Lisbon

The D&O Diary continued its European sojourn with a visit last week to the sun-drenched and, even though it was still just April, summerlike, country of Portugal. I have to say that writing this blog post about our visit to Portugal was as much fun as I have ever had in writing for this site. Portugal, my friends, is a wonderful place, as I believe the pictures below will show.

I have been to Portugal before, but in my prior visits, I never made it beyond Lisbon and its immediately surrounding areas. On this trip, we travelled to a number of other parts of the country, experiencing Portugal in all of its marvelous splendor. I posted a number of pictures of Lisbon itself below, but before getting to that, I first wanted to introduce some other Portuguese sites that may be less familiar to many readers.

The first place we visited outside Lisbon was the historic city of Évora, the capital of the Alentejo, a region about two hours southeast of Lisbon. Évora has an ancient history and heritage. It can boast of both Roman ruins and medieval city walls, but its historical legacy goes back much further than that. As reflected below, in the countryside outside the city, there are standing stones that date back to the neolithic period.

Because of its many treasures, Évora is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. One of its great sites is its Roman Temple, built in the First Century A.D. in honor of the Emperor Augustus.
Evora’s Roman Temple is on a hilltop in the city’s center. Narrow atmospheric streets lead down the hill to the central business district. We had lunch on a shady patio on a side street off of one of the downhill alleys.

The Praça do Giraldo is Evora’s central square, a beautiful plaza named in honor of Geraldo Geraldes (Gerald the Fearless), the Portuguese folk hero credited with ejecting the Moors from the city in 1167. The square is dominated by the Igreja de Santo Antão and its ornate Henriquina fountain.
Évora is beautiful and interesting, but on the spectacularly sunny day we visited, we enjoyed the visit to the countryside outside of the city even more. There in the Alentejo fields are several collections of megaliths, silent witnesses to a much earlier time in the region’s history. Scientists believe the stones had both ritualistic and astronomical significance. Interestingly, the Évora megaliths are built on the exact same longitude as Stonehenge, although the ones in Évora are much, much older — perhaps as much as 2,000 years older.
Later in the summer, the Alentejo countryside will be sun-baked and brown, but we were fortunate that the week before our arrival the area had been soaked by heavy rains, so during our visit the fields were lush, green, and covered with wildflowers, including, as show in this picture, with gum rockroses.

A close-up with a megalith. It isn’t clearly shown in the picture, but this stone was covered with as yet undeciphered markings. The trees behind are cork oaks.

From Évora, we headed South toward Portugal’s southernmost province, the Algarve. We stayed in Salema, a small ocean-side village in the country’s extreme southwest. Although it is now mostly tourist-oriented, the little town is still a working fishing village as well. The sand-covered beach is just beautiful.

The beautiful sandy ocean beach at Salema. Even though we visited during the month of April, we enjoyed summerlike condition — but without the summertime crowds. The beach was quiet, peaceful, and just plain wonderful.
One of Salema’s permanent residents.
The eastern end of the Salema beach ends in some rocky cliffs. As the pictures below reflect, there are cliffs all along the Algarve coastline, we well as sandy beaches.

Our primary objective in visiting the Algarve was to take a boat tour of the Benagil Cave, one of the many grottos carved into the ocean-side cliffs along the Algarve coast. The only way to see in the inside of the cave is to visit by boat. We hired a tour boat in the Southeastern city of Sagres to take us to the cave. We were fortunate that on the day of our visit the skies were clear and sunny and the ocean was calm.

A fishing boat in the Sagres harbor.
Inside the Benagil cave. The opening on the top allows the sunlight to illuminate the inner grotto. Here’s a tip for anyone planning to visit Benagil — take a kayak tour, rather than a motor boat tour. The kayaks are allowed to land on the beach inside the cave, but we could not from our motor boat. I should add that there was a lot of boat traffic the day we visited; I can’t imagine what it is like in the peak of the summer season. I will say that the cave itself is spectacularly beautiful.
On our way from Sagres to the cave, we were fortunate to be accompanied at various points by groups of dolphins. It is very challenging to try to photograph swimming dolphins from a moving boat, so I am very happy to have captured this picture.
The coastline is actually honeycombed with caves, and we spent the afternoon cruising in and out of the caverns. Absolutely beautiful.
I mentioned that Salema is still a fishing village. The evening after our cave tour, we enjoyed this fresh snapper, essentially right off the fishing boat and onto our dinner table. The fish was fileted and grilled. Absolutely fantastic.

The next morning we were up early for the long drive to Portugal’s second city, Porto. located along the Douro River estuary in Northern Portugal. Porto is a big city — its urban area population is over 1.2 million. The city’s historic center has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city center is also the home of the area’s famous port wine industry.

Porto’s historic city center, along the Douro river. My photos really don’t do the city justice; it is a remarkably photogenic place.
One of the many atmospheric streets along the steep hillside in the city’s historic district. A great albeit challenging place to walk around.
A view of the river’s south side from Porto, the Vila Nova de Gaia, the area where all of the port warehouses are located. It was a warm, pleasant summerlike evening, and the many sidewalk cafes on both sides of the river were fully of happy people drinking sangria and beer. I suspect the comparable area in heaven in modeled on Porto.

Our primary purpose in visiting Porto was to tour the Douro Valley wine region. We took a van tour from Porto to the Valley, which is about an hour and a half drive away. Our expectations were high; the Valley far exceeded our expectations.

The first thing you need to know about the Douro Valley is that it is breathtakingly beautiful. The Valley is in fact a designated UNESCO World Heritage site — yes, the entire valley is a World Heritage Site, so designated as the world’s oldest demarcated wine-growing region. I took this picture from just along the roadway on our way into the Valley.
This is a picture taken from the tour boat, on the Douro River itself. The terraced hillsides are so amazing. The terraces are covered with vineyards and surrounded by olive trees. I have been to many wine regions around the world, from Australia to Austria, and from Bordeaux to Napa. I have to say, the Douro River valley may be the most impressively beautiful I have ever visited. The wines are fabulous too.
Another view of the terraced hillside, with olive tress down to the water.
This is the view from the winery restaurant where we had lunch. It was a wonderful meal, possibly the high point of the entire visit.
For lunch at the winery, I enjoyed some bacalhau (salted cod), It was served with boiled egg, on a bed of spinach and potatoes. I asked the waiter what the dish was called, and he just shrugged and said, I don’t know, that is just the way my Mom makes bacalhau. It was splendid. After lunch, I went back in the kitchen to thank Mom for the cod. I was so involved in thanking her that I neglected to get a picture of her.

PICTURES OF LISBON

We began our visit to Portugal with a brief visit to Lisbon, a place I have previously visited and fallen in love with. Here are some pictures of the Lisbon sites.

The Torre de Belém is possibly Lisbon’s most well-known landmark. Belém is about a 30-minute tram ride from the historic city center; it was the port of embarkment for many of the voyages of discovery.
Near the Tower along the river in Belém is the Jerónimos Monastery, a magnificent building built in the so-called Manueline late-Gothic architectural style. It is an absolutely beautiful place.
As reflected in the picture of the top of the post, one of Lisbon’s most distinctive and visible features is the Castelo de São Jorge, a Moorish era structure built on remains from much earlier fortifications on the site. (The oldest remains date back to the 6th century BC). The views from the castle’s gardens are really spectacular.
A view to the East from the castle walls.
A view of the Praça do Comércio from the castle walls.
Here’s a view of the Praça do Comércio looking back to the castle. The plaza is the former site of the royal palace, which was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The current beautiful spacious plaza was built in its place.
Here’s an interior shot of the famous Café A Brasileira, in the city’s Chiado district. The ornate coffee shop was once famous for serving Brazilian coffee (then a novelty) and as a gathering place for artists and intellectuals. The coffee is still excellent. I recommend a visit for anyone visiting Lisbon, particularly first-time visitors.
Just down the street from the coffee shop is the Livaria Bertrand, established in 1732 and the oldest bookstore still in operation. It is also an excellent bookstore as well; we spent a pleasant morning browsing the collection.
One of Portugal’s great cultural traditions is its heritage of fado music, characterized by its expressive lyrics and mournful tunes. We were fortunate on this visit to return to O Faia, a nightclub with excellent food and excellent fado music. I recommend the club for anyone but particularly for first time visitors unfamiliar with fado music. For pictures of the club’s interior, refer here.

PICTURES OF SINTRA

During our Lisbon visit, we took a day trip to the nearby Sintra region, a mountainous area with several Portuguese royal palaces and deep beautiful gardens and woods. Yes, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sintra’s most famous sight is the Pena Palace, a 19th century romantic era castle built on the site of a former monastery. From the castle’s battlements, Lisbon and the ocean can be seen. The views on the clear day we visited were extraordinary.
Another view of the Pena Palace.
One of the great sites that can be viewed from the walls of the Pena Palace is the Castelo dos Mouros, the ruins of fortifications the Moors built in Sintra in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Portuguese captured the castle in the 12th century. The castle was significantly damaged in the 1755 earthquake.
Along the Atlantic coast near Sintra is Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Continental Europe.