Portugal and Spain – October 2016

I have decided to break the chronological recount of my travels and talk about my latest trip, while everything is fresher in my memory. So here are my impressions of the five cities (and some of the environs) I visited in Portugal and Spain last October.

LISBOA (LISBON)

To get to the Portuguese capital from Carrboro, my friend Karen and I, took an American Airlines flight from RDU (Raleigh-Durham Airport) to New York City’s JFK and then a Portuguese Airline aircraft to Lisbon. Between the time to get to and from the airports, the layover in JFK, and the actual flying time, it took us almost 18 hours to arrive to our B&B destination (Zuza Bed & Breakfast), around lunch time on October 2nd. So, we were a bit tired and didn’t do much that afternoon. However, we walked some to become familiarized with the area and found out it was called Bairro Alto. We also found out it that it was pretty hilly, but during the next few days of our stay we discovered that Lisbon is hilly all over. Many streets are just wide stairs that connect other streets, which are at different levels.

This hilly configuration helps to make Lisbon a city which can be seen in vast panoramic views. On our second day we joined 6 other tourists in a tour organized by a company called We Hate Tourism Tours, which claimed that they would take us to places that tourists usually don’t see. Mostly this was true. We were taken to an underground exhibition of street art, then we crossed the 25 of April Bridge (a smaller version of the Golden Bridge in San Francisco) to the other side of the Tagus, and we stopped at the monumental statue of Cristo Rey (Christ the King), with fantastic vistas of Lisbon across the river.

25 de Abril bridge over the river Tagus
25 de Abril bridge over the river Tagus

We crossed the bridge back and wandered for a while around the Parque Das Naçoes, also called Expo Park, a relative new and very current development on the river front, build on the former grounds of the 1988 Expo Fair, at the foot of the very modern Vasco da Gama Bridge. Then, back to the more traditional Lisbon were we stopped at a “hole in the wall” and had a “bifana” or marinated pork slices in a bun, which in Portugal is as popular as the hamburger in America. I was not impressed, I had better barbecued pork sandwiches in NC.

We ended our tour that day with a stop on the Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of the Mount) viewpoint, which is the highest point in the city and offers an extensive view over the city, and in particular over the Saint George Castle. In our return to the downtown area, at the Praça Luis de Camoes, (Luis de Camoes Square) our guide bought and shared with the group another Portuguese gastronomic delight, “pasteis de nata” (custard tarts). There were delicious, but very sweet and I needed something to wash down the desert, so we sat outside the Brasilera Caffe, and had an excellent espresso. We also took the opportunity to watch, leisurely, the throngs of sightseers that walked around us. In my many years of traveling I don’t remember seeing so many tourists visiting a city like in Lisbon, during those days I stayed there.

Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square)
Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square)

The next day was Tuesday and we walked around the city on our own. We went thru Baixa (Downtown) to the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) at the edge of the Tagus estuary. The vast square – the largest in Portugal – is flanked on three sides by governmental edifices, build after the 1775 earthquake that destroyed a large part of Lisbon. The most impressive of the constructions surrounding the square is the Arco do Rua Augusta (Augusta’s Street Arch) and there is also, in the middle of the square, a magnificent statue of King Jose I, who ruled Portugal during the reconstruction of Lisbon.

We visited the Sé (cathedral) and eat lunch on the sidewalk of the oldest restaurant in Lisbon, Martinho da Arcada, founded in 1792, were a nice young lady from Oregon, gave us a tip about the cheap taxi services in Lisbon. Heeding her advice we took a cab to St. George Castle, which is a Moorish castle – mostly in ruins – occupying a commanding hilltop overlooking the historic center of Lisbon and the Tagus River.

After returning to our accommodations and resting a while, we went back to Praça Luis de Camoes, where with another group of tourists we were taken by a peripatetic guide, Marcos, (from “We hate Tours Tours”) to a neighborhood restaurant, were we had a taste of some typical Portuguese dishes and all the “vino verdhe” (green wine) we could drink. For desert we were taken to Belen, a picturesque district to the west of Lisbon, where our tour guide bought another box of “pasteis de nata”, which again we ate outside, in front of the river, by the famous Belen tower. Then we continued walking and stopped at a monument in honor of all Portuguese army personnel who died in foreign wars in the last century or so, and then at an ultramodern building that houses the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, a state of the art cancer research center. We did stop one last time at the Palacio Nacional de Ajuda, the 19th-century residence of the royal family, now a museum of decorative arts, in front of which the guide poured some cheap port wine in paper cups and we all drank to the health and good fortune of each other.

Sintra's City Hall
Sintra’s City Hall

Our last full day in Lisbon was actually spend outside of the city. We joined another group of tourists to visit the town of Sintra, about 18 miles west of Lisbon. Sintra is a picturesque town that is set amidst the pine covered hills of the Serra de Sintra. This slightly cooler climate enticed the nobility and elite of Portugal, who constructed exquisite palaces, extravagant residences and decorative gardens, since back in medieval times. There are many fascinating historic buildings and beautiful scenery, however we were not able to enjoy much of it, as Karen had had an accident the previous day hurting her knee and thus, although she tried to soldier along, we weren’t able to do much walking and sightseeing. However, we enjoyed a coffee and pastries in the center of town, and then visited the Quinta da Regaleira, a romantic palace, chapel and other constructions, build in the early 20th century, surrounded by a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of sculptures.

In the afternoon we continued our tour that included stops at the most western point in Europe, Cabo de Roca (Cape Roca) and at the elegant beach of Cascais. On our return to Lisbon, we had dinner in a satisfying neighborhood restaurant (Faca & Garfo) and did our packing for the next leg of our trip.

PORTO (PORT)

The next day we got up early, had breakfast and got to the Apolonia Train station with plenty of time. We had a pleasant trip and arrived in Porto’s Campanha station around noon time. Then to a charming Bed and Breakfast (Porto Vintage Guesthouse). Our room was on the third floor, which meant carrying our luggage up two long flight of stairs. Our room was beautifully appointed and bright. We asked our hostess for a place to have lunch and she recommended Braceos, a casual restaurant  a few blocks downhill. We had a good lunch, but then we had to walk up hill three blocks and then two flights to our room. The beds were very comfortable and we had a long rest.

After the rest we were ready again for some food. We were looking for a Tapas (Peniscos in Portuguese) restaurant, but our first choice was fully booked. Thus, we ended in local place and joined some locals in a large table. (No tourists.) Good food and good time, but then we had to walk about half mile uphill again. Portugal cities don’t seem to be too friendly to seniors….

Next morning we had book a tour of the city with Living Tours and were picked up by a tour guide that spoke English and Spanish. The group was almost evenly divided by speakers of both languages. We stopped at center of town, then at the Se (Cathedral), where we had a great view of the city. We made another stop at the Sao Bento train station, where the walls of the grand main hall are covered with beautiful tiles, depicting the history of transportation in Portugal.

Traditional houses in Porto
Traditional houses in Porto

Afterwards, we crossed the Douro River to Gaia’s section of the city, where all the port warehouses do their business. We stopped and toured the Graham Winery, had a taste of several decent ports and enjoyed another view of the river and the city from the gardens. But, there Karen had another accident getting into the van and injured her left leg, around the shin. Still, she tried her best to continue without complaining a lot.

Before ending our tour we stopped at the Livraria Lello, a beautifully decorated book store, said to have inspired J.K. Rowlings for the description of the Library in Hogarts, in the Harry Potter’s saga.

We got back to our accommodations and did very little the rest of the day, except going out for dinner and prepare our bags. Next morning we were on our way again, this time by bus. Our next destination: Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

We had a pleasant trip to Santiago de Compostela. The bus was very comfortable and the highways were very even. There were no border checkpoints and I only found out that we were in Spain, because the road signs were in Spanish. We arrived to our hotel (Hotel Virxe da Cerca) late in the afternoon and were hungry. However, we couldn’t find any restaurant that would start serving dinner before 8 pm. So, we had to content ourselves with some sandwiches and a glass of refreshing beer, in one of the many bars that dotted the old town area.

Next morning, Karen’s was hurting and in pain, so we decided to go to a hospital to have her leg checked out. The hospital is a public one and even as she doesn’t have proper insurance, they take her in and don’t charge her for the visit and the X-rays. There is no fracture, but the doctor recommends rest. So we return to the hotel and Karen does that.

Cathedral
Interior of Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral.

I go out for a walk through the Old Town and a visit to the famous cathedral and the end of the “Camino de Santiago”, a route that has brought hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that came from all Europe to this city since the 9th century to pray at the alleged tomb of St. James the Greater, one of Christ apostles. The current cathedral was started in the 11th century, but had additions through the ages, so the original Romanesque architecture, now is embellished by Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical details. I wanted to see the Pórtico de la Gloria, (Portico of the Glory) which is considered a jewel of medieval sculpture, but was sadly disappointed, as the Portico is being restored and was covered by scaffolding. I was also somehow saddened by the display of richness and the luxury of the interior of the church. So much gold and silver used to venerate a humble fisherman that had followed in the steps of a humble carpenter whose message was to bring hope to the poor and downtrodden…

Monday: Karen feels better and we embark in a tour, with Discover Galicia Tours, of the Galician countryside and coast. While the van rolls through the countryside I notice that most of the houses have small vineyards around the perimeter of their lots. These Galicians seem to like wine… And, in one stop of our tour I can appreciate the taste and quality of their emblematic grape: the Albariño. That stop was at one of the many small vineyards that produce wine made with these grapes and where we were served samples of wines made with them. Nice!

Church in Toja
Church in Toja with walls covered with scallop shells.

Our next stop was the Island of Toxa, where the main attraction is a chapel with outside walls totally covered with scallop shells.  Then to a cruise along the “Rías Baixas” (lower estuary) with an on board lunch of shrimp, mussels and more Albariño wine, as well as festive Latin music. A really enjoyable trip.

On the afternoon we continued our trip with stops in a small fishing village at the estuary of Pontevedra, called Combarro and at the Barrosa Natural Park.

SAN SEBASTIAN

View of San Sebastian
A view of San Sebastian from La Concha beach.

On the next day, Tuesday, we take an 11-hour train trip to San Sebastian. We arrive late in the day and are very tired. Karen stays in the hotel (Tryp San Sebastian Orly Hotel) and I go out to get some food, which I bring back. Next day, as we walk towards a Laundromat, (to do some needed laundry) I’m impressed by the tree lined clean streets, manicured parks and mostly art deco architecture and I lament not having allotted more time to visit the city. However, we had the opportunity to make a stop that morning at the beautiful La Concha beach, where people where still bathing and then in the afternoon we took a “hop on, hop off” bus tour that gave us an overview of the place.

San Sebastian is known for its culinary delights and has frequently made the top lists of the world’s places to eat and we had the chance to lunch in a bar that served the most delicious “pintxos” (tapas) that I remember eating. At dinner we had an excellent meal at Lanziego, a first class restaurant that was just around the corner of the hotel where we stayed.

BARCELONA

One more train trip waits next morning. We almost missed it, due to an error in my schedule, but thanks to an helpful station employee we are able to board the train, that would take us to Barcelona, just on the nick of time.

After a break on a flat San Sebastian, we find that the neighborhood where we rented our apartment is again hilly and we do have to walk a flight of stair to get to our apartment (rented through AirB&B). However, it is a sunny, spacious apartment and has all the needed amenities.

Karen’s leg continues to hurt, so we don’t do much that afternoon and next day we go first to a neighborhood clinic and then to the Sant Pau Hospital, (a very modern health facility) where an echo graph shows no danger of a clot forming. We go back to the apartment for more rest.

Casa Lleo Morera
Casa Lleó Morera – build by Architect Lluis Domenech – Early 1900’s

Next day, Karen feels better and we head to the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, the famous church designed and started by Antoni Gaudi in 1882, which is still under construction. We can’t get in, as tickets for the day have been all sold out. We take a hop in, hop out bus tour that lasts two hours. Afterwards we return to our point of departure in front of the Basilica and have lunch in one of the many outdoor cafes in the neighborhood. Then we walk along the Passeig de Gracia (Grace Promenade) and stop at another exceptional Gaudi apartment building: La Pedrera, and at the Manzana de la Discordia (Block of Discord), which

is noted for having buildings from the early years of the 20th century, build by four of Barcelona’s most important Modernista architects, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Enric Sagnier, in close proximity. As the four architects’ styles were very different, the buildings clash with each other and the neighboring buildings.

We took another hop in, hop out bus tour, which was disrupted, close to its end, by a demonstration. Being tired, we took a subway back to our apartment. It’s well to note that Barcelona has a very modern subway system that crisscrosses the city. The stations are well illuminated, with short waiting times that are displayed in electronic signs and the trains are very clean, and on time.

The following day I head to a cybercafé and buy tickets to the Sagrada Familia for next day. Then, we head downtown and visit the Picasso Museum. I feel a bit disappointed by the exhibitions that don’t (in my humble opinion) reflect the whole gamut of Picasso’s genius. After a good lunch in a nearby “tavern” we walk around the Ciudad Gótica (Old Gothic City). Stop for a rest, have an excellent coffee and a pastry, and head back to the apartment. We order pizza for dinner from a nearby Argentinian pizzeria.

Stained glass window
One of the beautiful stained glass windows at La Sagrada Familia

We start our sightseeing next day at the Plaza de Catalunya, the hub of the city, and walk on the quieter part of Las Ramblas, the famous boulevard that cuts through the heart of the city center and is a vibrant and lively promenade. Have lunch on one of the many outdoor cafes that dot the boulevard. By 2:30 pm we are at the doors of the Sagrada Familia. If the outside of the basilica is imposing the inside takes your breath away. The high (150 ft) neo-gothic ceilings, the sleek tall columns and the beautiful stained glass windows that illuminate and color the immense atrium left me almost speechless. I’m not a  a religious person, nevertheless I stayed in awe admiring what, for me, is an inspiring homage to the high nature of man’s spirit.

On our last day in Barcelona, we went back to Las Ramblas, but to the southern and most populous side. Besides outdoor cafes, the boulevard has flower stands galore, souvenir stalls, painters, living statutes and in the middle of all you’ll find the entrance to La Boquería, a large indoor public market, with dozens (perhaps over a hundred) of all kind of food stalls, where goods are artistically displayed and smells fill your senses. A unique experience.

Next morning we headed to the airport for our flight back to Lisbon and then to New York. And so, we ended our trip. The accidents and inconveniences we had, somehow put a tamper in my enjoyment of this trip and in the things that I had planned to do. However, it still was a good experience.


You can see more pictures in my Facebook page. Click the Facebook icon in this page (under FOLLOW US), then PHOTOS and select the ALBUMS marked October 2016.