African dust cloud my a*s
(02/14/23 - 02/28/23)

Finally A trip! Portugal is our first long haul trip since the pandemic ruined everyone’s life.

We have two questionable variables on our hands. First of all, Dan has a knee injury — torn ACL and damaged meniscus. So we are not sure how he will fair with all the walking and climbing we typically do on our trips.

Second of all, our friends Gregor and Jamie are planning on joining us. We are excited to explore the country with them, but it is always an added layer of complexity when you travel with friends.

Good News, Bad News Fortunately, Dan kicks ass! Equipped with a knee brace and two dorky walking sticks, he braves the driving, walking, climbing on old rocks and stones, and all sight-seeing. Yeay. Good job Dan!

Unfortunately a trip to NOLA shortly before this trip lands Gregor with Covid… and after much ups and downs, Gregor did not recover in time to join us. It is just the two of us. Which works out ok with our fancy M5 BMW rental: a giant car as far as teeny narrow streets of Portuguese towns are concerned, but not as far as four adults with luggage are concerned!

Dust Cloud Talking of our rental car, its beautiful shiny wash lasts a total of one day: the very first morning, the car is covered — absolutely covered — in mud. We are told it is because of “African dust cloud!” Sounds made up, but turns out it is actually a thing. Still, disappointing that the valet at an Andrew Harper hotel doesn’t hose the car down before handing us the key, especially since they are used to this African Cloud mud crap!

Dan braving the stairs in Castelo dos Mouros
Tram & the book

Tram We love Lisbon, especially the Alfama district where our hotel is located. The Alfama is quintessential Lisbon: narrow streets, quiet, historic and full of trams! Oh the trams… with which Assana is obsessed. So obsessed that we create our own treasure hunt in search of the one narrow one-lane street where the tour book’s tram photo was taken. Yes, we find it! Incidentally, our obsession with the book photos doesn’t end in Lisbon: we do the same thing in Tomar, Coimbra, Porto, etc. We are dorks.

Ice Our hotel can not be in a more ideal location! And we realize the bartender is Sheri’s cocktail doppelgänger: fancy delicious cocktails with a bunch of ingredients you have never heard of, and clear ice: balled ice, giant square ice, chilled ice, you name it, and all clear!

Singing about pain!

Misery And then there is Fado, the Portuguese music of mournful tunes and lyrics: despair, sadness, grief, the life of the poor, or the men lost at sea, and their women longing for what they will never see again, etc. The singers sing about misery and feeling of loss and hopelessness! Bring it on! Who doesn’t want to listen to Fado?!

We attend a dinner & Fado event where the food is very yummy, and the music very sad... we think! But worst of all: not only we have to be sad, we have to be still and quiet! No mocking, no giggling, no joking. Cheers!

Sintra Leaving Lisbon, we visit many of the famous towns of Portugal — Porto, Coimbra, etc. We tour the restored monastery in Alcobaça, the convent and castle in Tomar, the many castles of Sintra, etc. — and Dan braves all the walking like a trooper!

Sintra, given its proximity to and easy access from Lisbon, is milling with tourist! We are smart enough to get up to the castles early in the morning, before they open, and it is still crowded. The National Palace of Pena is obnoxiously loud and bright. But we love the much more humble Castelo dos Mouros, built by the Moors eons ago. The castle is long gone, but the border wall remains. Climbing the steps to the top tower rewards us with spectacular views of the valley and the ocean.

Villages But the places that capture our heart are smaller lesser known towns and villages. One favorite is the fully restored stone village of Talasnal. Talasnal is at the end of narrow winding road and hard to get to, but worth every bit. The place is the size of a thimble but painstakingly restored and preserved! Our lunch, accompanied by many restaurant kitties, plus the tour of the whole village takes much less time than the drive each direction.

Another adorable village we love — probably Assana’s favorite — is Monsanto. Monsanto is built into and around giant boulders, and similar to many other villages, has a hill-top castle in various state of disrepair. And again, Dan, like a champ, keeps up with climb! Go Dan, go!

One Way Talking of little towns, the biggest lesson we learn is to not trust Apple Maps. We don’t know why we ever actually forgot that lesson! As we blindly follow the instructions towards Leiria's town center, the streets get narrower and narrower… until we find ourselves in a 3 meter wide one way street! Eventually the little old ladies we are following with our big ass car clue us in: No no no no!

With the help of a local who insisted that we turn around, vs just backing out the 100 feet, Dan makes a miraculous 56 point turn at a T with an equally narrow street. Good job baby!

Countryside Porto, Portugal’s second largest and most popular city, is pretty, but it is just another lived-in city. Our original itinerary had us in Porto for 3 nights, but after a day of walking through Ribeira, over the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, taking a river boat tour on Rio Douro, and snacking on olives and sangria on the riverbank in afternoon, we are glad to be heading out of town. And no, we didn’t even go through Douro Valley; wine countries: you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all!

Fancy No trip is complete without a National Park visit. We stay in a swanky hotel inside Serra da Estrela Natural Park on our drive through eastern sides of the country (and our way to Monsanto). The food is amazing, the decor is painfully cool, and everything is for sale! You like the blanket? You can buy it! How about the coffee cup? Yup, it could be your's.

The park sits at 6500’ of elevation and our room has a view of the valley and the town of Mantaigas. Quite spectacular. We are sure the park has a lot to offer during summer, but it is winter and the vegetation is mostly dormant.

The drive to Monsanto, and eventually through portions of Alentejo to Évora, takes us through miles and miles of olive orchards. The trees appear to be hundreds of years old with massive trunk bases. Really pretty. We don’t spend as much time in Alentejo… wish we had. Except for bad wine, it has a lot to offer and fewer tourists than elsewhere. Perhaps if we return!

Fancy set-on-fire dessert

Surprise Portugal surprises us! It is cleaner and safer than we thought. The food, especially grilled octopus, is great, roads and highways have zero potholes, tolls are frequent and expensive, people are nice, and geography is diverse. Almost on daily basis we are caught off guard by something we don't expect… including full-on Roman ruins smack in the middle of Évora!

No wonder everyone is trying to move to Portugal! We are happy to live in California, but also happy for our visit.

Obligatory final tram photo

References & Links