Monday, February 16, 2009

Lisbon, Portugal - monuments, palaces and patterned pavements

Sunday 15 February

Our trip through to Lisbon was good - we got an early start and took our time. Across the bottom of Spain there is more of the high open plains that we have seen over the last few days. Road signage along the highway is excellent. There are route markers every km and every ten kms these bear the crest of Spain. Roads are all numbered and the kms to the end of that road are noted. Exits too are numbered (at the km they fall) - very easy to use! Then we cross the border into Portugal and straight away, the landform and scenery changes. It was uncanny how it changed right on the border. It was as though Spain had not wanted the very lumpy bumpy coastal lands that depict this part of Portugal. It is hilly, but not in a rolling grassy way, but rather bumpy mounds that reminds us of a MotoX track.

Just over the border from Spain, we pulled in for fuel and had a coffee and one of Portugal's national treasures - Pastéis de nata - Custard tarts - small rich eggy custard that sits delicately in the lightest flakiest layers of puff pastry - too good not to try. ;-)

Along with it, we have a freshly squeezed orange juice and when asked if they were local oranges we were proudly told yes - Portuguese oranges (heaven forbid - not Spanish oranges) ! We have also gained an hour as Lisbon is the same as GMT.

Lisbon is a coastal city on the delta of the Targus River. As we cross the Rio Grande and then drive over the Pont 25 Abril (bridge of 25 April) that was constructed in 1966 by the same company that constructed the San Francisco Golden Gate bridge, we get our first glimpse of a city that is spread across hills. We find our way to the Lisbon Central Park Hotel by following our Google directions - right near the end, it tells us to do a U-turn, but the road we are on does not allow this, in fact, we can't even make a left turn! We travel miles out of our way to turn across at an overpass and have to travel back - we will need to watch that carefully when we leave. We cross a huge square with a very impressive statue atop an even more impressive column.

The Lisboa Central Park Hotel is billed as a three star, but from the outside it looks very tired. Reception however is very nice and the receptionist ever so helpful. She is multilingual as we find many Portuguese people are and as we chat with her, she offers to upgrade our room - yay! Oh, a problem with the room she wanted to give us sees us even higher up and overlooking the Park Eduardo VII. We can park the car on the street literally right outside the door (and therefore the surveillance) of the receptionist on duty - for free!!! Looks like our luck has changed. But, the room, like the exterior of the establishment is very tired. Not that we are complaining - it is actually a unit with a dining/lounge room, small but well-equipped kitchenette, separate bathroom and separate bedroom. A little musty, but gee - for this amount of space we can forgive many things. Michael heads off for an afternoon walk and to find the tourism office.

Later tonight, we cross the square where we now know the statue commemorates the Marquês de Pombal who led the rebuilding of the City after the earthquake in the 1570s to catch the metro into the old city and find a restaurant for dinner. The city has an almost magical feel at night with most of the historic buildings lit from within or outside.

We settle on dinner at Cervejaria CONCHA D'OURO that specialises in seafood. There are tanks holding some of the biggest lobsters I have ever seen and fresh fish, prawns and a whole variety of other shellfish (some of which we can't even identify) in the front window beneath those ever present hanging hams. The charming Elduardo serves us conversing very comfortably in English with us after we faltering begin in Portuguese (ya gotta try guys!!) The food is fabulous and the service sublime. Their menu is extensive and we settle on some traditional food -
Creme de Camarão Sopa (Cream of Prawn Soup) both
Saute Mista de Marisco Português estilo em um tabuleiro de cobre (Saute of Mixed Shellfish Portuguese style in a copper pan) shared withus both wearing white linen bibs! It included lobster, crab, mussels, cockles, prawns, oysters etc etc etc - y-u-u-m
Maçã manter (Apple tart freshly made) both

I had a half carafe of the yummiest Sangria while Michael settled for the usual. Finished as per usual with espresso and we were happy! As was Elduardo! Sorry, the camera batteries were charging so there are no photos - maybe for the better!

This morning (Monday) we awaken to another beautiful day - you could easily be forgiven for forgetting it is still winter with a predicted 17 degrees for today. We have planned a day on the tour bus and seeing some of the many palaces and other monuments. Sadly, being a Monday, most of the tourist attractions are closed. But the Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) is open and there is still much to see, so off we set. We are lucky that the Tour Bus starts its journey at Plaza des Marquês de Pombal - just down the road a little from where we are staying. And those ubiquitos Gypsies are there again!

There are a surprising number of people on the bus - almost all speaking English. There are some Brits but by far and large the biggest nationality is American. We head into the old city down the broad boulevard Avenida da Liberdade (the Avenue of Liberty). The traffic is horrendous and I am glad we are not trying to drive down here. Drivers, particularly taxi drivers are very impatient and use the horn at every available opportunity. The pavements are all cobblestoned like in most of Europe - it makes it easy to pull them up if works need to be done we are told. The interesting thing here is that all of the pavements in the major areas are patterned - I can't imagine how hard it would haved been to lay the out initially - it would have been like following a giant patchwork or cross stitch pattern!

The architecture is beautiful here and in the back streets and, down facing the port in the area known as Belem we see the lovely pastel coloured dwellings that we are starting to recognise as very Mediterranean. It is nice to see that all the modern high rise (not that high) are kept away from the old city areas. One reason apart from maintaining the integrity of this area could be the logistics that would be involved in building in very steep streets where the grade at times is 3:1 or even 2:1!

Even though it would have been great to have seen Jeronimos Monastery, the National Coach Museum, the Palacio Natcional de Ajuda, Palacio Nacional de Queluz or any of the others, we have to be happy with the Castelo de São Jorge and remind ourselves that it is the low season here and we have to be in some place on a Monday which we have discovered is when most of the tourist places are closed at this time of the year.

We are not disappointed with the Castelo de São Jorge. After leaving our tour bus, we join a little local bus for the journey up to the Castle (Michael reckons the steep walk would have killed him, let alone me!!) You know that the driver is comfortable with the route which he must do a hundred times a day. He cuts corners where there is almost no space to do so and doesn't bother to slow down either going up (or later, down) a street that is about 8 inches wider than the bus on either side - no exaggeration.

The castle is on the highest point directly above the city and gives us the most amazing views. There has been a settlement on these hills since the 7th Cedntury BC and the Archeological Museum on the site has an incredible array of shards, coins and bones dating back to this ealiest time there as well as more recent historical items.

Michael takes a walk up on the ramparts - not for wooses as there are no guard rails and at times there is only 18 inches separating the wanderer and his Lord! He also gets some amazing more photos of Lisbon from on high.

Then it is back down into the City, a walk to the port area and consideration of a historic tourist tram ride (until we discover that it is €18 with no stops) and then back on the bus and around to two fascinating monuments - the Belem Tower a 16th Century architectural masterpiece that was part of a fort to defend the city, and the Discoveries Monument that was constructed in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, promoter of the discoveries (including Colombus' second voyage). They are both unique and very fascinating - alas, agin, we can only see them from the exterior - after all, it is Monday!!

Following this, we depart the bus at stop 1 and return to the hotel for an hour before we jead out for dinner again. This time, it is an Italian Restaurant that takes our fancy - the Valentino Restaurante. Popular with locals and tourists, it is a good choice:
One the table when we sat - beautiful bread rolls, pate of sardines, butter and olives. I had a Proseco to accompany them!
Caldo de tortellini (Tortellini in broth) Michael
Creme Ortolana (Cream of vegetable soup) Maria
Stracetti alla Romagnola - Bife da Vazia com Rucola e Parmesao, acompanhamento Tagliatelle d'Alba (Beef with Rockets and Parmesan accompanied by Tagliatelle in cream sauce) Michael
Saltimbocca alla Romana - Lombo de porco com presuito e salvia (Pork escallopes Roman style with proscuitto and basil) Maria
Forget it - we couldn't finish the mains! But coffee is obligatory.

Mmmm - the food just keeps on being great. Back to the hotel after a few night photos and plans for Salamanca tomorrow via Fatima and Coimra.

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