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 to return.

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 mood.

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 Evora.

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 Faro!

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

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