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Our trip to Portugal came in June. We flew from Atlanta to Madrid and then took TAP Air Portugal from Madrid down to Faro in the Portuguese Algarve in the south of Portugal for a tropical beginning to our vacation.
The travel books all warn about the real and ever present danger of pickpockets and purse snatchers so wear your money belts and keep your valuables in the hotel's safety deposit box. While we encountered beggars and homeless people on every train we took and many on the streets, we did not see any really threatening looking characters nor did we feel unsafe at any time during our trip to Portugal.
Faro is the biggest city in the Algarve and has the only international airport in the area.
Technically we stayed in the village of Armacao de Pera but it's quite close to the happenin' town of Albuferia. Our hotel was the incredible Vila Vita Parc. They now have a web site in English here and if you'll click here you'll get another idea of what the place looks like.
On a scale of one to ten, this sprawling hotel was a 12! Absolutely beautiful with perfectly manicured grounds full of palm trees, banana plants, hibiscus, and--I know I'm gonna spell this wrong--bougainvilleas. It wasn't cheap but if you can afford it even for one day, it's worth going into hock for.
The hotel was spread out over a massive and hilly area. It gave us plenty of exercise and it was right on the water on a cliff. The beach, however, was down a sharp set of several hundred stairs.
The architecture was Moorish with nearly all the buildings perfectly white. It reminded me of the way the Greek Islands are described. Each room was different than the one next door. Our room had a nice sitting area and two bedrooms.
As for the favorite food in the area it's fish, fish and more fish. And NOT done in the American way. In the Algarve, fish usually means a whole gutted fish thrown on a charcoal fire. Selections ranged from bream to sea bass to sole to grouper.
One night we took a cab to the old city of Silves to a place called Rui 1 at Rua Commendador. This is the place to go if you like live seafood. If you choose this restaurant you'll get an initial shock when the cab stops. The neighborhood looks more like a ghetto than anything and the restaurant has absolutely no decor whatsoever. But DO venture inside! What they do have and do an oustanding job with is the seafood. They had tanks full of crab (three kinds) and lobster. They also stocked a bunch of clams and mussels. I highly recommend this restaurant especially for people who love to pick through boiled fresh crabs. We tried all three different kind of crabs (brown, lady and spider), inhaled some clams and we even tried---are you ready for this---barnacles! That was a first for this world traveler. All you eat on the barnacle is the little snout just like a steamer clam in Boston has on it. They were quite good. No drawn butter--it just isn't used in this part of the world on seafood but the crab was outstanding. This is down home seafood eatin' and you're gonna get messy going through all those crabs so don't wear your best clothes there!
Another night we chose the restaurant A Ruina at Cais Herculano in downtown Albufeira. It is a three story restaurant that sits right on the Atlantic Ocean and most of the dining is done outside. You simply approach the icy seafood counter, personally select the fish you want char grilled and then head back to the table and your waiter brings dinner when it's ready. It's very nice at sunset and the you'll enjoy the restaurant. No tarter sauce here because they don't eat it in Portugal.
Albuferia's downtown area is loaded with dozens if not hundreds of outdoor bars and restaurants and it's right on the coast so you can broil yourself on the beach and then walk a few steps into town to shop.
The Algarve had a decidedly tropical feel to it. If you just looked around, you might guess that you were in Greece--perhaps on a Greek Island. The people were friendly and language wasn't a problem here.
From the Algarve it was off on another TAP flight to Lisbon. By the way, I think I know what TAP stands for. Terrible And Pathetic. More on that later!
Lisbon's airport is in the downtown area so in just a matter of minutes you're at your hotel. We chose the Sheraton, technically the Lisboa Sheraton Hotel & Towers. This hotel was okay but not great. It's probably the shabbiest Sheraton we've stayed at. In fact, the air conditioning sucked and it was 90 degrees outside!
The one single word that best describes Lisbon is drab. For some reason when they build new buildings there, they are all sad looking, plain and drab. Some buildings are actually crumbling. Most buildings have drab looking cement outer coverings that resemble the concrete used on highway overpasses here in the U.S. only the buildings are a lot dirtier. I'm not baggin' the city at all. It's just different. In fact, it resembled the Portuguese (or ex-Portuguese community of Macau now that the Chinese have taken over) colony of Macau near Hong Kong. Same drab buildings.
Everybody hangs out their wash on the sides of the drab buildings in Lisbon to dry. It's a sight to see.
We took the Lisbon subway and were very pleased by how modern, clean and efficient it was. A very pleasant experience.
We visited the big castle overlooking the city---St. George Castle or in Portuguese, Castelo Sao Jorge. It afforded beautiful views of the city and the huge Tagus River. We visited the Baixa--Lisbon's business district along with the Barrio Alto (upper part of this old city) and the Alfama in the lower section of the city.
Just as in the Algarve, the people of Lisbon LOVE their fish, and that's just fine with me! One great meal we had came at Cais da Ribeira at Cais do Sodre. This is a small fish restaurant right along the waterfront. We had the grilled fish and it was excellent. And as at most restaurants, the meal started off with an appetizer (brought to each table for a slight charge) of air cured ham. In this place as in many places in Spain and Portugal, they take a whole pig's leg--hoof and all--and place it on a carving stand in the restaurant and shave off paper thin slices of this dry but tasty meat.
My daughter and her husband got a bit tired of eating nothing but fish so we tried an Italian place called Casa Nostra at Rua de Rosa 84-90. The food was pretty good here. The first course of pasta was outstanding and the main dishes of meat and fish were just okay. The neighborhood looked pretty "iffy" too. In fact we were seated near an open window box with no glass or screen and the waiter cautioned us NOT to put anything on the windowsill because thieves often cruise the neighborhood looking for golden opportunities just like that.
Unlike Spain where they quite often don't even begin to think about dinner until 10pm or 11pm....most restaurants in the Lisbon area open at 7 or 7:30.
We took a side trip on an electric train to Cascais along the beautiful coastline. This is considered the Rivera of Portugal while the Algarve is looked upon as the St. Tropes of Portugal.
The train runs from Lisbon all along the coast until the last stop at Cascais, a beautiful little town. I highly recommend this jaunt. You'll pass by some of the nicest houses in Portugal along the way and experience some buildings that aren't drab, for a change. Have lunch, do some shopping and then head back to the city. This has to be one of the best deals in the world. It's about a 35 minute train trip there and back and a round trip choo choo ticket sells for about $2 U.S.
Another side trip we took by train landed us in the incredibly beautiful town of Sintra. This town is built on a hillside overlooking a valley and is absolutely charming. We only spent a few hours there but there's plenty of places to visit including the Palacio Nacional de Sintra---a royal palace until 1910 and a castle--Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors). If you have the time, please make it a point to visit this beautiful place. And enjoy nice lunch of--fish, what else!
Our experience on TAP Air Portugal was less than stellar. Planning the trip we chose to pop for business class since it wasn't much more than coach. Their web site said that on short flights, business class means that there's always an empty seat next to you. I called their reservations office and they told me that their A-320s were outfitted with a "3 and 2" seating arrangement in business with three seats on the right and two on the left. Well the first A-320 we flew had three on the right and three on the left with the center seat blocked on each side just as the web site had suggested. Our second flight came on an A-320 that had three occupied seats on the right and more or less three on the left but the center was configured so that it really wasn't a seat meaning two people sat on the left. On our final flight, it was like the first Airbus with three and three. Only on this one all three seats were filled on the right side...with the center seat blocked on the left site. My point--why pay biz class fares if you're gonna be sitting with three people in your row? And...we hated this...business class passengers were penalized and forced to board last and I mean dead last. The airline said it was a courtesy to board business class passengers last but it seemed stupid to us. Several people tried to board after all the coach passengers had been bussed out to the jet (they don't have many jet ways in Portugal) but were told politely but sternly that they'd have to wait. I don't know about you but I think this is a downright stupid way of doing business. I must, however, credit the on-board flight attendants on TAP. We got better and quicker meal service on the short 30 minute hop between Faro and Lisbon than I've had on some U.S .domestic flights lasting two hours or more.
I didn't really know what to expect from Portugal but we all agree that it was a neat experience and eventually we'd like to return and see a lot more of this intriguing country.
You'll need a Passport for this trip although unlike in Spain, you don't have to take it with you everywhere you go. Driving is on the right as it is in America. Currency is the Euro. It used to be the Escudo.