Lisbon

Friday 24th April 2015

We had a leisurely start to the day, picking up our friends, Jane and Peter, at 7.30am for a 9.55am flight from Gatwick to Lisbon.

We’d been nervously expecting rain and had packed some wet weather gear in case. However, we arrived in sunshine, and apart from a very brief, light shower as we left the airport it’s been dry all day.

Our ‘boutique’ hotel is very nice indeed - it’s the Monte Belvedere and it looks south towards the Tagus. On arrival we were taken to the rooftop terrace and offered complimentary drinks while we were being checked in – all very civilised. We were offered maps by the receptionist who also pointed out various attractions in the area.

We’d read a lot about Lisbon’s trams, in particular Route 28 that uses historic rolling stock and runs East/West through the old town. As soon as we’d finished our drinks we set out on foot to try it out. Realising that every east-bound tram was full to overflowing we took a west-bound one expecting it to empty at the end of the line. Well, it did, when the driver told us all to disembark :o)

We went to the nearby stop and few minutes later got back on board again. Over the next 75 minutes we travelled from one end of the line to the other. Because the streets are so narrow and the carriage so crowded it was really difficult to get much of an impression of the city, which made the journey a bit tedious. In the end, we hopped off near a Metro station, took a train halfway ‘home’ and finished the journey on foot. Time for a breather and a nice cup of tea.

Earlier in the week we’d checked restaurants on TripAdvisor and found that the third most popular restaurant in Lisbon was only a short walk from our hotel, so we booked it for tonight. Just as well, as they were turning away people who hadn’t reserved a table. We all had fish dishes, and really nice they were too. We all had starters and a main course, and shared a fairly large dessert selection. Together with a bottle of lovely local white wine the bi8ll for all four of us was €104, about £76. Exceptional value in a very nice restaurant.

The only downside was that as we walked up hill and down dale back to our hotel (Lisbon is incredibly hilly!) the heavens opened – at least it was warm rain!

Saturday 25th April 2015

Gill had booked us a ‘food walking tour' starting at 10.30am, with a starting point in the centre of town, so we made sure we only had a smallish breakfast.

We took a short walk to the nearest underground station and then one stop along to the Praça Restauradores, a square that commemorates the restoration in 1640 of Portuguese independence from Spain. Today was an important date in the Portuguese calendar. It was on this day in 1974 that the people deposed the dictator, Salazar, in the ‘Carnation Revolution’. We met our guide, Pedro, and by 10.30am were part of a party of twelve, one of whom was a New Zealander and the others Americans.

The tour lasted for six hours, during which we got to know the other people quite well. It was mainly a history tour, and the first food stop didn’t take place for an hour when we stopped for tea/coffee and the Portuguese equivalent to egg custard tarts, a local delicacy. The next stop was for Port and local cheese; Peter didn’t want his Port, so I generously finished it for him ;o)

Lisbon is incredibly hilly, and it’s really quite a challenge sometimes. To get to the Underground platform this morning we had to go down four long escalators, and yet when we got off one stop later it took only two short flights of stairs to reach the surface.

We stopped next on a high vantage point overlooking the city for a beer or lemonade, and then slowly made our way back down to the Tagus where we took a ferry across to Cacilhas. Here we stopped for a sort of Portuguese ‘tapas’, with prawns, beans and little ‘seafood pasties’ washed down with white wine.

The tour ended when we got back by ferry to the Lisbon side of the Tagus. It had taken six hours and one by one we seemed to have got into conversation with most of our fellow tourists. In my case that included chatting in German with the sprightly 80 year old mother of one of the Americans.

Close to the ferry landing stage was a large indoor food market, with stalls all around the edges and lots of refectory tables in the centre. Apparently, it had been set up by ‘Time Out’. We treated ourselves to ice cream before heading to a nearby funicular railway that conveniently took us back up to the level of our hotel.

We’d noticed on arrival on Friday that the hotel offers a nice tasting menu in its lovely, glass-walled terrace restaurant, and we’d made a reservation there for tonight. Unfortunately, when we got back from our tour we learned that the chef was unwell and the restaurant would be closed, so we asked the receptionist to recommend somewhere local.

It was a only a short walk to ‘Taverna Portuguese’, where we had local tapas. We chose the ten dish tasting option for four people, with wine, sangria, beer, water etc. included. It was definitely ‘rustic’ food (mainly fish and sausage dishes), and was served with cheerful enthusiasm. We arrived at 7.30pm, and by 8pm the place was packed. From then until we left at about 10pm there was a queue outside the door even during periods of heavy rain!

It was fortunate that our hotel was so close because, once again, we had to make our way back in rain. It had been an exhausting day, with lots of good food and drink. We definitely like Lisbon!

Sunday 26th April 2015

It was one of those days where nothing seemed to go as planned, but we still had a good time.

The plan was to walk down to the number 15 tram stop near the food market that we visited yesterday and hop on an westbound tram heading to Belem. Unfortunately, there was such a huge queue waiting for a tram that two came and went without the slightest chance that we’d board either or even the next ones. So, Gill suggested that we should take an eastbound tram to its terminus in the centre of Lisbon and then get on an empty one heading to Belem. This is what we did and it worked out well.

We disembarked at Belem and set off on foot for the Belem Tower. On the way it seemed a good idea to cross the grassy central reservation to get to the Tagus riverbank, so I led the way. Several steps across I realised that it was more marsh than grass, and then I heard shouts of dismay from Gill and Jane whose feel were now deep in squidgy mud - this was quite a problem. I went ahead looking for public toilets where they could wash their feet and clean their shoes and eventually we found what we needed in ‘Centro Cultural de Belem’. I rinsed and cleaned Gill’s sandals while she washed her feet in the disabled toilet, and even though I held both sandals under the hand drier they were still quite wet when Gill put them on again.

We set off for the tower, but by now it hard started to rain quite heavily and the wind had risen, so it was hoods and umbrellas. Gill’s umbrella blew inside out and broke as we approached the tower, and then we found that the queue was ridiculously long because there were already so many people inside. We decided to abandon our plans and instead set off for the tram terminus, wet and increasingly fed up. When it became apparent that we couldn’t cross the busy roads we just gave up and took a cab back into town! We have Lisbon cards that give us free travel on public transport, but we simply wanted take back control of the day. In the event the cab fare was only €10, which we thought was well worth it.

Back in the city centre we found a nice restaurant for tea and cakes. Close by was a food and crafts market that we wandered through afterwards before boarding a small bus that took us high up to St. George’s castle. The castle is surprisingly intact and walking around it in warm sunshine was very pleasant indeed.

We took the little bus back down to the square from which we had set off and then took a cab back to our hotel. Here we picked up the bad news that the cook was still unwell and that the restaurant would again be closed. So, Gill asked the receptionist to find us a nice local restaurant and book us a cab.

We had a couple of hours to take a breather before our cab arrived. The restaurant was pretty much under the main bridge that spans the Tagus from North to South and it specialised in fish. It was entirely glass-walled and was set directly next to the river. There was also seating in the nearby building that housed the kitchen itself, with tanks of live crabs and lobsters. We had a really nice meal and a lovely local ‘green wine’ – Alvarinho.

At the end of the meal the restaurant called us a taxi and we were back at Monte Belvedere by 10pm. Tomorrow we’re planning to take a train out to Sintra before our transfer back to the airport at 6.50pm. We’ve really enjoyed our time in Lisbon!

Monday 27th April 2015

We’d read that Sintra is a lovely hilltop town, and because our Lisbon cards gave us free rail travel there we decided to make the 39 minute journey.

We caught a train at about 10.50am and enjoyed the journey through the Portuguese countryside. The train was crowded, seemingly with very few locals on board, so when we arrived in Sintra there were quite a few people queuing for the tourist bus that runs into town and then around the various attractions in the neighbouring hills.

We hopped off at the first stop, which was in the town itself. It was very hilly with narrow streets, a little like a Cornish fishing village, just not on the sea ;o) It looked really attractive in the sunshine that had broken through, so we ambled about for a while.

On our walking tour on Saturday we’d encountered the local alcoholic drink called ‘Ginginha’ that, like so many others around Europe, had been invented by a monk as a health remedy. It’s pretty much cherries in alcohol, with real fruit at the bottom of the bottle. The best way to drink it is in an edible chocolate cup, and in the narrow streets we found a shop where we could try this out. We can both definitely recommend this! We liked it so much that we bought a half litre bottle!

Peter was feeling the need for a coffee, so we stopped for a snack. Gill had bought some ‘pastéis de nata’ (little egg custard tarts ) earlier in the morning before we boarded the train, and we had a couple of them now before heading back to catch the next tourist bus.

We knew that we needed to be back in Lisbon no later than 4pm, so that we could have a light meal before our pre-arranged transfer back to the airport at 17.50. We left the bus high in the hills by the Palacio National, but immediately realised that there were very long queues at the tickets booths. It looked as if there’d be a long climb up steep footpaths to the palace above, and as it was already approaching 1pm we calculated that we didn’t really have enough time, so we went back to the bus stop and caught the next bus back to the station. We were back in Lisbon by about 2pm.

The highly-rated tapas restaurant that Gill had found on-line turned out to be closed when we got to it, so we carried on to the large square on the waterfront where the Portuguese royal family had been gunned down in 1908. By now the sun was shining very brightly in a clear blue sky, and we enjoyed a ‘sharing meal’ with a lovely ‘green’ wine as we gazed on the square and the river.

We went back to our hotel for our luggage and were offered a very welcome complimentary cup of tea while we waited for our taxi. On the way to the airport the driver filled us in on the evils of the former dictator, Salazar, and told us of Portugal’s current economic hardships.

At the airport easyJet called passengers to the gate much too early – we had to stand for 30 minutes when we could still have been sitting comfortably. As chance would have it we’ve since been sent a customer service questionnaire by EasyJet , so we’ll make our feelings known.

The flight time back to Gatwick was less than two and a half hours, and we were on the M23 by 11.40. We dropped Jane and Peter at home and were home ourselves before 1am. We had a wonderful few days in Lisbon and we’re already giving thought on where we can go next year for our now-traditional city break!