Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Last Portugal Post

Since we were all staying up late in Portugal, I got a bit behind on the blogging. . . Here's some highlights from the last few days of the trip.
Took a really cool drive to "the end of the world" or at least to what Europeans used to believe was the end - the city of Sagres, where Portuguese King Henry set up his School of Navigation. All the major Portuguese explorers and even Columbus spent some time sailing around those cliffs. Today, it is a hot spot for surfers and we had a snack at this cute surf cafe owned by a nice French woman.

Drove to the mountain town of Monchique for a nice dinner with some good local ham and
chicken piri piri (yum), but the drive wasn't really worth it as we ended up getting lost high up on curvy mountain roads for two hours on the way home. Not the best night
of the trip (or of the last year . . )!!!!

Finally got a partially sunny morning on our last day in the Algarve, so William and Matt played tennis while Trevor, Yamini, and I took a walk on the beach collecting shells. The beach is really cool because of the high cliffs you pass through to get down there. The Atlantic Ocean wasn't even that cold, but we didn't have time for a swim since we were checking out of the hotel.

Our last stop in Portugal was the city of Evora, which has a beautiful medieval walled center. We stayed right outside the city in a hotel that used to be an old convent - still has a gorgeous chapel and all the old architecture was beautifully preserved. On Easter, the hotel had a great activity for kids. The chef took us all outside to plant trees on the expansive property, then back to the banquet kitchen to make pizzas an
d chocolate mousse. YUM!
The other highlight in Evora was seeing the Chapel of Bones, which yes, was literally lined with human bones to remind us all of our mortality. Would have been really creepy in there if it wasn't such a tourist attraction, so it was just plain cool, not too scary for the kids. Our dinner the last night was at the lovely restaurant Fiahlo where we had more great local wine and food.

The last morning we were up at dawn (for a change) to drive back to the Lisbon airport and head home! A great trip.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rain, Rain, Rain

Not rain all day, but here and there, keeping temperatures cool and making the hotel beach out of the question. We are making the best of it though!

On Wednesday, we hung out at the indoor hotel pool which is big and roomy and has lots of families, so you don’t have to worry about your kids being too loud, splashing, etc. like at most other fancy hotel pools. After swimming, we needed to work on that DS Charger situation, so the concierge told us about a nearby shopping mall.

The mall was Fun! Lots of nice Euro stores - like a kids’ Zara (got Yamini some cute clothes) and an awesome food court -- everything from junky Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC to crepes, salads, yogurt, etc. Matt and I had yummy Portuguese coffee. We did find the DS charger in the video game store, so the boys were back in business later that night! Our favorite store was Continente, just like Target, and we got some fun snacks there for the car and hotel.

For dinner, we drove to the small town of Paderne, where I read about a restaurant in a wine store, Veneza.

It was really beautiful and the Portuguese food we ordered (grilled prawns, lamb stew, pepper steak) was all excellent. The best part was that our server picked a reasonable bottle of wine for us (17 Euros) and it was so delicious. Because Matt was driving, I got to drink 2/3 of it myself!!

On Thursday, we drove 40 minutes in the direction of Spain to the town of Tavira, an old fishing village. There is a little island - Ilha de Tavira - with ferry service, so we decided to go there. The island is really a giant sandbar on the Atlantic with dunes and beaches. When we got to the island we learned that it was in the middle of an International Sports Festival, so there were hundreds and hundreds of college-age kids from Spain and a few other countries doing every type of sport you can imagine. Lots of them were drinking beer, but mainly they all looked healthy, friendly and in great shape as they danced, surfed, played futbol, volleyball, etc. After a ferry ride back to town, we walked around a little -- cute Portuguese style buildings, an old Roman Bridge.

At night, the kids wanted to order room service (chicken nuggets for all) and stay in the room and watch a movie, so Matt and I asked the concierge for the best restaurant within 5 minutes of the hotel to avoid eating a hotel dinner ourselves. He gave us a good recommendation, “Retiro Do Isca” which was a little empty when we arrived at 7:30, but soon filled up with happy people. We had some more vinho verde, fish soup, clams and shrimp and a platter full of lamb chops and roasted potatoes!

Today, Will and Matt’s tennis game was cancelled for weather conditions, so we are about to hit the indoor pool once again!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

From Lisbon to the Algarve

In the afternoon on Tuesday, we went back to the airport to pick up our rental car (an awesome Renault SUV kinda thing) and took a two hour drive south to the Algarve. Matt forgot to get a ticket when we entered the roadway, so we had to pay the maximum price at the toll when we got off -- 56 Euros instead of 20 -- good lesson for the kids!

We got to the Sheraton, which seems to be a nice place for all kinds of European families on holiday. We couldn’t get upgraded to a duplex, so they gave us two rooms instead - very nice. Checked out the property with two pools and a crazy cliff-side beach on the Atlantic Ocean -- need an elevator to get down there. Pictures to come. . .

For dinner went to the town of Albufeira, which is like the Cote D’Azur -- mixed with the Jersey shore. Had a delicious seafood dinner at a lovely beachside, hilltop restaurant but paid way too much for the grilled fish because they charge you by the weight, and it is like $30 a pound! (Another lesson for the kids!)

Woke up to rain this morning, but after another buffet breakfast, we are hitting the indoor pool and then plan on taking a drive to town - can't seem to find a way to recharge the boys' DS game players and William is concerned about falling behind Trevor in some type of Pokemon battle.

Warm, Sunny, and Bankrupt!

Yes folks, we are in Portugal, and while the country is indeed broke, it is not very warm or sunny yet - but at least it's been warmer than NYC when we left. Here's a wrap-up of our first few days:

Saturday/Sunday --Our flight from Newark was delayed 4hours, the first two due to bad weather, then they load us on the plane and take us off again because there’s no pilot (!!) and some guy had to drive in from Connecticut in the rain. Made the most of our $60 in vouchers for the food court while we waited! Everyone slept a bit on the plane.
Long lines at the airport for immigration and taxis. The Sheraton Hotel in Lisbon was pretty nice, and for the first time, the kids had their own room connected to ours. We all took naps for two hours then headed out to walk around and find dinner.

We took the metro (a boring subway with a few lines) to the Alfama, a hilly neighborhood of sailors and little restaurants with Fado Music. There was a beautiful Church up the hill with a Palm Sunday service going on. We walked further uphill to a restaurant near the Castelo de Sao Jorge, Restô do Chapitô. Had an outdoor terrace with views of city and the river. We sat in the no-smoking bar and had T-Bone steak, grilled fish and squid. Great mojitos and caipirhinas for the adults!
Came back to hotel neighborhood and walked around looking for dessert. Found a place that had all kinds of pastries and brought them back to the
hotel lobby lounge before we all went to bed around 11pm.

Monday -- The hotel breakfast was a very good buffet. Could never offer same selection of foods in USA because people would pig out. Took a 35 minute train ride to town of Sintra on the Lisbon coast.
In Sintra, we took a very scary bus ride up a curvy mountain road to Pena Palace. The 19th century palace is a great example of why monarchs were overthrown in favor of more responsible government. It was a converted monastery in a crazy mix of architectural styles with copious amounts of furniture, paintings and knick-knacks. Built by a German prince who married the Queen of Portugal. The last king who lived there was thrown out in a revolution.

Next stop was a walk down the hill to the Moorish Castle, which was a 12th century Middle Ages church and buildings. It was built up by Muslim invaders and then re-claimed by the Portuguese.
You can climb up on the ramparts and walk around and up to the towers. Vertigo inducing for sure, but fabulous views! We walked a long ways down to the historic touristy town for some popcorn, then back to train station for some Pizza Hut pan pizza and the train back to Lisbon.

Tried a Portuguese restaurant recommended on Chowhound for dinner. Yummy garlic shrimp, more grilled fish and a seafood and white bean cassoulet. Matt and I polished off a bottle of vinho verde.

Tuesday -- After breakfast we choose between the museum in Lisbon everyone said to see and the Monastery everyone said to see - didn’t have time for both. We picked the Monastery because it was near another museum - The Museum of Coaches - that sounded fun. Huge line to see the Cloisters of the Monastery, so we just went into the beautiful church. Cool thing about the church is that a poet, the “Shakespeare of Portugal,” and Vasco da Gama are buried there. Vasco da Gama was the first European to find an all water route to India by going around Africa. This led to the Portuguese skipping over the old land trade routes through the Middle East, saving them lots of money. It also led to the beginning of Portuguese colonies in India and other parts of Asia, so da Gama was a HUGE hero of the Age of Exploration. (See, got my Global History lesson in!) The coach museum was really cool too. Saw the carriages that all these royals used to ride in, including one that belong to Philip II of Spain, the King who built the Spanish Armada. Very cool.