Day Fifteen (Last): Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

I had ambitious plans for the last day in Portugal. Besides driving from Algarve to Lisbon (4 hours) and having nice evening and supper there, I wanted to hike to the peak of Picota near the town of Monchique. Monchique is primarily known for hot sulfur springs (with baths and health spas) situated 6 kilometres south in ‘Caldas de Monchique’ (Spring of Monchique). Unfortunately, they were closed because of COVID. Other than hot springs, people are coming to this area to buy scissor chairs made from chestnut wood, black pork and black pork ham and sausages. Another local specialty is medronho, a hard liquor made from distilled medronho berries (Arbutus/Strawberry Tree). Neither of these products interested me. But apparently the views from either peak of Foia or Picota were very impressive. The difference between two is that you can drive to Foia (easier, but many more people), but you have to hike to Picota which was my choice. With estimated four hours of the roundtrip, it was a bit tight but doable. At the beginning the trail was easy and well visible. In fact, it made me think of ancient Roman roads.

The air was full of eucalyptus aroma, the birds sang, and I marched with great pleasure. And then…somehow I got lost. Long story short, I never made it to Picota, but I found the remains of the old village.

… and decided that this will be the spot for my last lunch picnic in Portugal

The view was more than satisfactory.

And then back to the car and to Lisbon. Last night instead of Alfama, I stayed in the neighborhood called Graca. Lisbon is spread over seven hills and Graca is situated on the highest of them. Hence, this was the view from my apartment

And then nice “sunset walk” before dinner

The “last supper” was in the restaurant called Santa Rita. It does not look like anything special, but it is very popular with students and the food is outstanding

And this was the end of my Birthday Trip in Post (I hope) Pandemic Time. I love Portugal and will be back.

Day Twelve/Thirteen/Fourteen: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

Why three days together? Because, these were essentially three days exploring the beaches of Algarve region (the South of Portugal). I will not bore you with step-by-step description, but here are a few highlights. The first great stop was at Cabo de Sao Vincente (Cape St. Vincent) which is southwesternmost point of Portugal and of mainland Europe. According to legend, the name of this cape is linked to a martyred fourth-century Iberian deacon, St. Vincent whose body was brought ashore here. A shrine was then erected over his grave. The Arab geographer Al-Idrisi wrote that the Saint’s grave was always guarded by ravens and was therefore named by him كنيسة الغراب (Kanīsah al-Ghurāb, meaning “Church of the Raven”). King Afonso Henriques (1139–1185) had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to Lisbon apparently still accompanied by the ravens. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon. Great legend and truly captivating place

When preparing for this trip, I looked at GoogleEarth and selected about fifteen beaches to visit and check out. By the way, GoogleEarth is a great tool for planning trips, because people put a lot of pictures and comments on places they have visited. Anyway, after three days of going from beach to beach, here are my three absolute favorits. One was Praia da Ingrina which is very close to Sagres and Cabo de Sao Vincente. A perfectly protected from wind and waves bay with shallow waters: very calm and the water temperature was noticeably warmer than in other places. Combined with nice sand beach, this is a great place for families with kids: very safe place to swim. Here it is:

Another favorite was Praia das Furnas. A little bit tricky to get there (you still can find it and get directions on Google maps), but the reward is the full absence of conventional tourists. Instead, this beach attracts nudists and – yes! – it is “home” to a small colony of hippies and artists who live there.

But by the most dramatic in terms of scenery (and also great for swimming) was Praia do Camilo in Lagos. I do not need to describe. Simply take a look.

Yes, this is me.

Here is a small secret. Most people who come to Praia do Camila stay right on this spot which is on above picture, but look at the next shot: do you see a small tunnel through the rock on the left?

If you go through this tunnel, you will find another (smaller) beach and then one more, and the chances are great that you will have just for yourself. As I did. Yes, this was “my beach” for the entire day…

While roaming the beaches, I choose as a base to stay the village called Burgau. Some people compare this village with romantic villages on the Greek island Santorini. And, yes, it was very pretty.

But the greatest “treasure” (in my mind) in this village is the guesthouse called Casa Grande, where I choose to stay.

Casa Grande is a stately mansion built at the beginning of 20th century. In the late 1950th it went in the state of full dilapidation, but was bought by Sally Vincent, an actress and expat from UK. Sally restored its external and internal beauty and converted into a very nice and unusual guesthouse which also functions as a social commune. Each room is called after and is decorated in a particular color. If interested, here is a great story about Sally Vincent and her guesthouse:
http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170928-portugals-mansion-of-intriguing-guests

And, yes, Sally still runs this place:

Tomorrow is my last day in Portugal. On the way to Lisbon, I plan to visit the town and area of Monchique. It was easier (in terms of logistics) to spend the last night in the town of Porches. Nothing special about this town, except…that I found an unbelievably good restaurant called Praia com Tempera. The chef is a young lady, Sofia Ferreira, who combines “traditional Portuguese flavors with innovative touches.” I had for dinner (took home) an incredible octopus salad, and shrimp tartar with mango cream.

This is the chef (and owner): Sofia Ferreira

Good night and good bye, Algarve!

Day Ten/Eleven: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

Ok. I cheat: I will “blend” two days in Lisbon into one blog post. But first, an update on further travel plans. I was supposed to fly back to US tomorrow, but United Airlines have canceled my flight. It was impossible to find reasonably priced flight on the same day: the first good option is on June 7, a week from now. Great: I have more time to explore the country. After Lisbon, I decided to go South: to Algarve region.

Anyway, I arrived to Lisbon early in the morning and settled into my apartment situated in historic Alfama. Alfama (Portuguese pronunciation: [aɫˈfɐmɐ]) is the oldest neighborhood of Lisbon spreading on the slope between the São Jorge Castle and the Tagus river. Besides many historical attractions, Alfama is famous for abundance of Fado music bars. Look where I stay. It is a tiny room, but it has a huge roof top terrace with amazing 360 degree view of the city

I enjoyed a cup of coffee sitting on the terrace and absorbing the view and headed for Dom Pedro the IVth Plaza – one of the most majestic “Praca” (Plaza). Wow! The explosion of these dark blue “flowers” combined with shining white colors of surrounding buildings was amazing

There was a reason for being here: I was supposed to meet my very personal guide (found her via AirBnB experiences), Darya. Darya came to Lisbon as a tourist from Russia a few years ago, felt in love with the city and….simply stayed. Thanks to her being my guide, I am sort of tempted to repeat her experience….May be…

And then we walked and talked for hours. Just to let you know: Lisbon is built on seven hills (literally) and walking this town is fairly close to climbing. To help folks to manage most steep inclines, Lisbon has very “cheerful” yellow trams

Darya took me to a lot of places and told a lot of fascinating stories about Lisbon’s past and present. But…even if you do not have such a great guide, the Lisbon is really easy to enjoy by simply wandering around: the houses covered with azulejos (tin glazed ceramic tiles), impressive graffiti art work, medieval churches, stunning views from city’s many miradouros (view points), street musicians, small bars/restaurants offering great food and wine for a fraction of price you would pay in US and…simply very good vibes.

When we walked, I had a feeling that Darya knows half of the Lisbon’s local residents. She stopped and exchanged a few words with dozens of people we met. Like this old lady…

A lot of things which we discussed were related to Fado music for which Portugal and, especially, Lisbon are famous. There are many historical speculations as to where really the “roots” of Fado are.

What is known for sure is that Fado can be traced to the 1820s in Lisbon. Although the origins are difficult to trace, today fado is commonly regarded as simply a form of song which can be about anything, but must follow a certain traditional structure. In popular belief, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholia. Fado has been described as the Portuguese expression of ‘the blues,’ and fado roughly means fate.One of the hypothesis suggests that the “mother” of fado was Maria Onofriana. She lived only 26 years, but attained a near-mythical status after her death. Her mother was the owner of a tavern and had the nickname A Barbuda (“the bearded woman”). Maria is said to have been a tall and gracious courtesan, and would sing the fado in taverns where she would also play the Portuguese guitar. She is known to have had several lovers…Anyway, you can find in Lisbon quite a few graffiti depicting Maria Onofriana.

We visited and stayed for mass at Santo Domingo Church which has a very special history. Apparently, in medieval times, about 2000 Jews were executed in front of this church by inquisition. In 1959, the fire broke and the church was devastated. But somehow the ceilings not only survived but became much brighter colored in pinkish colors. Some saw this as a sign to remember medieval mass execution of Jews. A decision was made to only partially restore the inside of the church leaving many columns covered with ashes and soot. I don’t know, but…I definitely felt some sort of special energy inside this church.

The day was veeeeeery long, but then the evening came with its highlight: an unbelievably good dinner and Fado performance in the restaurant called Senior Fado. I tried to book a table there on the previous visit in December. No way: everything was reserved for many days and even weeks ahead. But when I called this morning, Duarte, the owner of restaurant, answered personally the phone and said that tonight is first night when they are open again after COVID and welcomed me to come. I came anticipating many other anxious visitors. But the only other patrons was a family from Michigan. It was an incredible experience. Essentially, we spent the evening chatting with Duarte and his wife (the chef) as we were part of their family.

And the food…The main course was “cataplana de marisco” which is essentially a seafood stew, but prepared in this very particular cookware The “cataplana” is traditionally made of copper and shaped like two clamshells hinged at one end and able to be sealed using a clamp on either side of the assembly. It was so flavorful…

And then selection of cheeses….

And then, of course, two hours of outstanding fado performance. Yet, when I went home, on my way to apartment, I stopped at another restaurant, and listened to some more fado music…

Good night Lisbon: I am leaving tomorrow, but I will be back.

Day Nine: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

The day was full, but one thing made it really a DAY (all capital letters): the visit to Quinta da Regaleira. As I wrote in Day Eight, Sintra has abundance of castles, palaces, royal gardens, etc. Most folks choose as their ultimate destinations Pena Palace or Moorish Castle. These two are biggest, very sprawling and – in my view – somewhat eclectic complexes. Monserrate (see yesterday) and Quinta da Regaleira have much stronger “identities” and, at the same time, they are more “personable” and “intimate” to explore. If you ask, how I would describe Quinta da Regaleira in just a few words, I would say “fairy tale.” Built by the italian architect Luigi Manini at the end of 19th century, Quinta de Regaleira consist of of a Romantic palace and chapel, plus a luxurious park with lakes, labirints, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and much more. It is hard to describe, but the complex is sort of built on several levels which are interconnected by walking paths, stairs and even (yes!) tunnels. Better take a look here.

The fellow who commissioned the construction of Quinta and owned it was Carvalho Monteiro. Quite a colorful character, Monteiro was eager to build a bewildering place where he could collect/display symbols that reflected his interests which included alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. Accordingly, one of the major attractions in Quinta is the so called Initiation Well. It looks more like an underground tower lined with stairs. The well never served as water source. Instead, it was used for ceremonial purposes that included Tarot initiation rites.

I spent at Quinta much more time than planned originally: it is simply captivating place. As a result had neither time nor desire to go to Pena Palace: I did not want to spoil my admiration of Quinta. But I found a perfect spot to take a great close-up shot of Pena

The spot from which this picture was taken is actually absolutely “off limits” for visitors: I hiked and climbed there absolutely illegally

This is called Estatua do Guerreiri. It is built to be observed from a great distance, but I found the way to this monument and climbed it. The result was this (above) picture of Pena. At the bottom of this statue, I found amazing flowers growing literally from the stones.

I spent the rest of the day roaming the streets of old Sintra. They were nearly empty (again “advantage” of COVID) and suddenly it downed on me: this could have been Yalta – the famous coastal resort in Crimea – at the end of 19th century, when Anton Chekhov used to come there and write his short stories and novels. Yalta has very similar “feel” as Sintra…

Tomorrow, I head for Lisbon.

Day Eight: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

I drove to Sintra in the morning. This little town is only about 20 km away from the capital, Lisbon, and just a few kilometers from the Atlantic ocean coast. If you like castles, aristocratic mansions, royal palaces and gardens, there are no better destination in Portugal than Sintra. Being classified as UNESCO World Heritage Site (think of Venice or Florence), Sintra typically attracts zillions of tourists from all over the globe. There is really “no good time” to visit Sintra without rubbing shoulders with thousands of fellow tourists except…now, in the time Coronavirus Pandemic: right now Sintra is empty and calm. Unbelievable, but…yes now you can have this town almost just for yourself (and a few other brave souls). My first destination is Monserrate Palace: it is a palatial villa and huge summer pavilion at the same time which is surrounded by terraced elaborated gardens. Monserrate is built in an extremely eclectic style influenced by Romanticism and Mudéjar Moorish Revival architecture with Neo-Gothic elements. The history of Monserrate is as “colourful” as its outside ornaments.

From the visit by Lord Byron in 1809 who was inspired by magnificent appearance of Monserrate and described its beauty in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and through WWII, when Monserrate served (officially) as a home for British expats and (not officially) as a spy nest for Allied (anti Nazi) forces, this place constantly attracted unusual people and events. Read here if interested. Amazingly, like entire, Sintra, today Monserrate was empty and I had the entire estate almost exclusively to myself

I stayed two hours and could have stay longer, but …the Atlantic ocean was waiting. A few minutes and I am at one of the most picturesque beaches of Portugal: Azenhas do Mar. Depending on either low or hide tide, there is like a natural swimming pool there filled with ocean water yet being disconnected from the ocean.

Azenhas do Mar is a great spot for both swimming and surfing. I lan on coming back tomorrow. The final destination of the day is cape Cabo de Roca – the most Western point of Europe. Crushing waves, deep blue sea and the aroma of eucalyptus (yes!) were truly mesmerizing.

15 min. by car and I am back in Sintra. What for dinner? My choice is ultimate. Fresh grilled octopus with spinach salad.

More palaces and beaches tomorrow….

Day Seven: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

In short, it was a day of castles, wine tasting and hiking in rural Alentejo. Early morning, I headed for Marvao – another (arguably) most beautiful Portuguese village. Similarly to Monsanto (see yesterday), Marvao sits on top of the cliff and similarly to Monsanto, there is a medieval (11 th century) castle above the village. What is very different though is the dominating color. Monsanto was “grey-black,” while Marvao’s houses are white-washed. Arriving in the bright sunny morning, roaming coble-stone streets of the village, and climbing to the castle for 360 degree view of the area was an exquisite experience.

The next destination was winery called Monte da Penha. I would say that this is truly one of the best kept secrets in the “sea of Portuguese wineries.” I arrived there without preliminary notice and the only person to greet me was an old lady who was actually leaving. In Portuguese (thanks to Google translator) she told me that the winery is closed, nobody is/will be around and that I should communicate by email in advance. I said “Okey,” went back to the car, but stayed for a few minutes checking email and messages on the phone. And then an old black Mercedes arrived. The grey haired gentleman stepped out and literally run into the yellow mansion where (I assumed) the winery was. I intercepted him and explained that I am visiting from California and would like to taste/purchase some wine. His immediate reply (in very good English) was that he has no time, but “his secretary will deal with me.” And he pointed to a much smaller building on the left side which looked more like a storage. There was a door on the side of this small building, but it was locked. I waited a few minutes, decided to leave and then the same gentleman appeared from the yellow mansion, approached and said “Sorry. I forgot that I told my secretary to stay home this week. Not much business.” As it turned out, this gentleman was Francesco Fino, both the owner of the winery and wine-maker. Until mid 1990s he worked in textile industry in UK, but then returned to his ancestral land, learned how to make wine from his grandfather and eventually inherited family-business. I was invited to yellow mansion which turned out to be his private house (15-20 rooms at least for one person, children grew up, wife died), was guided to his kitchen and he started to open bottles…

His wines were not simply outstanding, but well aged (rather unusual in today’s winemaking business): the vintages available for purchase were as old as 2003.

He opened four bottles which I enjoyed immensely, but…was afraid that they would be too expensive to even consider buying them. Nevertheless I asked somewhat sheepishly for a price list. You won’t believe, but most of them were under 10 Euro (11 $). I bought a few bottles, thanked Francesco for his time and very personal introduction into his wines, and left. I have a feeling though that I will be back. The wines are outstanding. Then I made a stop for late lunch at another locally “famous” winery which has a restaurant. Food was good, but the quality of wine just Ok with prices much higher than at Francesco.

The rest of the day was working out the excesses of good wine and food by hiking Alentejo many beautiful countryside trails. Wild flowers, small roads passing abandoned farm houses, olive trees, the smell of eucalyptus…You got the picture?

And then I came home by the time of sunset and my Alentejo house was waiting for me. Good night.

Day Six: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still) Pandemic Time

I learned today that Portugal has closed again its borders for foreign visitors: lucky me who is already in the country. In fact, I may stay longer than planned originally, because my flight back home has been canceled by United Airlines and so far I did not find any reasonably priced alternative.

Anyway, today is a day of a long drive from the North to the province of Alentejo, one of the least populated and least visited provinces on the Southeast of Portugal. I booked a very nice AirBnB on organic farm near town Castelo de Vide and was planning some serious hiking and wine-tasting (Alentejo is well known for its wines). The only real destination for today was the medieval village of Monsanto. It praises itself as “the most beautiful and the most Portuguese” village. Not sure whether it is the “most”, but definitely very “beautiful.”

Monsanto sits on the top of the cliff and is – truly amazingly – built around and inside huge boulders. Some of these boulders are actually used or serve as the roofs or walls of the houses.

There is a castle (ruins of the castle) above Monsanto. I climbed there and the view was breathtaking

Three more hours and I arrived to my farm and home. The house where I stay was built in 18th century in traditional Alentejo style. My hosts decorated it beautifully both inside and outside.

I hiked a little bit around their property (16 acres, with hundreds of olive trees) and found … an ancient dolmen: yes, my hosts “own” this megalithic tomb. What a surprise.

But when I came back to the house, there was yet another surprise waiting for me and prepared by my hosts: a bottle of local wine and the strawberries from their garden.

Good night!

Day Five: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time

The day began….I would say problematic: I got notification from United Airlines that my return flight from Portugal to USA has been canceled. Guess what: it is third cancelation of my return trip to America (two previous were Turkish Airlines and American Airlines). Am I stuck in Portugal? Somehow, I am not “over-concerned:” flying back 2-3 days later? Not a big deal really.

I said “Good Bye!” to my host in Ponte De Lima and headed East for a day in Peneda Geres National Park. In fact, this is the ONLY National Park in Portugal. The combination of mountains, ancient dolmens, waterfalls and medieval villages is both eclectic and dazzling. Look at the place which I found (on top of the cliff) for my picnic lunch

Penedes Geres is especially known for its amazing foliage: a lot of tourists would come here in October. But the park has also dozens of waterfalls and it is NOW the best time to enjoy them in “full gear.” But…there was a PROBLEM (yes, all capital letters). Today is Sunday and not simply “Sunday,” but the first weekend after softening restrictions on public gatherings, social activities. Hence, the waterfalls were full not only of water but also people.

Quite frankly, I really don’t care about possible “infection,” but it was simply not fun. So, I headed to my Turismo Rural: a beautiful three bedroom cottage totally surrounded by the nature

And this was the end of the day except two things which I enjoyed equally: outstanding sunset observed from my porch and a bottle of five years old Portuguese Cava

Day Four: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still?) Pandemic Time.

The day was so sunny and warm that the choice was ultimate: let’s go to and spend good time on the beach. The nearest coastal town is Viana do Castelo and this was our destination. But first a short stop at a very special place. As it turned out, my American friend who lives in Ponta De Lima knows a local aristocrat – count Francisco Calheiros – who owns a magnificent estate: a palace with gardens, vineyards, etc. So, we made a stop there and toured his private paradise.

And then – to the beach. Wow! What we did not expect was a super strong wind when we arrived to the coast. Not very comfortable for sun-bathing, but the waves were magnificent.

There was an additional bonus for being on the beach with this wind blowing: we found a bay which was occupied by dozens kite-surfers and spent there an hour simply watching them “jumping and flying.”

And then…the highlight of the day. The name of the young lady on the picture is Nancy Oliveira. Most people know her simply as an excellent massage therapist (which she is). What these people do not know is that she has a much wider background knowledge and fairly complex healing philosophy which includes (besides massage) sound therapy, herbal medicine, nutrition and much much more. I had a perfect massage session with her (outdoors, right before sunset) and then a good conversation about her practices and experiences. The feeling of being fully rejuvenated was powerful and exquisite. Highly recommend her services: look her up on Facebook at Nancy Etnomedicina

Day Three: Birthday Trip in Post (or Still) Pandemic Time. My actual birthday today…

It was a beautiful day: bright sunshine, late spring, abundance of flowers…

Myself and my local host (she is an American living in Portugal for nearly 30 years) decided to head further north to visit the area on borders with Spain called Minho valleys. This part of the country is rarely visited by tourists and there are plenty of very authentic villages there where time “has stopped.” One is called Castro Laboreiro. Nearby, there are ruins of the medieval castle perched on the top of the cliff which offer sweeping view of the entire area. We figured that it will be a great spot for birthday picnic.

Well. It turned out to be a looong picnic including proper siesta-nap afterwards. Late afternoon and we are heading towards Lindoso: another beautiful village. The views along our road are truly dramatic.

River Minho

The major attraction in Lindoso are traditional medieval granaries. Yes, they look like small chapels, but are actually used (one per household) to store any food supplies protecting them from rats and other “not invited animals.” These chapel-like granaries are very characteristic of the entire Galizia – the historic area which includes both border areas of Spain and Portugal

And then: back to Ponte de Lima. What for birthday dinner? My choice is simple. I love “pulpo,” octopus, and there is plenty of it in this area of the country. Baked with greens and potatoes, it was delicious.

Good night. See you tomorrow…