I arrived at 07:30 in the Lisbon train station on 9/28/15. The train was on time! I had shared the sleeping compartment with a young man from Taiwan named Andy. Although he was Taiwanese, he spoke perfect English. Around midnight, we were joined by another young man named Joseph. Although he was from Spain, he spoke excellent English with a definite French accent. Both gentlemen were quite pleasant and we had a delightful conversation before attempting to sleep on the train that seemed to excessively rock and roll. I would have bet money that at least one of the wheels was out of round and our compartment was located right above the axle. Eventually, exhaustion won the battle and I fell into a reasonable sound sleep.
The conductor woke us up about 40 minutes away from the Lisbon station. This allowed us enough time to organize ourselves and prepare to leave the train. Lisbon station was a clean, uncomplicated terminal that was easy to master. At my arrival time, the station was filled with commuter trains discharging their passengers who quietly scurried off to their places of employment. I paused to observe and absorb the mass exodus scene. I realized that it was not much different than what happens at a similar hour at Union Station in Chicago. However, Lisbon is much smaller.
Stepping out of the train station, I was immediately overpowered by the sight of the Ocean Princess cruise ship that was docked immediately across the street from the train station. It was so close; I could hear passengers talking to each other on the decks. After taking a few photos of the train station and cruise ship, I found a taxi that would take me to the Intercontinental Lisbon Hotel.
My first impression of Lisbon was very positive and it hasn’t changed over the years. The taxi ride took me along the waterfront while the friendly driver did his best to give me a guided tour in his broken English. He pointed out “The 25th of April Bridge” that looked very much like our Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Later I would find out that the company that built the Oakland Bay Bridge also built this bridge. The name of the bridge comes from the date of the Carnation Revolution that overthrew the dictator Estado Novo. Since then, the 25th of April is known as Freedom Day and the bridge is often referred to as “The Freedom Bridge.”
In many ways, Lisbon reminded me of Istanbul with a massive waterway dividing the city and a huge bridge spanning that passage. However, as I became more familiar with Lisbon, the city really did remind me of San Francisco with its iconic bridge and huge hills. Lisbon had 7 large hills and navigating the narrow streets on these inclines was a real challenge.
I arrived at the Intercontinental at around 08:30… way before an appropriate check in time. I fully expected that my room would not be available for several hours and that I would put my bags in storage. To my pleasant surprise, my room was ready and I was well-situated there in a matter of minutes! This early check-in enabled me to freshen up and meet with the concierge to schedule tours for that day’s afternoon and the remaining two days in Lisbon!
Maria was the concierge who provided great assistance. She also starred in the Hotel Video that explained the sites of Lisbon! Finally, Maria proudly wore “La Clef du Or” on each of her lapels. My son, Nick, explained to me that this is a badge worn by people who achieve the highest level as a concierge. It is a great honor and very difficult to achieve. Only a select few achieve this prestigious recognition. Both Maria and her colleague had been awarded this honor. It was without question that this woman knew her stuff!
With Maria’s help, I was able to set out on the City Tour of Lisbon that afternoon. Additionally, I set up day-long tours to Fatima, Obidos, and Nazare. Maria also set up a tour to Pena Palace, Sintra, and Cabo da Roca. The latter being considered the western most point on European Continent! I realized that I packed a lot into my few days in Lisbon. However, I figured that I could rest on the plane on my way home. Once again, my sister Joan’s prayers were answered. The weather forecast was warm and sunny for my entire stay in Lisbon! The temperatures were in the low 80s during the days.
After cleaning up and getting breakfast (remember, it was still morning), I departed on the Lisbon City Tour, which took about 6 hours. There were only 3 people on this tour. The other 2 people, a man and his wife, spoke French. I assumed they were French but we didn’t converse much.
Our tour guide was named Maria, too! I think that must be a very popular name in Portugal. Maria spoke at least 5 languages. She would give a presentation in French and the same program in English. It was a wonder that she could still talk at the end of the tour!
We drove through the city streets of Lisbon which had a unique mix of narrow, winding roads made of cobbled stone and appeared to be centuries old. Another part of the mix was broad, modern, multi-lane boulevards that were the home of elegant apartments as well as the high-end shopping areas. In fact, there was a boulevard that begins at the Statue of the Marques De Pal Mal that was intended to rival the Champ Elysees in Paris. That must be the worldwide standard because several European cities have tried to emulate that famous French thoroughfare. I think Lisbon has succeeded in this effort. The people of Paris or Monte Carlo would feel right at home, here.
The tour took us to the original Palace of the King and Queen of Portugal. I must confess, after visiting almost all of the countries of Europe, the castles and palaces are all beginning to look the same. A tour guide in Copenhagen referred to this as doing the ABC which stood for, “Another Bloody Castle” or “Another Bloody Church” for that matter. I know what he meant. What was unique about this palace was the fantastic art work. There were beautiful, full length tapestries that reached from the floor to the ceiling. These were created by Goya, no less! Trust me! This, alone, was worth doing the “ABCs!”
The tour took us to several other fascinating sites. These included the Jeronimos Monastery and Church where the famous explorer Vasco De Gama is buried. Also, we stopped and viewed the Monument to Exploration and The Tower of Belem. Both are iconic landmarks of the city of Lisbon.
The traffic of Lisbon is as heavy and crowded as any other European city. Our tour bus driver did an amazing job. Thank God we had a small group. A larger group would have required one of the larger tour buses and would have been a real challenge to our driver. I would not recommend driving here. Public transportation is readily available and taxis are not too expensive. Also, Lisbon is a great walking city, except for the cobble stone sidewalks. They are most attractive and add class to the scene. However, walking on them will play havoc on the old knees after an extended period.
At the end of the tour, Maria asked each of us where we wanted to be dropped off. The French couple was left in the main nightlife area. Of course, I seized the opportunity to visit the Hard Rock Café to pick up the obligatory T-shirt and have a convenient dinner. Both were great. However, my waiter really kept trying to convince me to have a shot of tequila. After several attempts and refusals, the implication that further requests would affect his tip ended the discussion. Not being too familiar with the streets of Lisbon, I took a taxi back to my hotel for a truly restful night’s sleep.
After a larger breakfast, I was off on a tour to that would check off an item on my bucket list. I went to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary in Fatima. But first, we drove for about two hours north of Lisbon through the beautiful Portuguese countryside. It was lovely terrain that reminded me of the area around Napa, California. The whole area was dotted with vineyards and fruit orchards. There were several ancient Portuguese windmills standing guard on hill tops over these wineries. They were joined by more modern, functioning windmills that generated electricity. Portugal seems to be very energy and ecology conscious.
Our first stop was at the medieval village of Obidos which was located within the walls of a huge castle. It was the type of castle that every young boy imagines with long high walls and the houndstooth toppings. It would have made a great Hollywood set, except this was the real deal!
We also visited the Batalha Monastery and the beautiful gothic cathedral at Alcobaca. The style of this house of worship was somewhat reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris, with its flying buttresses and gargoyles. As impressive as the outside was, the inside with its beautiful architecture, art work, statues, and stained-glass windows were even more dramatic and spectacular.
Our next stop was the seaside village of Nazare, named after the region from where Jesus came. We were to have lunch there. I’ve learned that the tour-arranged lunches were overpriced and, since I don’t drink alcohol, not a good value for me. Riding into town, I noticed several nice restaurants (not McDonalds or Burger King). There was a particular pasty shop that caught my eye. I left the group and proceeded on the beach, walking past numerous choices for a fine meal. However, I was intrigued by that pastry shop and ended up there.
Normally, I’m not a sweets and dessert type person. However, this place was a real treat! I ordered a cup of coffee Americano and a piece of the most decadent cake with cream icing. Also, I got an egg custard to go with it. The first bite of that cake confirmed that I made the right choice of restaurants. As I was finishing one of the best desserts that I have ever tasted, I noticed this huge custard-filled sugar pastry. I was torn with decision. Yet, I can rationalize anything. I figured I’d walk at least ten miles today, up and down countless flights of stairs. Thus, I would burn off all those pastry calories. Besides, my birthday was last week! Anyway, I got the pastry and have no regrets!!! The REAL icing on the “cake” was the bill. The entire mea was only 3.50 Euro which was less than $4! I’ve paid more than that for a single cup of coffee at Starbucks!!! I was totally amazed and profusely thanked the two ladies behind the counter. I really think they got a kick out of this crazy, old American and how much he enjoyed their “works of art.”
After my lovely meal, I began to walk off those calories. Nazare was a totally beautiful, peaceful seaside village that seemed to be unspoiled by the tourists that visit daily. I fell in love with the place! While the shops were along a main road that traveled the length of the beach, the majority of the village people lived on top of a large cliff. There was funicular cable car that ran from the village shops to the top of the cliff. I was so impressed by Nazare that I visited a Century 21 office and picked up an agent’s card. I actually could have seen my self-living there!
Leaving Nazare with a sense that I could very well return, the tour proceeded to Fatima. Prior to visiting this world-famous destination of Catholic pilgrims, we stopped at the obligatory tourist shopping mall filled with religious souvenirs. It is normally assumed that the tourist bus stops here because the company gets a kick back. At least they didn’t have it right on the site of the Basilica at Fatima.
The Basilica in Fatima is famous for what happened in 1917. That is when there were several apparitions by which the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children named: Jacinta, Lucia, and Francisco. These apparitions occurred over several months and were witnessed by thousands of people. Since that time, Fatima has become an important site for Catholic pilgrims. In the Basilica are the tombs of the 3 shepherd children. Unfortunately, Jacinta and Francisco both died from pneumonia only a few years after the apparitions. However, Lucia became a nun and lived until just recently.
While I’ve been on this journey, I have been blessed with lovely weather. However, as we leaving the Basilica grounds, there were thunderstorms in the area. While it never directly rained on us, the weather created the most beautiful, complete rainbow! I’ve got some great shots of the rainbow over the crucifix in front of the Chapel of the Apparitions which is also on the grounds of the Basilica. I simply considered it to be one more gift! On the return trip to Lisbon, the rainbow remained in view for at least a half an hour. This was another memorable experience that had been among many this year.
Wednesday, Sept. 30th, was my last full day in Lisbon and, also, my last full day in Europe, this time. Again, it was a beautiful, warm, sunny day! It was a lovely day for a tour and “ABC!” This time, I visited the fantasy Pena Palace which is a notable example of Portuguese Romanesque Architecture. Its bright colors and unique facades reminded me of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. The palace served as the summer home for the king and queen. Besides the palace’s vast rooms of ornate decorations and artwork, its location, on the area’s highest hill top, provided a spectacular panorama of the entire region. It was well worth the time and effort to get there.
Additionally, the tour visited Sintra, a lovely UNESCO Heritage Village which is located in the shadows of the Pena Palace. It was a quaint town with an abundance of restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourists. I found it to be a marked contradiction to the serenity of Nazare, which I fell in love with, the day before. After a brief but relatively expensive lunch, I found a nice, quiet café to have a coffee and people watch. Sintra was overflowing with a wide variety of tourists from all over the world. Observing the different behaviors and mannerisms can be very entertaining.
Our last stop on the tour was very unique and special. It was Cabo da Roca which is the western most point of the entire European Continent. It is truly lands’ end! The drive up the coastline to Cabo da Roca was truly beautiful. At the point, there is a large monument with a cross on it. Additionally, you can buy a certificate in the souvenir shop that will attest that you had been to this very spot. Oh well, I’m a tourist and I couldn’t resist. It will go near my certificate which verifies that I have stepped foot on the continent of Antarctica.
We took the coast road on the ride back to Lisbon. This was delightful and made me appreciate the beauty of this country even more! Now, I have 4 places where I want to return: Krakow, Budapest, Prague, and, now, Portugal! I really, really love the beauty of this lovely country and the warm, friendliness of its people.
I was one of the first to be dropped off from the tour. This enabled me to have time to walk to the monument of the Marques De Pal Mal to get a few more photos of the entire area. The walk did me good after the long bus ride from Cabo da Roca. It was a lovely evening that was spent organizing and packing for my return to America the next day.
I awoke early and had a nice breakfast. As I checked out from the hotel, several hotel staff members came to me to say goodbye, especially Maria, the concierge. I really felt that I had made good friends at the Intercontinental and that I am confident that I will return, someday. Maria said, “Please come back. We will be here.”
I had arranged for a car to take me to the airport at 10:00 for a flight that was due to leave at 13:35. I wanted to be there early enough to recoup the money from the Value Added Tax (VAT) that was added to each of my purchases. The law states that this can be done only at the last point of departure from Europe. However, I was unclear about all the rules. The VAT recoup process does not work for the VAT paid for hotel rooms. Too bad, I would have recouped a sizable sum! Also, when you make a significant purchase, you should get a VAT form from your merchant. I had no forms. Thus, the time spent, the previous evening, organizing the various receipts was spent in vain. Oh well, one more lesson learned!
While Lisbon is a very clean, modern airport, it is a bit confusing for the first timer. However, there were friendly people available to make sure that I headed in the right direction. Check-in and the departure process were a breeze. I was able to depart Europe on time. I was in cold, rainy Newark, New Jersey in about 6 hours. The change was dramatic!
I will gladly admit that I fell in love with Portugal, which was a pleasant surprise! All the time that I had spent in Europe, I had overlooked, if not ignored this beautiful, friendly country! That won’t ever happen again. However, I will share this secret with only my close friends. I don’t want to ruin it or cause it to become another Spain or France.