Exploring Portugal: The Other Coast of the Atlantic

"Exploring Portugal: The Other Coast of the Atlantic," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca Journal, April 30, 2005.

“Why are you and your wife Marcia going to Portugal?” a friend asked.
“Every 63 years I visit Portugal.”
“You must be running out of places to visit.”
“Hardly. We’ve only begun to explore our world. We’ve heard wonderful things about Portugal and a ten day trip over spring break seems the ideal time to shorten winter and see a country we’ve never visited.”

Beautiful tiled mosaics, Romanesque churches, spectacular views in Lisbon that recall San Francisco, quaint meandering cobblestone streets dating back centuries, friendly people in Porto who welcome tourists as guests and friends and who when asked for directions often offer a ride, picnic lunches on rivers and the Atlantic ocean, an indigenous cuisine: Portugal--a venue somewhat neglected by American tourists-- is a delight to visit. While Portugal lacks world-class sites like the Taj Mahal or the Parthenon or the Pyramids, it contains wonderful pleasures for the tourist and is an easy place to visit. Notwithstanding the dollar’s shrunken standing in relation to the Euro, Portugal is inexpensive compared to the rest of Western Europe. Put another way, the dollar goes further in Portugal.

While my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I have traveled widely in Europe and Asia, we had never visited Portugal, a country of only 10,200,000 people. To arrange the trip I called Abreu Tours in New York, recommended to me by TAP (Portugal Airlines) as an agency that deals mainly with tour groups but does some retail business. Abreu put together for us an efficient and reasonably priced individual package that included air travel on TAP, transfers, and half day tours of Porto and Lisbon.

Most of us know less about Portugal than we do of the countries that have played a major role in recent European history, and one of the pleasures for us was learning about its history and culture. For me the delight of the trip was accentuated by my reading as we traveled the 1998 Portuguese Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s remarkable novel, The History of the Siege of Lisbon.

After defeating the Moors in 1147, Portugal reaching the peak of its influence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when it built a far-reaching empire following the explorations of da Gama, Dias, Cabral, and Magellan. Many Portuguese monuments and buildings were built during the reign of Dom Manuel I (1495-1521) in a late Gothic and somewhat pompous style that the Portuguese called Manueline. During the twentieth century Portugal was dominated by a dictator, Antonia Salazar from 1928 until 1968 and his successor Marcelo Caetano who ruled until he was overthrown in what is called the Velvet Revolution on April 25th, 1974. After that, Portugal granted independence to its remaining colonies, although in reality it had no choice. The economy began to improve and Portugal began to take part in Europe’s post-war renaissance, although it is far poorer than most of the ten countries in the European Union prior to recent expansion of that body.

After an uneventful flight on TAP, we landed in Porto March 19th to find a driver holding a card with our names written on it-- always a welcome sight to arriving passengers. I might note that the tasteless airplane food and indifferent service on both ends of the round trip flight were at the lower end of current standards for tourist class flights to Europe.

Porto, on the River Douro, is Portugal’s second largest city and the major city of Northern Portugal. Arriving at our hotel, the four star Mercure Batalha, we went through the routine of being shown mediocre lower floor rooms facing a brick wall and smelling of smoke before settling into a non-smoking small suite on the seventh floor overlooking a nice park. Experienced travelers know that the size and quality of hotel rooms in most European hotels vary greatly and that they are likely to be given a small room on a lower floor without much of a view if they do not ask for a better one.

The strengths of the Mercure Batalha are its central location, its courteous staff, its attractive lobby and public spaces, and its ample buffet breakfast featuring an array of fresh breads and fresh fruit as well as a degree of personal service. Its weaknesses are that even the good rooms are kind of dreary if not shabby, the furnishings are not attractive, unexceptional evening dining, and the hotel looks like a dormitory from the outside. But we were close to the San Bento railroad station, could walk easily to virtually any important location from our hotel, and, on balance, I’d recommend it. For a more upscale but not quite as well-located hotel, try the Porto Sheraton.

Hospitable, understated, and homogenous, Porto recalls Europe decades ago. It has been traditionally rather prosperous, but it has suffered from the demise of its textile industry. Even during Easter season, one finds relatively few tourists, a quiet pace of life, and a welcoming environment. Yet, as happens quite often in our travels, we ran into Ithaca acquaintances, in this case two people who were spending one night in our hotel as part of an Elderhostel tour.

We had a wonderful half-day tour with a company called Diana Tours including a visit to the stunning Cathedral, the Bolsa--the 19th century stock exchange with a highly decorative ballroom in Turkish style--and the cellars of a Port winery where we saw aging casks and enjoyed a small tasting. Two English tourists and two Portuguese-speaking couples from Brazil, joined us, but our personable guide easily and impressively moved back and forth between English to Portuguese. Because of her rich sense of Porto’s history, we felt that this was one of the best city tours that we had ever taken.

We explored the rest of Porto alone. Nicolau Nasoni designed much of the city’s neo-classic architecture, including interior additions to the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace behind the Cathedral. Among other major sights are the elaborately decorated Church of St. Francis, and the Museum of Contemporary Art—supposedly the largest museum in Portugal—that has an international collection of post-war Art.

Although we are not observant Jews, I have written a book on Holocaust narratives, and visiting synagogues is an important part of our European travels. In Porto, we visited the beautiful Kadoorie synagogue that was built in the unfulfilled hope that European Jews would settle in Porto after the Holocaust and that some of the descendents of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century--but who maintained some semblance of their Jewish identity--would become Jews again. Portuguese Jews, who had played an important role in the growth of the Portuguese empire, were given a choice between conversion and expulsion in 1496. The king converted them in one huge ceremony and called them New Christians, but many continued to secretly practice Judaism until the Inquisition of 1547.

The active Porto synagogue has a small congregation. We also visited the beautiful but smaller Lisbon synagogue that has a larger and more active congregation.

Because of security considerations due to anti-Semitic incidents, it is best for synagogue visitors to make prior appointments. But we rarely do this; instead we simply ring the bell outside the often discreet and walled site. After being vetted by an armed security official, we usually are courteously and most times enthusiastically shown around.

One of the great sites in Porto is the San Bento central train station, decorated inside with elegant tiles depicting the history of Portuguese transportation. On our third day in Porto, we took a train from there to Braga, an attractive city with a cathedral and a university with many young and ebullient students who enjoy talking to visitors and showing them the city’s highlights.

While there is no express train, and the fastest train stops every few minutes, we had a pleasant hour ride to cover the 33 or so miles. In the mid afternoon we took a bus—there is no train service-- from Braga to Guimaraes, Portugal’s first capital, which now features a castle and medieval buildings. Although we enjoyed the rolling hills and saw splendid scenery throughout the day, we also needed our umbrellas. . We returned by train to Porto in the early evening in time for dinner at our hotel.

Our dining experiences in Porto made it clear that we weren’t in Italy where virtually every dinner is a festive event and some dinners are fabulous. Portugal is obsessed with dried, salted codfish (bacelhau) prepared in seemingly dozens of ways, and we sampled a number of different varieties, some of which were more appealing than others. Our first dinner was at the historic Majestic Café, which is both a beautiful Art deco café where Porto’s upper income folk come to be seen and a decent restaurant. As we usually do, Marcia and I ordered and split two entrees. The codfish cakes there were appealing, although I would have voted for the steak. We found the fried codfish at the Casa Filha da Mae Preta, a restaurant along the scenic waterfront recommended in guidebooks, singularly unattractive. Our generous-- indeed monstrous--portions were so large that we gave most of our entrees to a couple sitting down nearby and saved them much of the cost of the dinner.

On March 25th we flew south to Lisbon. We hadn’t realized when purchasing our trip that all our transfers would be by private car, and that was a major plus in terms of comfort and convenience. Our hotel was he four star Mundial in the well-located Baixa district or Lower Town, an attractive area of parallel streets built after the 1755 earthquake. After being shown a few mediocre-minus rooms, we were given an acceptable room on the non-smoking floor. Two days later we were upgraded to a quite splendid room with a king size bed and a stunning view the Castle of St. George (Castelo de Sao Jorge). The strengths of this hotel were its pleasantly appointed public spaces, better room furnishings than our Porto hotel, and two quite nice restaurants. The weaknesses were perfunctory service and a dormitory quality breakfast featuring canned fruit salad, undistinguished breads, and huge serve yourself vats of coffee.

Our half-day Lisbon tour with a company called Cityrama was disappointing. More than forty people were jammed on a bus, the tour director spoke four languages to the various groups, with the result that each group had ¼ of a three hour tour in terms of information, and we were shown, along with the Monastery of Jerome, more superficial sights such as the National Coach Museum rather than the renowned Museum of Antique Arts which was in the same Belem area. For the 30 Euro (or $39 per person fee) most paid—our fee was included in the Abreu tour package--tourists received precious little.

Our Lisbon highlights included the aforementioned Castle of St. George; Easter Sunday mass at the Cathedral; the Gulbenkian museum with an eclectic collection of western, Moslem, and Chinese treasures as well as a brilliantly presented exhibit of African Diaspora art that originated in the African Museum of New York; Rua Portas de Santo Antao (a street with wonderful fresh fish restaurants in the Baixa area); the deservedly legendary pastry shop Pasteclaria Suica in the Rossario (the principal downtown square since the Middle Ages); a performance of Hayden’s Creation; the Monastery of St. Jerome; and the narrow cobblestone streets of the Alfama, the medieval section of Lisbon. Lisbon is a walking city but also has a brightly lit inexpensive underground, trams, and buses.

Our dinners in Lisbon were more interesting than in Porto. For one thing, the fish was fresh and the Dorado and trout were delicious. We had delicious versions of the fish stew known as Caldierada. For another, the deserts and pastries, especially in Lisbon in the aforementioned Pasteclaria Suica, were more delicate and subtle than those we sampled in Porto. While not world class, the upscale restaurant on the top floor in our Lisbon hotel served quite an elegant dinner and the hotel’s other restaurant was excellent and reasonably priced.

One feature of Portuguese restaurants is that instead of a cover charge they charge for every piece of bread and pat of butter that you eat. If they serve a cheese or pate with the bread they will charge for that, too. On the other hand, tax is not added on and service is included, although a small tip of a Euro is much appreciated.

We made two train excursions from Lisbon, one by train to Sintra on a cold, rainy day, another to the beach resort community of Cascais on a sunny day. Sintra attracted English writers such as Byron and Robert Southey—who described Sintra as “the most blessed spot on the whole inhabitable globe” because of its mountainous beauty and winding streets.

By chance we met the mayor of the Sintra region while we were exploring the town hall. He not only graciously told us about the prosperous and growing Sintra region but also gave us a gift a wonderful book of Sintra photographs. One major pleasure of travel is the people one meets, and this was particularly true on this trip where we had one enjoyable encounter after another with Portuguese people who spoke English reasonably well.

A little outside Sintra and at the top of the mountain are not only the ruins of the 9th century Moorish castle but also the notable nineteenth century Pena Palace where the final kings of Portugal lived until the monarchy was overthrown in 1910. The 2 ½ mile walk up the hill is a challenge and on Good Friday—probably an unwise day to make the excursion since Good Friday seemed to be as much as secular as a religious holiday to the young Portuguese--these sights were crowded and involved long waits on entrance lines.

The next day we took a train to Cascais on the Estoril Coast. Stopping briefly at the suburban beach town of Estoril before getting back on the train and going to Cascais, a lovely seaside village. After buying sandwiches at a local café-- everywhere we visited we found small cafes to be excellent sources for inexpensive and excellent sandwiches--we had a picnic overlooking the ocean before walking a little over a mile to Boca de Inferno, a natural grotto along the coastline where one can see and hear strong waves beating against cliffs and gurgling water rushing through the adjacent rocks. As we walked back to the village and the late afternoon train, we supplemented lunch with a gelato that was a legitimate rival to Italian gelato.

Because our last day was Easter Sunday, we had postponed our cathedral visit to that day, although we had done some walking in the Alfama district that contains the Romanesque Cathedral founded in 1150 to honor the victorious 1147 siege of Lisbon by Dom Afonso Henriques.

With museums closed we spent the rest of the day walking, exploring the churches, the Commercial Square next to the river, walking along the Tagus River to the district of Belem, and, stopping for lunch a small local café as we walked diagonally back narrow hilly streets through the residential Barrio Alto and on to our hotel.

Portugal is an excellent destination for those who wish a warm and welcoming vacation and are curious to learn more about a European culture that is somewhat neglected in our newspapers and standard history books. The accessible tourist offices in major and smaller cities are particularly helpful and the hotels and restaurants in general make visitors welcome tourists as guests rather than merely as sources of Euros. More like a family visit than a major wedding, more like a sonata than an opera, Portugal offers the kind of small pleasures that invite smiles and gentle memories.

If you go:

Abreu Tours, Inc.
350 fifth ave. suite # 2414
New York, NY 10118
Tel # 1-212-760-1119
Fax# 1-212-760-3306
Toll free 1-800-223-1580

Hotels (four stars with CNN and the usual amenities of first class but not deluxe hotels)
Porto: Mercure Batalha (www.mercure.com)
Lisbon: Mundial (www.hotel-mundial.pt)

Porto: Majestic Cafe
Any fish restaurant along the Rua Portas de Santo Antao (a street with wonderful fresh fish restaurants in the Baixa area).

Pastries and coffee at Pasteclaria Suica.