We moved hotels so that we could learn and explore another neighborhood of the city — Bairro Alto. We stayed at a boutique hotel on the top of Rue Garret in Chiado across from Praca Luis de Comões and called (appropriately) the Bairro Alto hotel. I would absolutely recommend this hotel. It is much smaller than our previous hotel, the rooms are nice, the service fantastic albeit with less staff, and the view from the small rooftop bar over Lisbon is one of a kind.
What I love about staying in one city for a while, even a few weeks, instead of hitting a few cities in a single trip is that you let go and allow the sights and sounds come to you rather than trying to seek them out. In most cases you find experiences that you would never have sought out. Such was the case on this trip.
It started with my innate and well tuned genius at geo-spatial reasoning. It’s a gift that sometimes makes it hard to fit in with groups of people deemed normal because they require things like maps, smart phones, or GPS systems with British sounding female voices guiding left and right turns. Its a lonely existence.
This special talent afforded me a confidant and acute sense of exactly which street to walk as we made our way to Avenida da Liberdade, the Lisbon equivalent of Champs Elysées.
We must walk west on Rua Loreto of course.
A few blocks into our walk we stopped in to Sea Me, a modern seafood restaurant and market that we heard was excellent. It was closed (we did end up there one night and it was fantastic) so we kept walking and as we were getting hungry and with the sun baring down on us we were starting to get a bit cranky. We went across the street to a tiny cafe called FlowerPower which it turns out is a real flower shop and of course offers belly dancing at night. True.
Sipping a glass of white wine outside and waiting for our meal, the handsome, Paris born, and cafe owner Carlos Felipe sits down uninvited at our table with a glass of wine and talks to us about his art which is displayed inside, his rental design business, and life in general. Through the conversation we learn two things.
First, we have been going the absolute wrong way for the last half hour completely lost.
Second, we must take the train tomorrow and see Sintra, a few hours away, as it is very beautiful and a must see.
After taking a tour of his art and with only a small chastising look from my travel partner we find our way and spend the day walking Lisbon.
That night we ate at Travessa that is in a refurbished convent. This is a fantastic restaurant, one of the best in Lisbon. I had the skate in black sauce, or Raie au Beurrer Noir, that is the best I think I have ever had in any restaurant and Kathi had the scallops, or Vieiras in Portuguese.
The next morning we breakfast and head to the 19th century Rossio Railway Station at the bottom of Avenida da Liberdade near the Praca Dom Pedro IV on Rossio square to take a romantic train ride through the countryside of Portugal to do a day trip in Sintra.
The romance started immediately at the ticket counter which seemed to me very similar to getting a new car registration at the DMV. I had read about a 6€ public transportation pass that allows you a ride on any bus, train, or trolley in Lisbon that day.
“May I have a Lisbon day pass, please?”
It’s sometimes amazing how quickly a friendship can ignite in a foreign land thousands of miles from home and among strangers in a completely alien culture. This was one of those times and I was a bit embarrassed for the other people standing in line who would be left buying their train tickets without this extra service I was enjoying only because my 80 year old ticket clerk on the other side of the thick glass and I had become like family.
I pay him 9€ for two of the only passes he would give me and head for the gate that leads into the station. My ticket doesn’t work. Kathi is on one side and I am on the other. I guess this happens a lot as they had a full time government paid employee that strolled around the gates and had a mobile machine that somehow was much better than my friend’s machine back at the ticket counter and he gave me a new card.
The romance continued when we got inside the train ride. The seats seemed to be built for Western European sizes found mostly in and around the Mediterranean countries. I had to sit for two hours while a 15 year old and her girlfriend ate their McDonalds on my lap.
￼Sintra is a beautiful little destination town known for its romantic era 19th century landscapes. It looks like something out of an animated Disney movie.
In 1809 Lord Byron wrote to his friend Francis Hodgson, “I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world.”
The town on the foothills of the Sintra Mountains is about 18 km from the Atlantic. The town was built in the 11th century below an 8th century castle built by the Moors. There is a large national park there called Pena which has royal grounds and within the park is the Palace of Pena built by King Consort Fernando II (this is even after Lord Byron’s comment) which kick started a romantic period of architecture in the region during the 1800’s. We decided to have lunch first and then hike up the mountain 2km to the palace which has become a world heritage site.
I have already explained my mastery of direction that has made me something of a savant within a tight international circle of navigators, and I must admit that the gift will sometimes cause jealousy in common laypeople traveling with me who are unaccustomed to being able to travel without aid of compass, map, or directions of any kind. This natural gift also provides me the ability to find the perfect cafe for any mood and taste in any town or village in the world. It was with this knowledge that, once we decided we were hungry, I took the lead and began hiking in the hot Portuguese sun up the twisting steep alleyways of Sintra looking for a spot to eat. We passed Periquita with its shrimp rissoles and pastries called travesseiros. We passed Dom Pipas with its grilled fish and lamb in a historical building in the center of town. And we passed Curral dos caprinos with its authentic Portuguese food and award of excellence.
Hungry and after walking for 30 minutes, we come to a dead end on top of the mountain, void of anything that looked like it could provide sustenance. We must make a decision to go back down and try again. Kathi then looks over down the block and there is a crudely hand written sign taped to a worn chair that says in English, “Look down.”
She walks over and looks and there is a perfect shaded garden restaurant called Restaurant Páteo do Garrett overlooking the entire city. She walks down the stairs and quickly makes friends with the owner/waiter (she’s in short pants and still tan from a few days ago) and we grab a table right on the balcony with a carafe of ice cold white house wine brought immediately out.
Kathi had the grouper which is a steak cut. The fish must have been very large in the water. It was phenomenal. I have never had better. I had the sea bream which was served whole and was also very good. They cooked both fish on an open fire on the patio with only a few herbs and olive oil. The service was great. It was a very romantic lunch that we just happened to stumble upon.
Next we decide to walk the long trip to the castle which turned out to be a bit longer than I thought. Probably closer to an hour’s walk or 5 km mostly up hill. Still the forest was gorgeous with 19th century estates and it was an enjoyable trek.
The Palace of Pena was built under Dom Fernando II who married the Queen of Portugal, Dona Maria II, and thus became King Consort. In something that resembles season two of Game of Thrones, Maria became queen when her grandfather died and her father, the Emperor of Brazil, did not want to reunite with Portugal again so he set up his brother, her uncle, Miguel who she also had to marry. She was only 7 at the time. Miguel double crossed her on returning to Portugal and set himself up as king and began a reign of terror. She went to refuge in other courts in Europe and then her father went to war against Miguel, his brother, and after five years Miguel abdicated and she was put on the throne.
The palace became the summer residences of the royal family of Portugal for much of the 19th century. It was on the original site of a chapel built in the Middle Ages, contracted after an apparition of the Virgin Mary. A monastery was later built in the 1400’s. The great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 devastated the monastery except for the chapel, including its alabaster and marble carvings by Nicolau Chanterene which are still there.
It truly is breathtaking.
￼￼One of the last of the monarchy to live there was Carlos the I who seemed like a good guy; an artist and very well educated. He was assassinated in 1908 in Lisbon by republic rebels on the same street that we walked in Baixo. Below is from a mural that is half done before he was shot by the King in his own bedroom.￼
We walked back down the hill, grabbed a bottle of vino blanco at a small local cafe, and then made our way to the train that leaves every hour back to Lisbon.
This was a fantastic day and none of it would have happened if not for our mistakes we made. With perfect grace I was able to feign a few geo-navigational mistakes that led to a series of events that made for a wonderful journey to Sintra while letting my travel companion take the credit. That’s the kind of traveler I am.