Portugal - what a wonderful
country! Warm people, sunny climate, gorgeous vistas - a vacation
full of fantastic memories. We traveled to Portugal in August
1996, for nine short days, and enjoyed it so much we would love
We (my husband, three children
and I) arrived in Lisbon early one Saturday on a flight from New
York. We checked into the Hotel Tivoli Lisboa, and tired as we
were with the time change, we hired Joaquim and took a tour in
his limousine. It was actually a wise decision!
Joaquim gave us a great background
of the city, its history, and its sites. We saw building after
building with tiled facades, all of them different, all of them
beautiful. The age of the city fascinated us from the States,
where "old" is two or three hundred years! We saw the
National Tile Museum,
St. George's Castle,
the Coach Museum,
the Tower of Belem,
and the Monument of the Discoveries,
in addition to getting an overview introduction to the city. Joaquim
made a good teacher, with his knowledge of history and his deep-rooted
pride in his countrymen, who explored and colonized an amazing
proportion of the world.
The following day we explored
Lisbon on our own, taking the subway to the Gulbenkian Museum
(not to be missed). What a magnificent collection of art, silver,
sculpture! We returned to the subway and this time went to the
Rossio, the main square in the city. After lunch at one of the
sidewalk cafes, we began walking. Even with a map of the city
(and I'm a good navigator, although obviously not in the same
league as Prince Henry) we managed to get lost in the Alfama.
Eventually we reached the Elevador do Gloria,
the funicular railway which took us almost straight up one of
the hills upon which Lisbon is built. From there we had a wonderful
view of the city and the River Tejo. On our way to the Botanical
Gardens we were fascinated to see fenced-in soccer playgrounds
- what would be basketball courts in the States. The Gardens were
a cool and beautiful spot where you seem to be in the middle of
a forest rather than in the middle of a city.
The next day we picked up our
rental car and drove south to Alcacer do Sol, on the way to Santiago
do Cacem. We saw vast orchards of cork, storks and their huge nests,
rice paddies, windmills, and sheep. The landscapes were golds and greens, with a brilliant
blue sky and terra-cotta tile roofs - magnificent! We learned
that cork can be harvested every nine years, and that "Closed
between 1:00 and 2:00" really means that!
For this part of our trip we
stayed in pousadas, beginning with the Pousada San Tiago.
This was a lovely manor house converted to lodgings. I believe
there were only eight rooms, each with individual baths, and each
charmingly different. The furnishings were beautiful, heavy wood,
and there were fresh flowers and crisp linens to complete the
We spent a leisurely morning
exploring the Santiago do Cacem, beginning with the Castle
and Mother Church. Again, I was impressed with the tile on the
ceiling of the Mother Church. We continued on to the Municipal
Museum. We found that most of the towns we visited had their own
small museum, and we considered these to be an important part
of our visit. This particular museum was formerly a prison, and
we saw a cell, in addition to artifacts from life in the 19th
century, as well as information about cork. Fascinating!
We wanted to see Mirobriga,
a Roman city dating from the first century BC, but it was closed
during the midday. So we drove on to Sagres, which is located
at the southwest tip of Europe. Here we stayed at the Pousada do Infante,
a modern building with incredible views of the ocean and the magnificent
cliffs on the peninsula across a small bay.
We used this pousada as our
base for the next three days, from which to explore the Algarve.
We spent an afternoon on the beach at Luz.
We rented snorkel equipment for
the kids, but to our surprise they came out of the water after
just a few minutes. Despite a hot (but not uncomfortably so) August
day, the water was frigid!
Another day we explored Sagres,
including the Sagres Fortress with
its huge compass rose, furnas (a natural geological feature) and
spectacular views of cliffs, beaches, and ocean; Cabo sao Vincent,
where we hiked down a steep and rocky path to the sea; and we
strolled on a beautiful beach somewhere in between the two.
When we left Sagres we drove
east to Faro, stopping at Porches to buy some pottery. The Municipal Museum in Faro has
a beautiful vaulted ceiling; the Cathedral incredibly ornate;
the Maritime Museum small but interesting; the harbor pretty;
and the cobblestone streets charming. Not surprisingly, we stayed
here longer than we had intended, before driving north toward
I'm not sure what the road was
called that we took north, only that it seemed like a direct route
between Faro and Castro Verde. What an adventure that was! Beautiful,
isolated, mountainous to be sure - but also tight curves which
mostly (thankfully!) held no one coming from the opposite direction.
The highways in Portugal are much different from the ones here
in the States. Here, roads where you are permitted to drive at
60 mph are considered to be "limited access", and at
least four lanes (two in each direction) or more. In Portugal,
everyone seemed to want to go 75 mph (120 kilometers) or more
on every highway, and most of the Principal Highways we traveled
were only two lanes wide (one in each direction). That's why when
we rounded a curve on this municipal road and saw the large truck
barreling toward us in our lane, coming around his own curve,
I was thankful I had lit two candles back at the Cathedral in
At Castro Verde we took the
IP2 north, and the landscape again became a golden plain. We saw
piles of harvested cork beside
the highway, and a goatherd
on horseback with perhaps 20 goats who had just crossed the road.
Finally we arrived at our third
and final pousada - Castelo de Alvito.
This was truly incredible! Vaulted ceilings, marble baths, four-poster
beds, immaculately tended gardens, an impressive courtyard, and
terrific views from the castle tower of the town and the surrounding
countryside. The next morning while we were enjoying the peacocks
in the gardens we heard what sounded like a thousand wind chimes
outside the castle walls. We opened the gates to see a herd of sheep wearing
bells going up the street, followed by the shepherd and his dog.
This was an enchanting place,
one where I would have liked to spend more time, but we were down
to our last full day in Portugal. We had to choose one site among
all those around Evora, so we decided to go see the Dolmen of Zambujeiro.
Why did we choose the Dolmen,
you might ask? Having seen an awe-inspiring Dolmen in the Burren
in County Clare, Ireland,
a few years earlier, we were interested in seeing this 20-foot
high monument which we read is the largest one discovered on the
Iberian peninsula. So, off we went in search of the Dolmen. It
turned out to be much more difficult than we anticipated. The
directions in the guide book and our Avis map were inadequate
to locate it. We drove a mile down a narrow dirt road, finally
stopping at a farm. This was our first encounter with Portuguese
people who spoke no English at all, and we all laughed at my attempt
to pronounce the Portuguese words in my phrase book. I thought
we succeeded in communicating, however, and these people were
so generous that the woman got into her car and had us follow
her to a place where she indicated that we should continue on.
Unfortunately, we were still lost! Eventually, however, we did
find the Dolmen! Yes, it was impressive!
From the Dolmen, we drove back
to Lisbon, where we were able to spend a couple of hours at the
16th Century Monastery of Jeronimo,
and the Maritime Museum, two sites not to be missed.
On that final night we had dinner on top of the Hotel Tivoli, looking out at the lights in the city of Lisbon. A delicious meal, a gorgeous view, impeccable service, and the piano player playing "April in Portugal" made a perfect ending for a wonderful vacation.
© 1997 Carol R. Harkins