Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal
Thursday, June 3, 2010

We had been told that the entry to Lisbon was beautiful, and it was. Lisbon and many of its suburbs are stretched along the wide Tagus River, and as the ship entered the river, we saw the white buildings of greater Lisbon for miles. As we passed under the 25th of April bridge (the longest suspension bridge in Europe), we were welcomed by the towering Christo Rei monument that stands facing Lisbon across the Tagus River. This monument, constructed in 1959, is a copy of the more famous monument in Rio de Janeiro, which was constructed in 1931. As we sailed a few miles up the river to the port, we passed other landmarks in Lisbon -- the Belem Tower, a former fortress, and the Monument of the Discoveries, to commemorate Portugal’s many discoverers in history -- as well as a skyline filled with churches and cathedrals.

The ship arrived in Lisbon on a national holiday, Corpus Santus, and stores and government buildings were closed. I had intended to mail some things home from the post office at the dock, but it was closed, as were UPS and Federal Express. I had planned to take the hop on/hop off bus to view the city; I enjoy these busses because they go to all the important places and they have audio commentary in English. When I went to breakfast, we saw Gilles and Denise, friends I had met from Montreal, and we spotted the red and yellow busses directly across the street from the port building. We decided to tour together, and after breakfast, we met at the gangway, and we were off.

As we exited the port building to cross the street, a taxi driver who spoke good English approached us and would not take no for an answer. His persistence paid off, and we decided to take his taxi, a Mercedes Benz, for the entire day for only 50 euros each. He promised to take us to far more places than the hop on/hop off bus would take us. He took us first through the old Moorish section of Lisbon, the Alfama, and stopped at the 12th century Se Cathedral, which survived the devastating earthquake of 1755, which destroyed most of Lisbon at that time and killed 30,000 people. We also stopped at the Santa Engracia church with its great dome, which serves as a pantheon for many of the great heroes of Portuguese history.

We then drove up the hill to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, but we did not pay the fee and enter as the most important thing in the Castle is the view of the city, and we chose instead the much better views from the Alto do Parque Belvedere, a beautiful panoramic overlook of the city. We drove through the Baixa section, or Lower Town, and stopped for photos at the “Black Horse” Praca do Commercio, or Commercial Square. We then stopped at the Rossio Square, the location of the National Theater of Dona Maria II as well as shops and outdoor restaurants. I quickly stepped nearby to the Rua August, the beautiful pedestrian street, for a photo. Leading North from the Rossio Square is the 1879-vintage Avenue of Liberty, a beautiful wide boulevard lined with shops and park benches and covered by a canopy of trees. The boulevard reminds one of the Champs Elyses in Paris. The boulevard leads up to the tall monument to the Marquis do Pombal.

From there, we headed out to the little mountainside town of Sintra, about 15 miles away. We wandered through the narrow streets filled with souvenir vendors and stopped at Piriquita, a local patisserie, for Travesseiros de Sintra, a wonderful local pastry. It was hot from the oven and was a perfect lunch, along with coffee. I took photos of the church, but did not pay the fee and enter. The principal visit of the day was just up the mountain from Sintra, the Palacio Nacional da Pena, an incredible mountaintop Moorish fortress that was later used by Spanish kings as a retreat. What an incredible place that was, similar to the Alcazar in Seville. No photos were permitted inside, so I had to buy a CD of photos from the gift shop.

From Sintra, we headed to the beach north of Lisbon from where we would drive along the beach back to Lisbon and the ship. We stopped for a photo at Guincho Beach, where we were almost blown away by the high winds. Because of the holiday and the warm day, the beach was very busy. We then drove through the beautiful beach town of Cascais, formerly a quiet fishing village and now a very upscale beach community of high rise apartments, outdoor restaurants and shops. From there we drove through Estoril, another beach town made famous as the scene of the first James Bond film. Portugal remained neutral during the cold war, and the Hotel Palacio in Estoril was a well-known vacation place for spies from both sides. Ian Fleming visited Estoril and wrote one of his books based on the site. We then drove past Carcavelos Beach, the largest of the public beaches, and it was packed with beachgoers. The traffic was very heavy and slow all through this drive.

We passed through Belem and stopped at the Jeronimos Monastery for a photo; however, the monastery was closed because of the holiday. We were going to stop for a pastry at the famous Pasteis de Belem, but we did not have enough time, nor did we stop at the Belem Tower, a former fortress guarding the mouth of the river. From there, we drove directly to the port, arriving at 4:15, a few minutes of the “all aboard” time of 4:30. It was a great day, and we visited all of the sites that were on all of the ship tours for less than one third the cost. Lisbon is a very beautiful city. I felt that I only touched the surface of Lisbon in our one-day port stop. It would be great to return to Lisbon for a week or more sometime.

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