and church. The famous explorer, Vasco da Gama's tomb is inside this church. He is paid tribute in part of the designs in the I interior. Knots are carved into the stone pillars as well as symbols of the nautical life. Even artichokes are carved as a reminder of the effect they had on sailors suffering from vitamin C deficiency.

Down the street but also within the old Monastery it the National Maritime Museum. It houses a wonderful collection of antique nautical instruments, period uniforms, ship models and even some old boats. I was most impressed with the old navigation instruments. Other than that it was a rather disappointing collection.

Beginning to feel a bit peckish, we headed for a place we had picked out ahead of time for lunch. The Restaurante Os Jeronimo was described to us a great place for fish and we wanted to try it out. Despite being crowded we got seated within about 20 minutes and the very friendly and helpful staff helped us order just the right items. We'd read that we should allow the wait staff to make recommendations and follow them. We ordered a beer each and the waiter suggested an order of clams to start.  They were amazing! Fresh, steamed perfectly and dripping in a garlic, cilantro and butter sauce, they just melted in our mouths.
Our mains were great as well. I had a seafood dish which was supposed to be thickened with bread. Hard to describe but it came out with a raw egg yolk in the middle which the waiter folded into the mushy dish making it turn a bright yellow. It was like a risotto with shrimp but not.

Leslie got a fish we never did get identified but it was a whole, mild white fish that had been charbroiled and was surrounded on the plate by a small salad and boiled potatoes. It was just a lovely lunch and we topped it off with our second cafe de leche of the day.

Out the door, we caught another trolley heading back more toward the center of Lisbon and another that took us up near the top of the Alfama neighborhood. We got off and began a slow and steady climb up the hill toward the castelo, peaking down narrow side streets, into shops selling the famous Portuguese tiles and ceramic statuary and stopping to gaze out across the city below at vistas along the way. Street artists were here and there painting Lisbon scenes and selling their work.

We decided to walk back down the hill instead of taking the trolley which turned out to be serendipitous as we found even lovelier shops and eventually an artist who was selling art that we had to have.

In a small shop we spoke with a very nice proprietor who allowed us to listen to several tracks from a CD of Fado music. If we bought only one Fado CD, this is the one to get he insisted. It included several songs sung by the reputed best Fado singer of all time, Amalia Rodrigues. We have been listening to it as we drive through the countryside. Talk about mood music!

Further on down the hill we came across the artist whose art we purchased.

Finally, at the bottom of the hill we re-entered the Baixa neighborhood where we wandered through a more upscale shopping street with cafes and on to a Metro station. Three stops later we were back at our hotel. What a day!