Phil Rambles

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    Sun, 19 Sep 2004

    Travel: Portugal
    In early September, I spent a week in Portugal. Three days were for a conference in a small city called Coimbra (near the coast, north of Lisbon, slightly south of Porto), two days in Lisbon (one on the way out, one on the way back), and two days in the small medieval town of Sintra, just half an hour from Lisbon by commuter train.

    I put up some photos (I suggest clicking on the "view slide show" button, to see them full-size). My impressions in a nutshell:

    • Lisbon. Didn't like it. I was only out and about in Lisbon for a total of twelve hours over two days, but my impression was not very favorable. Both times, I went to dinner in the "Bairro Alto" neighborhood, which my guidebook says is the happenin' place for lively but somewhat raffish nightlife. I was picturing something like San Francisco's Mission District, or Washington D.C.'s Adams-Morgan area. In fact, though, the area was considerably less lively and more seedy. The seediness wasn't so bad---adds character, after all---but it frankly just wasn't that great a place to spend an evening. (So why did I go back the second time? Because I was convinced that I must have missed the good stuff the first time! Nope.) I did have a pretty good dinner at a Moroccan restaurant, a pretty good dessert at a neighborhood cafe, and an enjoyable half hour watching the end of a World Cup Qualifier soccer match in an English-themed bar (full of actual English people), so it's not like it was a total loss; it's just that the area didn't have any particular charm, and didn't seem to offer an experience different from what you can get in any other city.
    • Coimbra. Liked it a lot better than Lisbon. The conference was OK, at an oddly designed new conference center on the outskirts of town. The town has a heavily touristed old quarter that is so typical as to almost be a cliche: narrow cobblestone streets winding up a hill, a shopping district with stalls selling trinkets, loads of tourists (lots of Germans, some Spanish, some English..not many Americans). One of Europe's oldest universities sits on top of the hill. I didn't really do much sight-seeing---didn't have time, what with the conference and its associated events. I did have an enjoyable time talking to other conference attendees.
    • Sintra. Loved it. I had told some Portugese at the conference that with my last couple of days in the country, I wanted to go someplace that was interesting and that had stuff to do outside. They suggested Sintra, which is a small town very close to Lisbon. I took the commuter train from Lisbon to Sintra, and stopped at the train station tourist office when I arrived. Within a few minutes I had booked a room at "Lawrence's Hotel", which claims to be the oldest continuously operated hotel on the Iberian Peninsula, and which gave me a very nice room overlooking a wooded valley for 80 Euros (about $95) per night. There are three main must-see tourist attractions in the Sintra area: the town itself, which is a small (4-block by 4-block) medieval village with the usual restaurants and trinket shops as well as several museums and galleries; a 9th-century Moorish castle on a steep hill above the town, which was re-built in somewhat romantic fashion (as opposed to historically correctly) in the early 1800s; and a former royal castle/palace on another hill. Here's the thing: almost everyone "does" Sintra as a day trip, taking either a tourbus or the local bus around to hit the sights. But the whole area is embedded in parkland, so it's very pleasant to take a little more time and walk instead. Overall, the area was so nice that I strongly recommend staying in Sintra and doing day trips to Lisbon rather than the other way around.
    I guess one other thing I'd say about Portugal is that unlike, say, France or Italy, it doesn't seem to be a country with a foodie tradition. My best meals in Portugal were Italian and Moroccan, and I don't think it's from lack of trying the Portugese cuisine. I do like their apparently traditional duck-and-rice dish.

    Overall, my brief trip to Portugal didn't give me time to see that much. By far my favorite part of the trip was my two days in Sintra, which I really enjoyed.

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