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Lisbon and Porto: Portugal’s two cities of excess


The Cambridge English Dictionary gives us this definition of excess: “an amount more than expected or reasonable. “ Easily, one could also give this example of excess: “a trip to Lisbon and Porto.” The two Portugal cities outdo one’s expectations in grandeur, adventure, beauty, and hospitality. Last September a friend and I spent only four days in each town. This whirlwind vacation exceeded our expectations in every way. In fact, we had to come home to rest, to recall fondly our trip, and to hope to return again for more of the country’s wonderful overdose of splendor.

Landing at the Lisbon Airport we received word of a taxi strike. Disgruntled with Uber taking over many jobs, the taxi drivers lined up their cabs all along the outskirts of the airport and other prominent roads. It seemed as if the cars sat plucked against curbs for miles upon miles, and yet the city functioned quite well. The Airport Bus ran every thirty minutes, delivering us just a few minutes’ walk to our hotel. The city busses are well marked and frequent, and the metro is a breeze to use for reaching just about any destination in town. We expected a slowdown, if not an outright stop, to reaching many tourist destinations. Instead, the city exceeded our expectation and handled the strike exceptionally well. This proved a great introduction to the city. Reasonably, we expected an excess of gridlock and traffic woes. Instead, Lisbon delivered a city knowing excessively well how to handle a could-have-been traffic nightmare.

While in Lisbon, we enjoyed three walking tours. Our first afternoon we explored the heart of Lisbon with Take Lisboa’s Free Walking Tour. As promised, we discovered a city of adventurers, kings, poets and artists. We heard stories of espionage, disastrous earthquakes, dictatorships and passionate revolutions. Claudia, our guide, told us that the tour would last approximately 2 ½ hours. Instead, 3 ½ hours later, we were saying our goodbyes, loving every minute of the walk. With Discover Walks, hidden gems and tourist highlights of Belem came to the forefront. Again, the walk lasted longer than predicted, but that’s because the guide loved sharing information and wanted to be sure everyone enjoyed the experience. Tales of brave sailors, their discoveries, and their rewards came to life. And who could complain about hitting Pasteis de Belem after the tour? They, rightfully so, boast of daily baking 4,000 custard pastries. It’s hard not to devour a dozen of them. Excess, that would be, but what a delight! We also toured with Discover Walks the Alfama district. Here, narrow alleys, clothes lines, and fado halls butt up against one another.  Madonna calls it home, and locals bring out their favorite brands of port wine to have neighbors and tourists sample their goods. Once again, the tour lasted nearly an hour past its prediction. We became used to this in Lisbon. At every turn, guides gave us excess of our expectations. It is a city flowing with “more.”

With Cooltour Lisbon, we visited Fatima for half a day. Parishioners crawl upon their knees to show their devotion to their beliefs of Catholicism and the sighting by the three shepherdesses. They wait patiently their turns to light flames and echo prayers. It is a beautiful setting of extreme devotion and piety. That evening we went with Cooltour Lisbon to a city tour by night and dinner Fado show. Fado is the folk music of Lisbon’s rustic neighborhoods, especially Alfama. Tables squeeze into the intimate restaurants, food and wine flow non-stop, and singers mournfully share haunting ballads about lost sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romances. “Fado” means “destiny or fate.” Its lyrics tell of acceptance of loss, unfulfilled love, and death. Women and men, dressed in mourning garb, bemoan, “Your eyes are not yours. They are two Hail Marys on the rosary of bitterness. … Your eyes are mine since mine were blinded by you.” Definitely, the lines are hyperboles. Nevertheless, the viola and bass guitar blend sweetly with the lyrics to soothe as best one’s despair of life’s losses. One sings, one cries, and one wipes away tears to embrace what tomorrow might bring.

The following day we went with Cooltour Lisbon to Sintra. A past popular retreat of Portuguese nobility, Sintra is nestled within the hills of the Serra de Sintra. The town holds three palaces, a romantic ruin, and an assortment of 19th century stately homes. The stand out attraction is the flamboyant Pena Palace, with its multi-colored exterior and strange decorative features. The interior has been preserved as it was left in 1914 when the Portuguese court fled the country during the revolution. In the heart of Sintra lies the gothic National Palace, while on its highest hill sits the ruins of the Moorish castle. Indeed, Sintra is an excess of beauty and imagination. It beckons one into days of the past, and one’s imagination turns into dreams of splendor.

Excess played its part non-stop that day. We stopped of briefly at Cabo de Roca, a cape which forms the westernmost extent of mainland Portugal, continental Europe and the Eurasian land mass. One can hardly leave the van. The wind whips and howls. The extreme weather makes the word “excess” seem an understatement. We were up to the challenge to walk the trail to shout “We did it,” and then scurry back to the warm shelter of the van.

Leaving Cabo de Roca, we head to Cascais, a historic fishing harbor that found favor with the Portuguese nobility of the 19th century. The town is charming and historic, and has remained a favorite residence of Lisbon’s rich and famous. An excess of good restaurants, food trucks, museums, parks, beach strolls, and shops offer something for everyone. No one can argue. Lisbon and its surroundings dishes out excessively a good time for all. (http://www.cooltourlisbon.com)

We head to Porto on the morning train, arriving in just a bit over three hours. We settle easily into our guesthouse and head off for a walking tour of the city with Simplybunique. We begin at the Sao Bento Railway Station. This is no ordinary train station. For one, it holds approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles, dating from 1905-1916. They depict battles, lovers, countryside scenes, transportation modes, wine shipments, geometric patterns, cattle fairs, and pilgrim camps. You name it, it’s probably there. Excess, once again, in all of its beauty and history. Similar to our walking tours in Lisbon, we traipse through Porto for close to four hours, though we were told it would be closer to three. We sample food, visit jewelry shops, learn of the city’s culture, and bask in Porto’s beauty. That evening we head to Casa de Musica, the city’s beloved concert hall. Orquestra Barroca entertains us, with the conductor leading the music, playing the piano, and singing a solo for the encore! Truly, it was unbelievable in its display of excess talent.

The next two days we had the excessively pleasant hospitality of Antonio Rodrigues and Joanna of terroir wine and food tours. On our drive to the Douro Valley wine region, we stopped for a while at Amerante Church and Village, a quaint town nestled by its soothing river. Then onward we drove to the Douro Valley to walk among vineyards that grow on break-neck slopes, enjoy the breathtaking views, learn about winemaking, lunch on gourmet codfish, and meander down/up river on a boat ride. Ample wine tasting is available in the Douro Valley as well as in Porto and Gaia. Port comes in many varieties: ruby port, white port, tawny port, late bottled vintage, colheita, blends, and vintage. It packs a punch to give one a definite memory. Antonio customized our day precisely to our liking, and the expanse of the Douro Valley and his hospitality excessively made the day remarkable.

The next day Joanna showed us a different view of Porto and its surroundings. We began the day at the city’s Museu de Arte Contemporanea where the controversial pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe adorn the gallery. Talented photography, yes. Excessively graphic, yes! It seems to fit Porto. After, we ride along the river front and visit a port tasting house in Gaia. The building’s thick walls envelope humidity to promote the quality of the wine. The heat rises in excess, as if to be expected wherever one turns in Portugal. We head to Aveiro, known as “Little Venice,” to enjoy pulled pork sandwiches and a Moliceiro River Cruise. We say a fond farewell to the staff of Terroir Wine and Food Tours, acknowledging them for their passion for showing off Porto and its surroundings and their excess of “good ol’ hospitality.”

For our final full day in Portugal, we went with Living Tours (porto@livingtours.pt) to Guimaraes and Braga. Both are charmingly chic towns, surrounded by lush forests. The Castle of Guimaraes is the principal medieval castle in this northern principality of Portugal. It was built under the orders of Mumadona Dias in the 10th century to defend the monastery from attacks by Moors and Norsemen. Readily, one’s imagination darts back to centuries ago as one climbs on sturdy walls and calls to nearby friends to rush forth with needed reinforcements to ward off an attack. All proves well and one is victorious in battle so it is time to head to town for a bit of shopping and eating. Then it is time to drive on to Braga, especially to visit its cathedral, the oldest in the country, built in the 12th century by the parents of Portugal’s first King. Bom Jesus do Monte in the town’s outskirts cannot be missed. Is name means Good Jesus of the Mount. The Sanctuary is a notable example of pilgrimage sites with a monumental Baroque stairway that climbs 116 meters. The day proved to be a perfect day, in every excessive possible way, of history, beauty, culture, and religion.

Porto’s Airport is a quick drive from the city center and efficiently we were on our morning flight back to the states. In accordance with our past week, we viewed excessive amounts of movies, squirmed more than excessively in our seats, played Scrabble with more than a few on-line friends, and babbled on to one another about our impression of Lisbon and Porto: both, truly historic, charming, fun, beautiful – yes, excessively so in every way.

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