Portugal, Day Eleven: Sintra


On this day we went to Sintra—which is just a short distance north of Lisboa, and very near the coast—to see the Moorish castle there. It’s what my sister-in-law referred to often as the “storybook castle” because it looks like something out of a fairy tale.

That was a deliberate choice, as it turns out. King Ferdinand II decided to have the castle restored in keeping with the Portuguese version of Victorian aesthetics. Gardens, moss, and crooked trees were all mixed with the beautifully ruined walls and buildings.

Storybook. Unfortunately, it was more elaborate art installation than useful reference material, so I didn’t take a whole lot of pictures (to my wife’s annoyance). Also, it sat atop a tall mountain, so not only did I have my usual twinges of anxiety from the height of a wall, there was the long, long cliff faces on the other side. Yeah, the view was panoramic, when I could pry my clutching fingers from the stonework and lift my head to take a look.

It didn’t help that I was primed for anxiety by the ride up the mountainside. We rode—standing room only—on a full-sized bus that swung through switchback after switchback. Fast, too: the driver knew the route well and he was rushing up paying tourists up and down the slopes.

Which meant I had to hold on for deal life while looking down through the windows at the slopes we were zooming past.

I didn’t get too many pictures, and everyone was a little too burned out to make the trip to the other hill and see the Palace, so home we went for quiet time and a chance to catch up with old friends.

Portugal, Day 11

Portugal, Day Ten


When I dragged my kid to the castle in Tomar, I said: When are we going to get another chance to see a castle?

Well, derr on me, there’s a castle right within Lisboa city limits. Of course there is. My wife’s Italian friends are historians, so we thought it would be educational to see a castle with them.

But first! A church. Churches and castles, man. That’s what Europe’s all about.

The church was actually the Lisboa Cathedral, and it was cooler than the castle, but only once you paid to see the treasury and the cloisters. The paid parts contained an archaeological dig that revealed Roman roads and sewers, Moorish homes, and a bunch of Christian sepulchers. Have some pics below.

The castle was pretty crowded, as you’d expect, and it was full of money-making opportunities for the city. There was a fee to enter and lots of opportunities to buy souvenirs and espresso. It was still pretty cool, but a little Disney-fied.

By then my feet were hurting like whoa, because the public transportation to those sites is packed. We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant, where the waiter talked us out of the meal we wanted to order into the house special. It turned out to be, once again, meat w/ two carbs, no veg. I’m pretty much over Portuguese food.

Portugal, Day Ten

Portugal, Day Nine: Turkey Day


Today was Thanksgiving in Portugal (almost two months early) for my wife’s American friends who have been living in Italy.

There’s not much to tell, so I won’t. I cooked a lot. It went over well. I met one of my sister-in-law’s Portuguese friends and my wife’s friend’s partner from Italy. Both tried to greet me with kisses on the cheek, but I out-awkwarded them. I did not go on vacation to kiss people I don’t know, and if that’s a requirement I should have been warned ahead of time.

So, instead of talking about the nice time we had, I’m going to talk about a few other things. Just a quick summing up of some of the fun things that have been going on:

1. Portuguese sidewalks are made of calçada[1] which is really just a whole lot of similar, mostly square, stones laid out in a grid. Many of the websites that talk about it address the art/mosaic qualities it sometimes has: In downtown Lisboa, the sidewalks have all sorts of designs. In Tomar, they were Templar crosses. But those are in the historic districts, not the regular neighborhoods. In the rest of the country, it’s just plain yellow stones. Here’s a pic.


Yeah, it’s not flat. I’m sure it’s super-sturdy and resilient, but man is it unfriendly to feet and bicycle tires.

2. Here’s how you order coffee in Lisboa:
Bom dia. Queria um cafe, fazh favor.
Pronounced: “Bohn DEEya. Keh-REE-ya oon caff-ay, fazh fav-or”
Translated: Good day. I would like one coffee, please.

If you want two coffees, you say “doysh” cafe. For three, “traysh” cafe. “Doysh” has become my new favorite word.

The “cafe” you get is a straight espresso shot in a tiny cup, with a packet of sugar on the side. To get other kinds of coffee, check this out: http://americaninportugaltours.com/how-to-order-savor-coffee-in-portugal/

3. If it’s after noon, you can switch out “cafe” for “imperial” (imp-ear-ee-AHL), which is a schooner of beer. The house beer is generally a light bock. If you want a full pint, you order something else, which I don’t remember because I’ve never ordered one.

But that’s only in the southern part of the country. In the north, it’s something else.

4. It seems to me that Portuguese sounds like a mix of Spanish and Russian.

5. Lisboa has pushed my tolerance for funny waiters who do intrusive comedy routines into the red zone. Let’s consider this an opportunity for my personal growth.

6. Portugal, Brazil, and several other Portuguese-speaking countries recently enacted an agreement that would bring their different versions of the language into one. A number of changes and simplifications have been made with regards to the way people spell certain vowel sounds, and with the elimination of silent letters in words. However, the weirdest thing is that Portuguese now includes letters it didn’t have before: K, W, and Y.

Looking around at all the Portuguese signs on stores and on book covers, I have never seen those letters used, ever. The only place I’ve seen them is in English language text and in graffiti. Google tells me that “GWK”, which is all over the place here, stands for “Graffiti Word Krew.”

7. Portugal has a lot of graffiti.

[1] pronounced “cal-SAH-da” I believe. In Portuguese, the “C” always makes a “K” sound when the vowel that follows it is an “A”, “O”, or “U”. If the vowels that follow it are an “E” or “I”, it makes an “S” sound.

But what if you want an “S” sound in the middle of a word with a following “A”, “O”, or “U”? Then, you change the “C” to an “Ç”. That’s a “cedilla” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ç

Portugal, Day Eight


It’s always challenging to cook in someone else’s kitchen, right? Well, I impressed myself with today’s pepperoni frittata. Let’s pretend you tasted it and were impressed, too.

Today was a prep day. My wife and her sister have a friend flying in from Italy—a friend they haven’t seen in years and years, but have kept in touch with—and they’ve decided to surprise him with a traditional American Thanksgiving meal: roast turkey, sausage stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, apple pie, the whole deal.

But first, supplies: I was excited to go to the old bull-fighting ring with my son. There was a food court where he and I could sit with our laptops and while away a few hours, and there was shopping to be done.

Unfortunately, the bull-fighting ring was mostly a shopping mall, and the food court was cramped and noisy as hell. To me, it was just an indistinguishable clamor, but it really bothered my son. We tried to slip away to a quieter place, but their internet wasn’t working. In the end, we just went back to the apartment and did a little work. Too bad. I would have liked to have pretended part of my new book was written in a bull-fighting ring, even if no one knew the truth.

Oh, and there was a bookstore but nothing I could read, of course.

Lots of quiet and lots of cooking today.

Portugal, Day Eight

Portugal, Day Seven (and on the seventh day…)


You know what’s nice? Taking it easy. I’m not a kid anymore and we’re in Portugal for a full month. I don’t need to rush every day. In fact, a little downtime to get some writing done is just the thing.

I spent the morning working quietly in the lobby of the Residencial Uniao, our “guest house.” The chairs were very comfortable, and for once I didn’t just nod off in one of them. Then we caught a train back to Lisboa, carried all our stuff into my sister-in-law’s apartment, and I fell over into a deep sleep for several hours.

That eventing we had leftovers from the fridge: chili, octopus and rice, good bread…

Actually, have I talked about the bread in Portugal? The local word is pão.

It’s incredible. As troublesome as we sometimes find the food here, the bread is always first-rate.

Anyway, we played another game of iota, then had quiet time. A day off. It was nice.

Here’s a picture of an old building. If you like decayed places, Portugal is the place for you.

Old things

Portugal, Day Six


The day before, we’d agreed that my son would not have to come up the hill to the castle because we thought he’d have to walk the whole way, and he can’t do that without pain. However, once we found out about the train-car, we had to drag him up there.

Actually, I dragged him up there while his mom and her sister brought their sketch pads to the local gardens (which turned out to be more park than garden, but whatever). With the boy, I found parts of the castle that I’d missed the previous trip, but things were also cut short due to pain. I don’t have many pictures today, because the boy was reluctant. I do have a photo of the train-car, though.

Portugal, Day Six

Food-wise, the day was better. The less expensive Italian place was open, and the boy got the pizza he’d been wanting. After that, my wife and her sister wandered the town with their sketch books, while I kicked back on my computer, mostly writing these blog posts. We wrapped up the day by playing a round of iota, a card game so small that it fits into a tiny bandaid-sized tin, and is perfect for travel.

It was sorta sad that we’ve had two meals out that we really enjoyed, and both were in Italian restaurants.

Portugal, Day Five


There are, in fact, two walking tours to take in Tomar, Portugal. One goes through the historic part of town, and the other trudges up the hill to the castle and convento.

The boy has issues with foot pain, so he only had to do one, and naturally he chose the one on flat ground. The tour of Tomar was enjoyable enough. We saw a beautiful old church with a relic inside, and very modern river walks, and the oldest synagogue in Portugal, which was shut down in the 1500s sometime due to forced conversion. We also saw that a bunch of the restaurants in town were closed and that the beautiful old churches were holding mass. Hello, Sunday.

After an unsatisfying lunch (the boy had already eaten from a Grab n Go automat-type thing) we started toward the long uphill trek to the castle. My feet already hurt. My wife’s knee was aching (she hadn’t taped it correctly, somehow) and my sister-in-law’s foot and ankle were sore, but we were determined.

And what did we see but a little train-car parked in the Praça da República, ready to take us up to the castle? By “train-car”, I mean that it was a four-wheeled car with a chassis like a steam train, and three passenger cars that it towed along behind. So we didn’t have to walk up the hill after all.

The castle was a castle. If you’ve been to Europe you’ve probably seen a bunch, but this was my first trip and I’d never walked along a castle wall before, or looked through the archery slits, or stared up at the gates, imagining myself storming the place. It was pretty cool.

The Convento de Christo was even cooler, full of multiple levels and one cloister after another. I would have been lost in that place in flash, if I’d ever been a novitiate.

Of course there are pictures.

Portugal Day Five

We caught the last train-car back, then hunted everywhere for good food. We failed to find it, but we did get some calories. But no meal, no matter how disappointing, could darken the day we had.

Portugal, Day Four


For the fourth day, the boy stayed home while I accompanied my wife and sister-in-law on a shopping trip. When we do our shopping in Seattle, we go to the local supermarket, get everything we need, then haul it home. In Lisboa, there were vegetable stalls in the church parking lot, a butcher shop, then a big market building that held a number of different sellers displaying fish, meat, veg, the whole deal. We even ordered a turkey from yet another butcher shop. After that, it was the health food store so my wife could have some gluten-free foods.

It felt very European, which means we walked around a lot.

After, we dropped by my sister-in-law’s health club for an afternoon drink at an outside table.

This is what everyone imagines themselves doing in Europe, right? You sit outside with a little coffee or a whatever, enjoy beautiful weather, chat, and people-watch.

I won’t lie. It’s pretty great.

Sadly, it doesn’t take long for me to start feeling antsy. I should be writing. I could be reading. I could be jotting down one of these posts. Taking it easy is hard.

Then, in the afternoon, we caught the subway to Gare do Oriente, their big train station, and then took a two-hour local train to Tomar. You pronounce the name of the town Too-MARR. If you raised your hand in a flourish with that last syllable, you’d get the spirit of the thing.

My brother-in-law was about to record an album, and he needed the apartment space to put up the musicians who were coming into town to play. So this was our first big tour of the country, and it was coming quickly.

Tomar was founded by a Templar, and there’s a castle (a castle in Europe? No way!) but the Convento De Christo is supposed to be the real reason to visit. It’s supposed to be unique and amazing.

We made our way to the guest house my sister-in-law had reserved, which sounds like we had our own little house, doesn’t it? Nope, it was a funky old hotel called Residencial Uniao Take a look. Or: https://goo.gl/maps/ztQxQp7hchu

If you back up that street view, you’ll see the Praça da República and the statue of the Templar who founded the town. But we have pictures, too.

Portugal Day Four

Still, it was too late to do anything but eat, and since the tourist season was closing, it was tough to find a place. Luckily, we came across an Italian restaurant with wisteria growing along the patio. I had chicken with blood sauce, which tasted a lot like blood sausage. The boy, sadly, ordered more shrimp, and was disappointed when they arrived with the heads still on. He’s going to give up on shrimp for the rest of our trip.

Portugal, Day Three


Four times a year, for three days only, the Museum of Lisboa opens the city’s Roman galleries to the public, and since the fall dates were perfectly timed with our visit, my sister-in-law arranged for us to go.

One problem: the Galerias Romanas were on the Rua de Prata (the street of silver, because that was once the street all the silver smiths were on) but there was no further detail. It was somewhere on that street, which is about 8 blocks long. We were told that people would need to arrive at the meeting place 30 minutes early, and that we couldn’t leave bags near the monument, but there was no address included with the reservation confirmation. What monument? What meeting place? An email sent to the museum asking for an address was never answered.

And this is something my brother- and sister-in-law explained about Portugal: as cultures go, it’s very non-confrontational. Passive, even. People drive like crazy, but they rarely honk. People are routinely late, only to find the person still there waiting for them, an hour past the time they agreed to meet, and no mention of the delay will ever be made. People will lie to your face to avoid saying something that might upset you.

So you end up with things being done in a half-assed way, because there’s no strong/systemic correction. A major city museum will tell people to be at the meeting place a half hour early but never specify where the meeting place is.

This sort of thing will come up again during our trip.

Anyway, we walked down the Rua da Prata and, a block from the end, I saw a cordoned off side street, a hole in the asphalt, and a woman in street clothes being helped down.

“There it is,” my wife said immediately, and she was right. It was right there in the middle of the street, and that street was not the Rua da Prata. It was near the intersection with Rua da Prata, but it was not the street itself.

The galleries themselves were pretty cool, but not extensive. I have pictures, naturally, and the tour guide explained that they’ve been rediscovered several times over the centuries, often so that shop owners could use them as free storage. In fact, that was probably what they were built for originally.

Also, GMs: you are not getting the smell of your dungeons right.

Sadly, they’re prone to flooding, and one shop-owner’s brilliant idea to store sacks of cement down there has severely damaged one section. Also, they were blocked off in the 1800’s. The only evidence that there are more galleries are the drawings made years and years ago; the only way modern archaeologists will get access to the hidden galleries will be if a shop owner digs down and uncovers them. Unfortunately, shop owners know the galleries are there and they won’t do that, because they would have to notify archaeologists and it would be a mess. It will probably take another massive earthquake to open them up for study.

Some pics:

Portugal Day Three

Afterwards, my son was a little freaked out by the smell, how dirty they were, and how dirty he’d gotten down there. (It didn’t help that the tour guide talked about sewage floods in the distant past.) I took him back to the apartment while my wife and her sister hit the town. They had a great time and saw amazing things. We slipped out to a restaurant where no one spoke English, ordered skewers of bacon-wrapped beef.

Inedible. The beef still had the silverskin attached, so it was impossible to cut the pieces small enough to eat using the dull knives we’d been given. It wasn’t all that easy to chew, either. The bacon was undercooked, so it was all soft and squishy. It also had tiny bones in it. Bones in bacon? I didn’t even realize that was possible, but there were tiny round chips in there.

You know how American food is sometimes derided as meat, carb, and two veg? (As thought that’s boring?) Well, Portuguese food is meat, two carbs, and no veg at all. The menu item will only list the meat; it’s assumed you’ll want a plate of fries and a plate of rice with it. I ate a bit for politeness’s sake, then we got out of there.

So far, Portuguese cuisine isn’t winning me over, and the boy has been decidedly uncomfortable with it.