The Joys of Revisiting Portugal

"The Joys of Revisiting Portugal," PrimeTimes/Ithaca Times, Aug. 2023, 8-9, 14-15.

All photos by Marcia Jacobson

Relatively inexpensive and safe, Portugal has become a popular tourist destination as well as second and even first home choice for residents of Europe and the US. My wife, Marcia Jacobson, and my only visit to Portugal was 21 ago. Those fond memories triggered our desire to return in April for 12 days on our annual spring trip to Europe.

On our first Portugal visit in 2002 we visited Porto and Lisbon. We took a few day trips, one to Sintra, with its palaces and castles, and another to the coastal town of Cascais. From Porto we took a train to Braga and a bus from Braga to Guimarães, Portugal's first capital, and then a train back to Porto.

This time we decided to stay in Lisbon for six nights and include five nights on the Algarve in the South of Portugal. On the Atlantic Ocean, Algarve features beautiful seaside views, beaches, and quaint fishing villages. Unlike the sometimes-rainy weather of our earlier trip, we enjoyed mild sunny weather ranging from the 60s Fahrenheit in Lisbon to the 70s in the Algarve.

After uneventful --if minimalist in terms of food and service--direct flights from JFK to Lisbon on TAP the Portuguese national airline, we arrived in Lisbon and took an Uber to our hotel.

While we were in Portugal the Euro was about $1.10. It is worth noting that with some exceptions taxis and Ubers are usually quite inexpensive in Lisbon, often less than $12.

Lisbon is a bustling city of about 500,000 with easy access to historical and cultural sites as well as excellent restaurants. Lisbon is defined by neighborhoods; among the most interesting are Baixa, Chaido, Bairro Alto, Alfama and Belém. As we walked the neighborhoods, we saw that Lisbon has been quite gentrified since our last visit 21 years ago, with renovations in the older districts.

Lisbon from the castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge)

Lisbon from the castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge)

Lisbon is a walking city but be aware that there are some significant hills to ascend to the major sites. I found that when we asked walking directions, our concierge service in both of our hotels and the people we asked on the street were not as precise as in most other countries. I should add that I am somewhat directionally challenged; my wife is less challenged, but she is not a Sherpa guide.

Highlights of Lisbon (in no special order); 1) the Gulbenkian Collection Museum with a world class collection of paintings, sculptures, and ceramics from many different areas of the world as well as pleasant gardens; 2) a wonderful evening of traditional Fado music at Cafe' Luso;

Fado singer at Cafe' Luso

Fado singer at Cafe' Luso

3) the Castelo de Saint George and the surrounding wall;

Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), Lisbon

Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), Lisbon

4) the Se Romanesque Lisbon Cathedral dating back to the 12th century in the historic Alfama area, the oldest section of Lisbon, with its winding streets and challenging inclines;

Se Romanesque Cathedral in Lisbon in the Santa Maria Maior  district; newer Gothic addition on left and older barrel vaulted section on right.

Se Romanesque Cathedral in Lisbon in the Santa Maria Maior district; newer Gothic addition on left and older barrel vaulted section on right.

5) the excellent Lisbon Zoo (Jardim Zoologico) has, among other animals living in natural habitat areas: a jaguar, leopards, tigers, and lions. The air tram is included in the admission price and enables visitors to see the entire zoo; we took it twice. (My zoo-loving wife never lets us miss one in our travels.)

Other suggestions: Walk the winding streets of Baiza to the waterfront and see the beautiful square called Praça do Comércio with shops and views of the harbor. Take the tram to Belém to see the St. Jeronimo Monastery, the Belém Tower, and a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean. Visit the Museum of Ancient Art.

Jewish Portugal
Another highlight for us was meeting an architectural student who took us for a stroll in the old Jewish quarter, including the street called Rua da Judiaria in the Alfama area. We visited a young man working for a Jewish organization who talked with us about the Lisbon Jewish community past and present. We also visited Lisbon's main synagogue called Shaare Tikva, or Gates of Hope, which was built in the early 20th century as Jews began to return to Portugal; an appointment is required to see and have a guided tour of this synagogue.

Portuguese Jews, who had played an important role in the growth of the Portuguese empire, were given a choice between conversion or 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.

On our last trip we had visited Porto's beautiful Kadoorie - Mekor Haim (Source of Life) Synagogue, dedicated in 1938; it is the largest synagogue on the Iberian Peninsula. The synagogue, with an active but small congregation was built in the unfulfilled hope that European Jews would settle in Porto after the Holocaust and that some of the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in the late 15th century, but who maintained some semblance of their Jewish identity would become Jews again.

I often read fiction or history relevant to the culture of our travel destination. In celebration of our trip to Portugal, I read Portuguese Nobelist Saramago”s brilliant experimental novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis which draws upon the work of Fernando Passoa. This novel also references major political and historical events of 1935-36 during the Salazar dictatorship, the ascendence to power of Franco in Spain, Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia, and the early years of Hitler.

Lisbon Hotel
We stayed at the very nice and hospitable five-star Sheraton Lisboa in Saldanha district, a major business district with many mid-price restaurant choices. The hotel has a good gym and a heated outdoor pool, although the weather was not warm enough for outdoor swimming, The hotel staff is welcoming, warm, and capable. Another plus: The hotel staff got us the best seats at the Fado Club and made sure we were treated well at the restaurants where they made reservations for us.

Because of our Marriott Elite status (the Sheraton is now part of the Marriott chain) we were upgraded to a suite and had a splendid view from the 24th floor. Once the Club Floor, the 25th floor, is now accessible to all guests and has a panoramic view of the city. Our Marriott status also entitled us to splendid breakfasts and generous hors d'oeuvres from 5pm to 7 pm which could have served for dinner if we wished to pass on going out. We had wonderful fresh orange juice not only at breakfast but whenever we wanted. What Portuguese call “white melon” is close to our honeydew and quite delicious.

Lisbon Dining
Our average dinner with coffee some nights but not alcohol cost in the $55 range for two. Because portions are generous, we often spilt a starter, entrée (often accompanied by potatoes and a vegetable), and dessert.

We ate wonderful fresh fish most nights during our entire Portugal stay, but the Lisbon highlight at Colina (Rua Filipe Folque 46-A) was a whole sea bass, baked in a salt crust which keeps it moist. The spectacle of the flaming fish brought to the table followed by a knowledgeable waiter expertly breaking the crust, deboning the fish, and serving it is almost as much fun as eating it.

Waiter freeing baked fish from salt at Colina, a Lisbon fish restaurant

Waiter freeing baked fish from salt at Colina, a Lisbon fish restaurant

At Colina, the fish was preceded by a mixed salad and served with roast potatoes and broccoli. Although we had enough food for four, we did split a tasty Almond meringue desert. We returned to Colina another night for sea bass fillets.

At the upscale Degust'AR Lisboa (Rua Latina Coelho 63A), perhaps the most elegant of the Lisbon restaurants we visited, we split beautifully served sea bass and samples of local deserts.

We had a nice lunch at the Gulbenkian Museum of quiche and salad; and another day a delicious gelato cone served our luncheon needs.

At Café Luso, we considered the less than stellar fixed-price tourist dinner a cover charge for the fine Fado performances. The meal ranged from mediocre minus (red bean soup without noticeable beans) to decent chocolate mousse.

Be advised that Portuguese restaurants put on the table bread, butter, olives, and often cheese and ham; you will be charged individually for whatever you eat. Sometimes this so-called “cover” charge can add up to ten or so euros per person if you eat it all; for example, a pat of butter can be as one or even one and half Euros, but you can turn this “cover' down or ask for a cover for one person even if you are two or more and they will serve you less.

Our Sheraton hotel features a fun but somewhat pricy dinner combining animation and five excellent courses. Called Le Petit Chef, it is an immersive theater and dining experience where the chef is a 2.3--inch tall Frenchman; he is projected onto your table as he gathers the appropriate ingredients and prepares each course.

We took a three -hour train ride to Albutiera from Entrecampos station in Lisbon and then a 17 Euro taxi drive—an exorbitant rate for Portugal-- to our nearby Pine Cliffs resort.

We were visiting Algarve for first time and enjoyed the Atlantic at the base of stunningly scenic cliffs.

Beach with Cliffs at our Pine Cliff Resort in Albuferia

Beach with Cliffs at our Pine Cliff Resort in Albuferia

The view from the resort overlooking the cliffs is unforgettable and a reason to be in this area. At Pine Cliffs properties you can either walk to the sea or descend much of the way by elevator.

Beach at Pine Cliffs resort in Albuferia

Beach at Pine Cliffs resort in Albuferia

Due to 60-to-65-degree Fahrenheit water temperature, we mostly took long walks along the beautiful sandy beach. We often took off our shoes waded up to our ankles but felt that the water was too cool for serious swimming.

To explore the Algarve region, we hired for several hours a splendid English-speaking driver who had emigrated from South Africa. After an hour scenic drive, we reached Monchique, the highest point in the region, where we enjoyed some magnificent views, then off to the city of Portimão and its beautiful harbor, and finally to Ferragudo, a quaint fishing village.

Algarve Hotel
Our Pine Cliffs hotel is part of a huge and quite elegant property which includes privately owned homes and rentals as well as the hotel. The land is owned and developed by a Kuwait family company. We found the hotel not as tightly run as it might be. While advertising itself as five-star hotel within Marriot's Luxury brand, it is at best a four-star hotel which charges exorbitant prices in its restaurants and is staffed by complacent, somewhat impersonal, relatively inexperienced staff who called themselves senior managers. It is possible the new General Manager, who arrived while we were there, will make a difference.

Our room had a nice view of the ocean and a terrace. I enjoyed the gym and swam once in the heated indoor pool. As part of our package one visit to a thermal spa on the premises was included.

Algarve Dining At the Pine Cliffs Hotel, we again arranged for a fish cooked in salt, this time a sea bream or dorado, sometimes call orate. (Fish names at restaurants and even at fish markets are more fungible that most people realize.). The fish was preceded by tiger prawns from Mozambique which look like clawless rock lobster but are much firmer.

Unpretentious but with an owner anxious to please, A Lagosteira (Santa Teresa 1A, Vale de Carro, 8200-380 Albufeira) is a sea food restaurant just outside Pine Cliffs. We split what was called “large portion of sea bass” before sharing a crepe dessert and after sharing shrimp bisque.

La Cigale (Prala de Othos d'Aqua), has a beautiful view of the Atlantic. After a longish walk on bac streets to get there, we returned We split dorado, which was excellent, but the fish soup was undistinguished.

On a Sunday night when many restaurants were closed, we had a surprisingly good and very inexpensive meal ($22) at the Taste of Punjab (Olhos d'Aqua. 8200-380 Albufeira) which is close to our hotel. We shared both tandoori lamb and prawn saagwala along with mango lassis.

Portugal is a fine place for a moderately paced vacation with a plethora of surprises. The best preparation for a trip to Portugal may be reading José Saramago, Portugal's only Nobelist, especially The History of the Siege of Lisbon and the forementioned The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. His recent books include How to Succeed in College and Beyond and Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009. He has been writing travel articles for more than 20 years and has visited more than 100 countries. He can be reached at