A very active day indeed

By our standards, Thursday was absolutely frenetic–we actually accomplished four things. The Castle of St. George, a ferry ride across the Tagus River, the House of Spikes and the Cathedral of Lisbon are not too much for this intrepid couple. Of course, there were a few stops along the way for refreshments and a pretty good cheeseburger.

We walked up to the fort, which is just 10 minutes from our apartment. St. George’s Castle is imposing, dating all the way back to pre-Roman times. The museum inside the castle displays artifacts tracing the history of the location and its fortifications from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Moors and the Christians. Pottery shards and bits of coins (there’s a term for you) give an idea of daily life during each major period of occupation.

The Portuguese flag flies over the Castle of St. George in Lisbon.

Most of the castle is open space on the ground and lots and lots of steep, narrow steps up to the towers that offer expansive views of Lisbon and its surroundings. You can figure out why the Romans, Moors and Christians all wanted to use this location for defense. But mostly the fort is static, with areas that would benefit from some explanatory narrative.

Stairs so steep some people crab up and down.

An hour in the fort was plenty, so we walked all the way back past our apartment to the expansive Commercial Plaza for a bit of lunch and exploration. Our cheeseburger in a restaurant behind the plaza was just fine, washed down with the local beer.

We caught the ferry just in time.  The ticket operator refused my credit card, saying that only Portuguese credit cards were accepted. Dubious. I have never heard that before.

The ferry ride is pleasant if uneventful, as it crosses the wide Tagus River to the southern suburbs. The community across the river is dominated by several high rise apartments with little commercial activity. We had to disembark from the ferry and go back through the turnstiles for the return ride. As boat rides go, this one is fine but without significant interest. Still, at 5.10 euros, it’s worth the price of admission.

Our next mission was to find and visit one of Lisbon’s signature house museums, the Casa dos Bicos or House of Spikes. It is so named because the facade is completely studded with pyramids of stone.

Part of the third floor loggia that makes the Casa dos Bicos facade resemble a Venetian palace. But those spikes!

We were concerned about finding the place until we realized that it is located on the very route we have walked at least a half dozen times between our apartment and the Commercial Plaza. We had never noticed, because we were picking our way through the rubble of riverfront construction and never looked up.

The House of Spikes, built in 1521 by the son of the viceroy of India, is one of the few structures that survived the earthquake of 1755. Well, mostly survived. The upper two floors of the four-story facade collapsed, and they were never rebuilt when the structure was restored. It was not until the early 1980s that the upper floors were rebuilt.

But the most interesting aspect of the building beyond its unique facade is the archeological display on the ground floor. The excavations are displayed underneath the floor and show several phases of development back to Roman times, when the site was used as a fish sauce production center. The details of that operation are best left to Google for yourself.

The remains of Roman walls are right at your feet.

And entry is free, although the sign on the front door says 3 euros. Even at that, Casa dos Bicos should be on your list of top attractions in Lisbon.

Our final assault on Lisbon’s historic attractions was the Cathedral of Lisbon, just around the corner and up the hill from the Casa dos Bicos. The cathedral was built on the site of an old Moorish mosque that was taken down (aka demolished) when the Christians took back the city in mid-12th century.

The main body of the cathedral is clearly Romanesque, with large columns supporting rounded arches. Oddly, there is no main altar. It was either removed or lost, but it is hard to believe that late medieval and Renaissance Lisbonians did not include a massive altar to impress the church-goers.

A small fee of 4 euros admits the visitor to the rear cloister and the nine chapels behind the altar. The chapels were built many years after the main church, because they are clearly Gothic in architecture, featuring thin columns that support pointed Gothic arches, with beautiful thin stained glass windows.

The cloister behind the chapels is actually another dig, where archeologists have found old foundations of Roman and Moorish buildings that formerly occupied the site. A metal walkway allows visitors to peer down into the ruins. Along the perimeter of the cloisters is a string of tombs, of which many of the residents sadly are not identified.

Having accomplished so much in one day, we triumphantly decided to see if we could find our way back to our apartment the “back” way without retracing our familiar route back down to the river. Miraculously, Google Maps was right on target, as we approached our apartment from the opposite direction.

But not before stopping at a real wine store to pick up a bottle of Dåo, the same Portuguese red wine we had enjoyed the night before in our otherwise disappointing meal at Santo Antonio de Alfama. The bottle was 4.50. Did I mention that wine is every inexpensive in Portugal?



The HoHO wastes a morning

Motivated by the previous day’s banishment, we set off for the Maritime Museum early to catch the first HoHo out. It would take the rest of the morning for the HoHO to get down to Belem, which is about a 15-minute tram ride along the river.

When we walked down to the stop where we had picked up the bus the day before, we were informed by the attendant that they were waiting on the cruise ship, so it would be up to 40 minutes before they left. So we walked to the stop behind the huge Commercial Plaza to wait. And wait. And wait some more, while the crowd gathered ever larger. After nearly an hour, we decided enough was enough and started walking toward the plaza and the tram, when–wouldn’t you know it–the bus rounded the corner.

Knowing that the HoHO route would take us through the city before going on to Belem, we boarded anyway to see the sights once again. The trip was slow, as traffic in Lisbon is choked everywhere. Major construction is all over the city, not just confined to the riverfront, so the going was extremely slow, and it took all of an hour to get to the Maritime Museum. By now, we had wasted two hours waiting on a bus that went the wrong way. And it started to rain as we approached the monastery where the museum complex is located.

No one to shoo us away this time.

But what a museum. While not Paris, the Lisbon Maritime Museum is huge, spreading out through three wings of the monastery. It displays some 17,000 naval artifacts, including the world’s largest collection of astrolabes. The early sections tell the story of Portugal’s breakthrough discovery of the trade routes to India and the Far East around Africa, sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator and sailed by Bartholomew Dias and, of course, Vasco da Gama, who is interred in St. Jerome’s Church at the end of the monastery.

That’s a pirogue on the lower right and identified as such.

The narrative line gets a bit weaker after the discovery century, but the museum is filled with fascinating ship models, some of which are huge by model standards. The exhibits keep going on and on, sending visitors through the long monastery galleries and displays that take Portugal’s naval history right up to the present.

One of the most interesting modern-era displays are the king’s and queen’s rooms from the Amelia 5, the last of the royal yachts. The latest Amelia was built at the end of the Portuguese monarchy at the turn of the 20th century by King Carlos and named after his queen. The exhibit also includes cases of personalized china and crystal from the yacht, which King Carlos used for oceanography purposes as well as pleasure cruising until his untimely death by assassination in 1910, which effectively ended the Portuguese monarchy.

The Royal Barge remained in active service well into the second half of the 20th century.

But the grande finale awaits the intrepid visitor–the hall of ships. Inside this huge space is a collection of entire boats ranging from an all-wood Snipe to the last royal barge of Portugal that remained in service until recently. The royal barge’s last voyage was to transport England’s Queen Elizabeth II up the Tagus River on an official state visit.

Yep, it’s a Snipe!
Not-so-old Grumman Widget in the foreground. Some few are still flying to this day.
First to fly from Lisbon to Rio in 1922. The pilots are pictured in the foreground.

Also in the collection are three seaplanes, including the aircraft that was the first to cross the Atlantic from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1922. A fitting conclusion to a fascinating museum, the great hall exits right into the cafeteria, where we enjoyed a snack and a cold beverage.

From the Maritime Museum, we walked the few steps down to the Archeology Museum, which occupies another section of the monastery. The Archeology Museum does not tell much of a story, and we passed through in just about a half hour, emerging into a much harder rain storm.

We caught the 15 tram to take us back to the Commercial Plaza and decided to go one stop past there, thinking that the route might take us up the hill closer to our apartment. We were misinformed.

Lynn turned on Waze, which directed us on a half-hour winding trip through narrow cobblestone streets and finally down to our neighborhood. That’s when I realized that Waze is a driving navigation program so could not direct us up and down the stairways that provide the most direct routes around Alfama. But we saw how close St. George’s Castle is, because we walked right by there on the way back. That will be tomorrow’s adventure.



First day of exploration

After a long night of much needed, first-night-in-Europe sleep, we wandered back down the steps and hills toward the river to purchase our Hop On Hop Off tour bus tickets to get our bearings around Lisbon. We always take the HoHo to start a new city, because it is a great way to get a quick overview, then visit the places of most interest.

Overall, the Lisbon tour was the least satisfying of any we have ever taken. The commentary was sparse, and what little we heard was filled with loud static, making listening painful. Nonetheless, we persevered through the crowds and the traffic and the construction to see the highlights of Lisbon, of which there are many.

Just about the entire mainland side of Lisbon’s riverfront is under construction. The fences all sport banners saying “Building a better Lisbon,” and from what we could tell, this is a major municipal project to transform the riverside into a series of parks and promenades. In five or ten years, this will be a beautiful linear park. Today, it is a twisted construction site choked with dust, snarled bus and car traffic and hordes of tourists (mostly from cruise ships) trying to navigate the narrow spaces that formerly were sidewalks.

Inside the construction fences, workers peck through what look like either ancient Roman ruins or maybe the shattered remains of old buildings that fell in the great earthquake that leveled Lisbon in 1755.

Our HoHo route ran in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go, but it gave us a good look at the higher end downtown area of designer shops and office buildings. When we stopped at the central monument honoring Portugal’s Marques de Pombal, the ruler who rebuilt Lisbon after the disastrous earthquake, no fewer than five tour buses parked alongside. Most of the accents and languages overheard are distinctly not American. Which we take to be a good sign.

When we arrived at the museum complex that includes the Maritime Museum, the planetarium, St. Jerome monastery and church (where Vasco da Gama is entombed) and Belem Tower, we stopped first at the pleasant cafeteria for a lunch al fresco. As we ate lunch washed down with excellent Portuguese beer, we noticed the expansive courtyard was empty except for a number of black cars parked along the perimeter and dozens of sailors and local police on guard. Something was going on, and it obviously involved a bunch of high authorities.

Police keep tourists away from the Maritime Museum and the Planetarium during some meeting of Very Important People.
Police keep tourists away from the Maritime Museum and the Planetarium during some meeting of Very Important People.

The police guard shooed me away from taking a photo of the old launch on display in the wide plaza, and we were ushered away from the Maritime Museum, which was closed for whatever event was being held. So we walked down to St. Jerome Church, where da Gama’s tomb rests across from one of Portugal’s great poets who wrote about da Gama’s exploits.

After touring the church, we inquired about the museum again, but it was still closed. By now, we would not have had enough time in the museum, so we gave up to try the next day. After waiting nearly an hour for the HoHo to show up again, we repaired to the huge commercial square overlooking the river for  a visit to the Cerveza Museum restaurant and its namesake beverage.

The walk back up the hills of Alfama took us through the heart of riverside construction, then up the hills and stairs to our neighborhood, where we stopped at the Restaurant Farol de Santa Luzia to inquire about the request I had made earlier in the day for reservations. We were informed that our request had been granted.

This and one other restaurant we had tried the night before insist on reservations, even though the small dining room may not be full. Our meal at Farol was excellent, even as we watched other hopeful and hungry diners turned away as we had been the night before. After 9 p.m., management seemed to allow walk-ups, as perhaps that is the more likely local dining hour.

Our dinner was excellent and a bargain. My octopus salad was ceviche style, tart with a citrus flavor that complemented the seafood flavor of the octopus. Lynn started with a cream soup with shrimp that she declared delicious. Our entrees of a large grouper filet (Lynn) and steak and frites (me, of course) were excellently prepared and  more bargains at 13 and 16 each. We enjoyed a bottle of Pousio Reserva regional wine from Alenteneja, one of the pays d’oc of Portugal. It too was a bargain at 23.50. That’s easy to get accustomed to in Europe and easy to miss when we get back home to U.S. restaurant wine prices.





Lisbon at last

Getting to your destination from New Orleans is always a challenge, but the trip to Lisbon turned into what felt like a marathon.

Delta rerouted us to Atlanta via Paris, a flight we have taken before. The good side of that is Air France’s version of Economy Plus is just short of Business Class. In fact, there is no Business Class in Air France. Our seats were fully contained pods, complete with the travel package of eyemask, socks and a toothbrush. In First, passengers also get slippers, but I can live without those.

The flight was a relatively quick seven and a half hours, followed by a march across Charles de Gaulle through passport control (almost unoccupied, thankfully), then another security line (the French take no chances these days), and on to our gate for the Lisbon flight. No Economy Plus on the cramped A319 for two hours to Lisbon, but not at all unpleasant. Our flight attendant spoke flawless French and U.S. English without so much as a hint of an accent. She showed the most radiant smile I have ever seen on an airline, which carried through even at the baggage claim, where we all waited at least a half hour for our luggage to arrive.

Hugo from Friendly Apartments was right there waiting for us with my name on a sign, and escorted us to his Mini, as he explained that traffic was bad because of a taxi strike at the airport. The cab drivers in Lisbon are up in arms against Uber. (Join the worldwide club of taxi monopolies opposed to the creative destruction of technology and consumer choice.) The Lisbon cabbies chose this week to vent their anger by massing their cars at the airport, choking access both in and out. We circled around the perimeter of the airport a few times before escaping.

Welcome to Lisbon. A passenger side view of the taxi strike as we try to escape the Lisbon airport.

Thank goodness we made arrangements to have Hugo drive us straight to our apartment in Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon. We would never have found it, and neither would have a taxi, even if one had been available.

Our apartment is tucked between two sets of 100 stairs each, unaccessible by any vehicle. Hugo parked on the street above and walked us down to an elevator that avoids most of the 100 steps.

Our apartment is spacious (at least by Paris standards) and offers a view straight out to the Tagus River and Sao Miguel Church. A steep, narrow street runs alongside our building, leading more or less down to the church. Back up to the level where we left Hugo’s car is a plaza overlooking the river where tourists gather to catch the views and take selfies. All around, the atmosphere is active, noisy and fun.

Not bad view over the roofs of Alfama and out to the Tagus River. Somehow, we lost our bearings on the church of Sao Miguel. Another church just to the east has similar towers that led us astray our first day in Lisbon.

By the time we arrived at the apartment, it was 2 p.m. Lisbon time, which was 8 a.m. on our CDT bodies. Traveling from New Orleans to Europe is the exact equivalent of racing a sailboat from Gulfport to Pensacola. It takes about the same amount of time, and you get about the same amount of sleep–a couple of hours here and there curled up in odd postures, whether around a sail bag or in an airline seat. And the toll on the body is just about exactly the same.

So is the recovery period. You arrive physically exhausted but excited to be there, so after a quick nap, we walked back up to Sao Vincent’s plaza for a cold beer to slake the travel thirst and grab a snack to stave off hunger until proper dinner time. Then on to a small grocery in the neighborhood (there don’t seem to be any larger ones) for some basic provisions, including a couple of bottles of wine. I chose one expensive bottle–4.95–and one more moderately priced, but not the cheapest at 2.95. The two-buck chuck tasted just fine.

After another nap, we decided to walk down to the riverfront to see where the Hop On Hop Off bus stops. Once we found the nearest stop, we started our ascent back up the hill–and got completely lost.

An hour later, we finally found our apartment. We had walked around and around the same area, sometimes not more than a couple of blocks from our apartment. And that was using Apple Maps, Google Maps and Waze on our phones. Luckily I had taken a photo of the street sign painted on our building, so we were able to plug in an address. Otherwise, we would still be wandering Alfama, which Lynn perceptively described as Venice with hills.

Hint to the direction-challenged traveler–always plug your address into whatever mapping software you have in your phone. That gives you a fighting chance of following your breadcrumbs back.

By now truly physically exhausted from our climbs up and down the cobbled streets and alleys of Alfama, we collapsed for yet another quick nap before launching out in search of dinner.

Remarkably, on a Monday night in October, which should be well past the peak travel season, the first two restaurants we tried were full unless you had reservations. We walked back down instead, and just past Sao Miguel Church, we found the restaurant Sao Miguel d’Alfama where we were seated in the middle of a line of two-tops pushed together like a community table.

The restaurant featured live fado, the traditional music of Portugal. A single vocalist accompanied by a rhythm guitar and a 12-string Portugese guitar sings songs that resemble flamenco, no less passionate but with a little less anger. The group played directly behind us, eliminating all chance of conversation for a few minutes until they finished their set of four songs.

Lynn ordered the grilled sea bass, which came out whole and expertly prepared, quite tasty. My pork stew included small clams and vegetables with a tart, tangy flavor. The pork pieces were a bit dry, but overall the dish was reasonably tasty. Each was 15 euros, quite the bargain by anyone’s standards. Sadly, to me, anyway, the restaurant does not take credit cards, even though their card machine sits right on top of the boxes that look like old books that they use to bring your check. We were too tired and too full to visit the dessert table behind us.

This time, we followed the steps straight back to our apartment, where we fell into that delicious first-full-night sleep.





The Adventure Continues

So here we go again, the next chapter in Tom & Lynn’s Excellent Adventure. Tomorrow we leave for a week in Lisbon, two in Madrid and three in Barcelona, a total of six weeks in the Iberian Penisula, well within Schengen Zone limits.

Delta confirmed without drama by issuing our boarding passes, after changing our schedule and itinerary five times in the four months since I made the original reservations. They can change your schedule at will, but if you need to change your schedule, it’s a minimum of $200 per ticket. This time, the big change was to completely reroute us. Instead of flying from JFK to Madrid, then a short hop to Lisbon, Delta arbitrarily changed our route to fly through Atlanta to Paris, then a longer flight to Lisbon. And, of course, we lost our seat selections and Economy Plus that I had already paid for on the overseas leg. A few phone calls later, the issues were resolved, but we still have to route through Atlanta and Paris instead of straight on to Madrid. By the way, the original flights are still there; Delta just doesn’t code-share the Madrid-Lisbon leg any more. Once again, it’s all about them, not the customer.

As much as we look forward to leaving and exploring new (Lisbon & Madrid) and familiar (Barcelona) European destinations, this time the feeling is different. Not better, not worse, just different. It’s hard to describe. The magic of last winter will never leave us, just like our experience some 20 years ago living in the Caribbean will always remain alive and present in our essence. This time is shorter. There will be no interlude in Paris (other than a flight connection). There will be no holidays to experience European traditions. (Believe me, Christmas in Paris and Carnival in Venice are not the same as here in New Orleans.) And there are some troubling developments here at home that I am personally happy to leave behind. We can deal with them when we get back at Thanksgiving.

So off we go Sunday morning. Instead of our peripatetic friends Chris Smith and Barry Radell (who are actually leaving Lisbon today!) sending us off with berets and champagne, our grandson Grayson will drive us to the airport. But not before our ritual Sunday Bloody Mary earlier in the morning.

We hope for no adventures traveling to Lisbon. With boarding passes already printed out, we are off to a positive start.