A Family Trip to Lisbon, Portugal

As the semester drew to a close (and what a good semester it was!), I began plotting an opportunity to spend some time with my kids. After a few back and forth discussions with Rebeca, we settled on Lisbon (Portugal) as a middle-ground meeting place. I had suggested Rome, but got the response, “Daddy, we’ve already been there. Let’s go somewhere new.” She knows best.

To be honest, I really should not have been taking this time for a “vacation.” As I’ve mentioned, our annual vacation started on June 9 this year. But classes and final exams were completed by May 27, by decree. As it turned out, I parlayed the all-consuming time of writing, re-writing, and re-writing again and again effort of building a new Bachelor’s curriculum into some needed time off. I more or less received tacit agreement from my department Chairman to have a little time away from the University to spend with my family. By the way, all the hard work that went into designing a new undergraduate curriculum resulted in a positive approval – truly a milestone for the Department!

Apart from Tod and Corwin telling me that Lisbon was going to be a good choice, I hadn’t thought too much about it, except that KLM had a good sale going on from KSA to European destinations. I coupled that with Delta deals on USA to Europe around the same time frame. After exploring for and landing an Air BnB for a week in Lisbon, I secured flights for me from KSA and Jack and Rebeca from Colorado.

I’m not sure the timing could have worked out better. My flight from Dammam through Amsterdam to Lisbon arrived about 30 minutes before J&R arrived Lisbon. I collected my checked bag and went over to their baggage claim area. Our Airbnb hosts arranged a pick-up for us directly to our flat. An added bonus was that, although the cleaning crew was busy when we arrived and we couldn’t take occupancy right away, we were led to a coffee shop to wait, where we were treated to an introduction and overview of the city.

Without pulling punches, I’m going to state right now, if you’ve never considered a visit to Lisbon, and you never visit that beautiful city, you’ll be missing out on a hidden gem. While destinations like London, Paris (stay tuned for the next blog entry), Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, Venice, Barcelona and other high-profile European vacation destinations remain popular for good reason, Lisbon has flown under the radar screen. The continued economic sluggishness of the past 8 to 10 years in Europe and especially Portugal makes Lisbon an affordable destination. Our Air bnb for the three of us, in a great location in the heart of the best part of the city, for 6 nights / 7 days was under $600USD.

So, put Portugal on your bucket list. The city and surroundings are spectacular. Side trips by easily navigable train rides to places like the quaint medieval town of Sintra and beach havens like Cascais will round out your trip. Make sure to do research ahead of time and plan accordingly.

Once we were seconded in our abode for the week, we set out on foot for adventure. Looming over the city is Castelo de San Juan. Lisbon is known locally as the City of Seven Hills – not sure if there are seven or twenty-seven, but the city is steep and convoluted everywhere. Only in the city center will you find flat, accommodating tourism spaces. As you’ll see, the castle gives a spectacular view of the city. After taking in the sights and recuperating from several hard climbs, we found necessary refreshment at a close-by wine bar (recommended by Corwin) for local wines and charcuterie. This was the first of many, many delicious meals (although this was just a snack).

Up to the castle. Click on any of the photos in these mosaics for a more detailed look.

The next day was a great city-wide recon day, starting with a ride on the main tourist line trolley route #28. A spin around the city on this trolley gives a great overview, lending ideas for further exploration. It’s an out-and-back journey, and we unknowingly also had to pay for the return trip. Well worth it, regardless.

Trolley No. 28 and sights around town.

The next day we motivated early (enough) and took the train to the town of Sintra, about an hour away. The train station was only about a 10-minute walk from our flat. Sintra is a beautiful town that combines a quaint village, remarkable palaces, and the well-known Castle of the Moors. Instead of taking a taxi or a tuk-tuk up to the castle, we chose the steep hike up through lush vegetation that opened up here and there to sweeping views. We made our way to the castle – it’s really quite spectacular, putting the one in Lisbon to shame… The castle, perched atop the highest point around, was built by the Moors (obviously) in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Christians decided they wanted it and the castle was taken in 1147 CE. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, heavily damaged by the big Lisbon earthquake in 1755, and now restored to its impressive glory.

Hiking up from Sintra and the Castle of the Moors.

From the Castle we hiked up to the Palacio de Pena which, after all the up and down hiking, we renamed the Palace of Pain. It’s a spectacular, if not gaudy, palace built beginning in 1836 in what is referred to as Romanesque Revivalist architecture. It’s a sprawling colorful composition of walkways, gates, rooms, towers, overlooks, and chapels, all in a variety of Neo-Islamic, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance styles.

Palacio de Pena, near Sintra, Portugal.

That evening, in an ongoing quest for great seafood, we settled into Cervejaria Ramiro, which was nearby our flat and came recommended by our hosts. The wait can be long and we passed some of the time on the patio, where there was a cool contraption sticking out of the wall that dispensed beer. Simply insert a token and out comes the beer, at least one out of five times, anyway. You buy the tokens inside the door and they give you a cup. And then they give you more tokens when the machine eats it and doesn’t produce beer. The food was served family style and we had a great time chatting with a group of Iranians seated next to us. As we were walking back to our flat, we saw a large red neon sign atop a high-rise building, and went to investigate. Walking through an unmarked door, we were instructed to go up to the 6th floor – sure enough, the elevator opened to an indoor-outdoor bar. This place became “our bar”, as we hit it a couple more nights on the way back to our flat.

Food and drink and views.

We took another train to out beyond Lisbon the following day – this time, to spend a beach day in the town of Cascais. Again, it was an easy walk to this (different) train station and, after some frustration purchasing tickets, we had about a 45 minute ride to Cascais. The water was a bracing 58°F, so we didn’t spend get too far into the Atlantic. I could talk about eastern boundary currents and coastal upwelling here, but I’ll spare you – the ocean is cold here. We jumped off the train on the way back to Lisbon, in the area of Santa Maria de Belem, where there are parks, monuments, cathedrals, and yes more castles.

Cascais, its beaches, and the grandeur of Belem.

Searching the interwebs, we found another seafood restaurant for that evening. A place with great reviews and featuring sushi and Portuguese seafood specialties, Sea Me was an absolute treat. Among a great variety of sushi, including seared anchovy, we had a table-side preparation of tartare of grouper. The food was incredible, the wine paired nicely upon recommendation by the waiter, and the ambiance was lively (in good European style, our reservation was for 10 PM and the place was just getting started. We loved it so much that we decided to go back for our last night in Lisbon.

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The tartare prior to preparation (one of the best seafood dishes we’d ever had), along with the fresh offerings. If you’re in Lisbon, go to Sea Me. You’re welcome.

I realize this is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up with a few more highlights. Nearly everywhere you go in the city, you’ll find buildings covered with colorful and ornate tiling. Artisans from the moorish period were instrumental in introducing tile art to the Iberian peninsula. After winding our way through and stopping for brunch in the Alfama district, we made the hike to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, better known in local tourist vernacular as the Tile Museum. Located in a former convent, it has an exquisite display of azulejo art from the mid-15th Century through today.

Museu Nacional do Azulejo.

Having taken an Uber back to Alfama district we took in the sights at the overlook called Miradouro das Portas do Sol (sorry, but Portuguese just looks weird when one is used to Spanish…) and stopped in the Lisbon Cathedral.

The overlook on a crystal clear day and the stately Lisbon Cathedral.

I’ll say “we”, but mostly I mean “I” had a nice visit to the Museu Geologico. I had a good conversation with one of the curators and he said that beyond being a geological (and anthropological) showcase, it was also a “museum of a museum”, essentially capturing it as it was when it opened in the late 1800’s.

The museum, a Rebeca-sized dinosaur femur and some ichnofossils.

Finally, we bade Lisbon “tchau” with another meal at Sea Me. It was a repeater…

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We three agreed that it was the best vacation ever. That is, until we go on our next one. For Lisbon, c’est tout (foreshadowing my next entry).

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