Lisbon, Portugal Part II

On our second day in Lisbon we got another day of beautiful weather (actually we pretty much had mid to high 80s and sunny the entire trip) and our day consisted of even more walking around and sightseeing.   Here are a few of the highlights:

A good starting off point for a day in Lisbon should probably begin at the central area of Praca Dom Pedro IV or better known as the Rossio which is what we did.  Located in the heart of the city, in between the historical Alfama region and the restaurant/bar scene called Bairro Alto (I’ll talk more about this area next blog post), the main square is loaded with shops and cafes.  Walk down the pedestrian street Rua Da Augusta towards the water and you’ll find even more outdoor restaurants and pastry shops.  Most are touristy and you’ll be hounded by restaurant workers left and right trying to convince you to stop and eat, but it’s a pleasant walk nonetheless.  Note: Although safe, keep an eye out for the numerous shady characters trying to sell you weed and cocaine on the street.  Once you get near the water, you’ll end up at Praca do Comercio where we just happen to luckily come upon a free Joss Stone concert.

Note: The best way to get your bearings back if you get lost in Lisbon is to just head towards the water.  With all the unmarked crisscross streets, and maps that aren’t able to label every little alley, it can be easy to lose your way.  But if you head down towards the river, you’ll eventually end up on the main road along the water and that can guide you to where you need to go.

You’ll notice very quickly that the city has an admiration for blue tiles or Azulejos, as you’ll see them on several of the churches and government buildings throughout Lisbon.  One place to see one of the more impressive arrays of Azulejos is at the Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora (Monastery of St. Vincent Outside the Walls) in the Alfama (It’s a bit of a hike uphill to get there FYI).  The entrance fee is  4 Euros (Note: Cheaper if you’re a student, but you have be under 25 years old) and once you get inside you’ll be struck by the mass array of blue tiled artwork.  In particular, check out the exhibit upstairs displaying the azulejos of La Fontaine’s fables.  There you’ll see depictions of 38 of the fables, along with the actual fable written next to it in English and Portuguese, including: The Donkey and Dog, Hawk and Cockerel, Upbringing, and Bear and Man Who Loved Gardens.  Make sure also to see the remains of the 7 Portuguese and Spanish missionaries that were martyred in Morocco and the crazy, freaky mausoleum with a marble cloaked woman weeping over a coffin in the center.  It’s really, really creepy – like hairs will stand up on the back of your neck creepy.

Here are a few more places to check out:

-If you’re looking to get a peek inside what life was like in the Middle Ages you should definitely check out the Castelo de Sao Jorge.   Located at the top of the hill in the heart of the Alfama and overlooking Lisbon, this medieval fortress costs 7 Euros to enter.  On a good day like we had, the castle provided some fun, childlike behavior as we bounced from tower to tower and the views from the top were more than camera worthy.   If you’re lucky enough you’ll also notice the several peacocks that have taken residence in the courtyard and roam around with their baby birds.

-Although Lisbon is known more for its seafood and desert pastries, if you can find it there’s a great steak house to try.  Located near the Parliament building, this local place is so hidden it blends right in with the residential apartments – you have to know the exact address.  The place is called Cafe de Sao Bento and it’s on Rua de São Bento 212, north of the Bairro Alto.  Now this place is old school – you actually have to ring the doorbell to get in.  We actually rang the bell on accident not knowing for sure if someone would answer.  We were more than a little stunned when we were greeted by a man in a tuxedo who led us into the small restaurant.  The place has a weird mafia hideaway feel to it and we definitely felt awkward the first few minutes we were there.  That feeling quickly subsided however when we saw several other “normal” looking groups of tourists, families, and local businessmen.  The wait staff was very kind and hospitable and the seats were plush and comfy.  The steak was phenomenal as well, plated in a no nonsense way – just the meat and sauce with a bowl of either fries or homemade chips.  The steak melted in our mouths and was reasonably priced at around 14-20 Euros.  For vegetarians, the only other thing on the menu besides steaks were small sides of creamed spinach and salad.   One mark against the place however was their ant problem – we had a few of the critters crawling around our table.  For that, it gets bumped down from an A- to a Grade: B+

Recap

What I saw:

Praca Dom Pedro IV aka Rossio

Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora
Largo de Sao Vincente

Castelo de Sao Jorge

Where I ate:

Cafe de San Bento
Rua de São Bento 212

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Lisbon, Portugal Part I

Before I got on the plane with my two friends to Portugal a few weeks ago, I had really no real idea what to expect; because of work I didn’t really get to do much research beforehand.  I guess my impression of Portugal was that it was like the forgotten middle child of the European countries, with no defining landmark like the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace, or signature food such as Pizza or Paella, or even a reputation for vices like what you would find in Amsterdam.  But even so, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the country that I knew probably had a lot more to offer than what I imagined.

Our trip took us to three parts of Portugal – Lisbon, the capital of the country on the southwestern coast, Porto, up in the northwest, and Lagos in the beach area of Algarve along the southern coast.  We flew a red-eye flight on TAP, the Portuguese national airline, which was to be honest not the most comfortable ride in the world.  Expecting the plane to have the amenities of most European airlines (with cushioned seats, and video on demand screens on the seats in front of you), instead we had an older airbus with extremely worn seats and no movie/music options.  Needless to say, I was underwhelmed and feared at the end of the trip having to fly home on the same old creaky plane (Luckily for us, we had a much more normal/modern plane on the way back with all the comfortable amenities).  So just be warned if you fly TAP, you might land on an older plane.

Once we landed in Lisbon, we headed to the apartment we booked through Airbnb.  (Watch out for the cabs from the airport – they will cheat you.  The cab from the airport to our apartment cost us 28 Euros.  The cab back going the same distance at the end of the trip – 7 Euros)  The apartment we got was fantastic.  It was clean, in a great area right in the historical region of Alfama, and our host Ema was super helpful in getting us settled with tips about taxis, telling us where the closest supermarket was, and giving us advice on good places to visit.  If you’re planning on visiting, please get in touch with me and I’d be happy to give you her info.  The rate for her two bedroom apartment, one bathroom, living room with kitchen/laundry was 60 Euros a night ($85 a night).

Here’s an outline of some of the things we did the first day:

-After walking around the city we quickly figured this out so be warned – the city is extremely hilly.  Make sure you know that before you come to visit if you’re with the elderly or injured.

-Several of the sights in Lisbon are free to all and/or free on some days (usually Sundays) making the trip very affordable if you plan ahead accordingly.

Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Se or Se de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major): One of the first of many churches we visited on the trip, the fortress looking building was free to enter.  Several of the parts of the church you should check out are the room with the high adorned papal robes and hats and the gargoyles patrolling the church.  Other parts of the church such as the cloister and treasury cost a few Euros to enter and I hear are worth seeing if you’re a history buff (we unfortunately didn’t make it in, opting to save the Euros for other parts of the trip).

Fado – One of the quintessential Portuguese arts is Fado, a traditional singing performance consisting of a singer and a guitarist or two.  You can’t visit Lisbon without going to a restaurant at least once with a Fado performance.  Although you probably won’t understand a word their saying – much like opera – the delivery of the singing is what makes the music so moving.  Times vary and there are definitely tourist traps that lure visitors in with their Fado.  But we did find one small place with several locals called A Tasca do Chico in the Alfama.  The food wasn’t great to be honest, but the atmosphere more than made up for it.  There were rotating male singers (all of whom looked like regular schmoes off the street) along with two very talented guitarists.  They sang three songs each with a half hour break in between, the time we spent talking to the others we shared a table with.  It’s definitely a relaxing time and a good way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing and meet some locals.  Grade: B-

Pois Cafe: For a laid back, coffee house experience with a staff all fluent in English check out Pois Cafe.  Just down the street from Se de Lisboa (see above), this bohemian style coffee shop offers a venue where one can lounge around in their cushy sofas and grab any of the books or periodicals along the walls – think of it like an Urban Outfitters with food.   With a menu of sandwiches and salads, the place hits the spot if you’re looking for a quick respite.  Try the Mozart Sandwich (Cheese, Prosciutto, Salad, and Balsamic Vinegar) and their flaky apple strudel.  Grade: B

Recap

Where I stayed:

Emanuela Pendjer Mendes’s apartment through Airbnb.com
Beco da Lapa
Lisbon, Lisbon 1100
Portugal

What I saw:

Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Se or Se de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major)
Largo da Sé
1100 Lisboa, Portugal

Where I ate:

Pois Cafe
R. de São João da Praça 93
1100 Lisboa, Portugal

A Tasca Do Chico
Rua do Diário de Notícias, 39

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Conde Duque Hotel

Since we were on the topic of losing luggage, I wanted to talk about this hotel we stayed at in Madrid.  Like I said, losing your luggage is always a pain, especially when you have to deal with calling the airport and the one person in your party who speaks any Spanish has the proficiency of a 10 year old.

But if you happen to stay at a place like Conde Duque Hotel, your ordeal can be a whole lot less stressful.  If you want a good place to stay if you’re visiting Madrid, Conde Duque Hotel is a great choice.  The price is right, it’s right near the Madrid subway (or T, Metro, Underground, whatever you want to call it), and there’s a big supermarket conveniently down the street.  It’s not in the central part of Madrid, but if you want to stay at a hotel without all of the noise at night, this location is for you.  The subway, like I said, is only 100 meters away anyways.  And the breakfast that they provide each morning is pretty decent.  But the service is what made the experience memorable.

The bellman’s name was Victor and when we first walked in, he was so quiet that we weren’t sure if he was in a bad mood, or if he was just a dour person.  Not exactly uplifting to my luggage-less party.  But once we told him our situation, the curtain rose and he was tremendously helpful in getting our bags back. He gave us some great tips about food (I wish to god I could remember the paella place he sent us too – phenomenal) and getting around.  To this day, my sister still emails with Victor (every time I hear that name, I have an urge to growl/yell it out like Hugh Jackman) and although he’s probably still not working there, the hotel is one that I’d recommend to anyone.

UPDATE: Speak of the devil.  So my sister emailed Victor and he replied with the name of that great paella restaurant I mentioned above.  If you don’t know what paella is, click here.

The place is called La Paella de la Reina.  The restaurant is on a little side street, and yes, it looks a little shady from the outside, but trust me it’s fine.  When we asked the folks at Conde Duque for a quintessential place in Madrid to get paella, they didn’t hesitate to recommend this place.  You have to order the paella in advance, so be sure to plan ahead and call in the morning.  Since Madrid is known for their seafood (yes, I thought it was weird too since Madrid is right smack in the middle of Spain) I ordered the seafood paella.  Let’s just say I’ll never be able to eat any seafood dish (seriously, any seafood dish) again without comparing it to the paella I ate at this restaurant.