The sun shone brightly through the windows in the breakfast room and the streets below were dry…..so we decided to finish our walks around Lisbon this morning starting in the Bairro-Alto. This time, we took the funicular up to the “high city.” After a steep climb, the tram stopped in front of a flight of steps. More stairs……why is it always stairs?
Across the street was the Port Wine Institute……its doors still closed at this early hour. A peek in its windows revealed a rich, sophisticated interior….the type of place you’d imagine men smoking cigars and swilling a glass (or two) of mellow tawny port.
We stopped in the São Roque Church…..a very plain looking church that’s home to the world’s most expensive chapel, the Chapel of St John the Baptist. Designed in Rome using ivory, agate, lapis lazulli, gold and silver, it was blessed by the Pope and shipped to Lisbon in 1747. The dicotomy between the interior and exterior of this of the church was evident as soon as we walked in. Sadly (for us) most of the side chapels, including the Chapel of St John, were behind wraps being restored but the beautiful, painted wooden ceiling was more than enough to make the stop worthwhile.
Outside the church is a plaza with two kiosks selling lottery tickets. In between them is a bronze sculpture of a man with a gleaming lottery ticket…..shiny from all the people rubbing it for luck. Craig, a lotto junkie, didn’t buy a ticket but gave the ticket a good rub for future luck.
We walked on to the Largo do Carmo…..a lovely square that’s home to the headquarters of the Republican National Guard. It’s hard to imagine this small, tree-laden square as anything but a peaceful oasis but on April 25, 1974, soldiers and tanks took it over, demanding the surrender of Marcelo Caetano, the country’s last dictator.
Next to the empty convent is a path leading to the Elevador de Santa Justa…..an ornate iron elevator that connects the upper Barraido district to the lower Baixa neighborhood. It was built in 1902 by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel’s. A spiral staircase leads souls (much braver than me) up to a viewing platform.
After a quick cup of coffee at the century-old, art-nouveau cafe, A Brasileira, we took the elevator down and walked back to the Praça do Comércio, making a pit stop at the nearby Tourist Information office.
OK…..this is something I wouldn’t normally discuss but I know the women out there will appreciate this. The TI was in a newly refurbished building….with state-of-the-art restrooms. No need for paper toilet seat covers here…..it had a self-cleaning toilet! As the toilet flushed, an aqua-colored container of disinfectant moved outward…..then the toilet seat rotated 360 degrees under its cleansing sweep. It was fascinating. As Craig waited patiently outside, I watched the action a few more times.
A tasting room managed by the Portuguese Wine Association was nearby and, since it was too early for lunch, it seemed the perfect destination. We entered through non-descript doors to find an simple yet elegant interior. Comfortable chairs were placed in separate areas throughout the large room. Movies featuring Portugal’s beautiful landscapes and cityscapes were playing on unobtrusive screens. At a curved bar in the back, a young woman was pouring wines for a couple with an impatient son. We signed in and waited for the next tasting.
The rains started again…..first softly…..then vociferously…..but we were safely ensconced in this warm, inviting room. Our session soon began. Wines from three areas were being sampled….Alentejo, Bairrada and Douro. We were given a brief overview of the growing conditions and the type of wines produced in these areas and were then asked to pick 2-4 wines for tasting. Since we had tried Alentejo and Douro wines in our travels, we focused on the Bairrada (near Coimbra). We each chose a white and a red and adjourned to a nearby area to swirl, sniff and taste. Afterward, we were asked to critique each wine and determine how much we’d be willing to pay for it. If there’s a better way to wait out the rain, I don’t know what it is.
The sun returned just as we were finishing our last tasty sips. We turned in our evaluation forms, thanked the young woman and hopped on the first tram back out to Belem.
After the short 20 minute ride, we were ready for a little sustenance, so we stopped at Restaurante Os Jerónimos….known for its inexpensive, fresh fish meals. We weren’t disappointed. Craig had grilled salmon and I tried Acorda de Marisco….a seafood risotto-type dish that’s made with bread instead of rice. Both dishes received our stamp of approval. The bill…..with a bottle of wine…..was less than 30 euros! But the best part of the meal was our encounter with the owner. We had charged the meal, but hadn’t received a receipt. Carlos, the owner, unsure if the charge had been processed, tried to run it through again but it failed. Unsure of whether we had paid or not, Carlos gave us his card and told us to send him the money if the charge didn’t show up on our account. You just gotta love a place that handles business like this.
We went next door to the Casa Pasteis de Belem for dessert. This bakery, with its cheerful blue and white awnings, caught my eye yesterday because there was a line of people outside its doors patiently waiting for their chance at the sweet delicacies inside. Any place with clientele willing to wait outside must be good.
We bypassed the line (it’s only for take-out) and headed inside. The bakery is housed in an old sugar refinery and the dining areas are scattered throughout its maze-like interior. We found a table near the kitchen and placed our order…..two coffees and four of their signature pastries, Pasteis de Belem. They arrived still oven-warm. After sprinkling them with powdered sugar and cinnamon, we savored each delicious bite. They say that the recipe for this delectable delight came from the monks of the monestary after the government expelled the clergy from the country in 1834…..the original recipe is still a closely guarded secret kept under lock and key. These were, far and away, the best custard tarts of our trip.
Our taste buds craved more of these tasty tid-bits but our tummies were full…..so we walked over to the National Coach Museum…..founded in 1905 by Queen Amelia to house the collection of carriages belonging to the Portuguese royal family.
Although it sounded about as boring as the Maritime Museum, it was actually a delightful way to spend the afternoon. The carriage procession started with a simple 1600’s coach meant only as a means of transportation and continued on to ornate gilt carriages, with elaborate carvings obviously meant to impress. They sure impressed us.
On our way back to the tram stop, we passed an entrance to Belem Palace, the official residence of the President of Portugal. We wouldn’t have noticed this unobtrusive entrance to the magnificent palace had it not been for the soldiers standing guard at the gate.
After taking a short break at the hotel, we stolled the Baixa, stopping at A Ginjinhas (possibly the world’s smallest bar) to join dozens of locals for a shot of Ginjas….Portugal’s cherry-brandy…..this time served in a plastic cup with a few of its sour berries. Was it the ambience of sitting in tall chairs lining the patio or was it the flavor added by the chocolate cup that made the ginjas in Obidos taste so much better?
So, we altered our course and made a beeline toward the train station, knowing that our desired “taste of home” would be nearby at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Mojitos, hamburgers, onion rings and a hot fudge sundae accompanied by the sweet songs of our youth. Not our traditional way to end a vacation…..but we’re not really ending this vacation…..we’re just moving it back to France.
To sum up our feelings of Portugal, in the words of John Denver…..
I’m leaving on a jet plane
I don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh, babe, I hate to go……