Experiencing Portugal's cuisine and culture

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The Oriente Station in Lisbon was rebuilt by Santiago Calatrava for the Expo 98 World’s Fair.
The Oriente Station in Lisbon was rebuilt by Santiago Calatrava for the Expo 98 World’s Fair. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

Many cruises exiting the Mediterranean to visit more northern ports stop in sunny Portugal along the way.

On a recent trip hosted by Crystal Cruises aboard the 980-passenger Crystal Serenity, I visited Portugal's two main ports, Lisbon and Porto, with a side trip to hilly Sintra, once the summer retreat of Portuguese royalty.

My only previous visit to Lisbon had been a quick trip to the airport in the rain. This trip was different, with three precruise days to fully explore the city's diverse neighborhoods and hardly a cloud in sight until I boarded the ship.

The vintage Tram 28 in Lisbon takes riders on a route that includes much of Barrio Alto, a neighborhood of steep hills and narrow streets.
The vintage Tram 28 in Lisbon takes riders on a route that includes much of Barrio Alto, a neighborhood of steep hills and narrow streets. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

My first stop was Barrio Alto, a Lisbon neighborhood of steep hills and narrow streets that has the vibe of San Francisco or the Montmartre district in Paris. That's especially true when riding the pocket-size Tram 28, the pre-World War I trolley that rattles around the tight corners in Barrio Alto the way that no modern transit vehicle could.

Tram riders are advised to arrive early at the main stop to avoid lines that begin to lengthen around 10 a.m.


After taking the tram circuit around Barrio Alto, one can dismount and walk the flat Baixa area, which is as rectilinear as Barrio Alto is curvy. Baixa is the main stop for tourists, full of shops, bars and restaurants. It was rebuilt on a grid pattern after the 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon.

Searching out Cervejaria Ribadouro, a landmark seafood restaurant, drew me north to the chic environs around the Avenida de Liberdade, Lisbon's answer to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The broad double avenue is colonnaded with tall trees, lined with grand hotels and movie palaces and decorated with the distinctive black-and-white pavement mosaics that are found throughout Lisbon. 

Grilled sardines are a classic lunch option in Portugal.
Grilled sardines are a classic lunch option in Portugal. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

Yet another neighborhood, this one worth a trip on Lisbon's subway, is the Parque das Nacoes, created along the Tagus River for the Expo 98 World's Fair. Among the structures left over from the fair is a cable car skyride attraction and the Lisbon Oceanarium, with its 1.3 million-gallon main tank.

Arriving at the Oriente Station is a treat in itself. The multilevel station, which serves subways, trains and buses, was rebuilt for the fair by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and is a modern contrast to traditional Lisbon. 

After the 1755 quake, the king moved his court to a safer area, which became the Belem district. It's a hike, so I took Lisbon's modern tram along the Tagus to see the 16th century Jeronimos Monastery and the riverside Belem Tower, built to honor Portugal's role in ocean discoveries (Vasco da Gama is buried there). I also tried to stop by the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, where Lisbon's legendary custard tarts are sold, but the line defeated me.

From Moorish to medieval in Sintra

The 19th century Pena Palace, built around the remains of a hilltop monastery, is one of the prime tourist draws in Sintra, once the summer retreat of Portuguese royalty.
The 19th century Pena Palace, built around the remains of a hilltop monastery, is one of the prime tourist draws in Sintra, once the summer retreat of Portuguese royalty. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

If time permits, a classic day trip from Lisbon is to take the hourlong train ride from Lisbon's Rossio Railway Station to Sintra, a longtime royal sanctuary with several notable palaces and forts.

Its history dates to Moorish times, and the ninth century Moorish castle on a strategic mountaintop still stands and can be toured. A larger, better-reserved castle, the Sintra National Palace, is mainly medieval in origins but was modernized in the 16th century by King Manuel I, who added polychromatic tiles to the interior, enhancing its Islamic ambience. The palace's most idiosyncratic feature is a pair of towering conical chimneys that taper as they reach skyward.

The biggest draw in Sintra is of 16th century origin but is more contemporary in design, thanks to the inspiration of 19th century King Ferdinand, who built his exotic and Romanesque Pena Palace around the remains of a hilltop monastery.

While a bit of a stylistic mashup, the palace has something for everyone, from domes to castle crenellations to Moorish arches and neo-Gothic, grotesque sculpture, all wrapped in a harmonious but vivid profusion of colors.

Perched atop its mountain, the Pena Palace is said to be visible from Lisbon on a clear day.

Along with the monumental building, a vast, forested park was created out of lands that accompanied the purchase of the monastery. The park is designed around architectural follies and has plants drawn from every corner of the globe. Its pathways weave and intersect, and the hour or so I spent exploring was hardly enough to see it all.

Capping off in Porto

Barrels of port wine aging at a Pocas company warehouse in Porto.
Barrels of port wine aging at a Pocas company warehouse in Porto. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

A few hours' sail north from Lisbon's cruise terminal on Jardim do Tabaco Quay sits Portugal's second-biggest city and attraction, Porto, known globally for production and export of its namesake dessert wine, port.

A tour and tasting at a port warehouse is a near mandatory excursion in Porto; mine was to Pocas, where we strolled the dark aisles lined with oak barrels, learned the rules for making port and tasted several of the ruby and tawny varieties.

Wine Enthusiast calls the $100 Pocas 2016 Vintage Port "densely textured with dusty tannins and full of black plum skin and prune flavors" but recommends not opening your bottle until 2029. 

Other sights in Porto include a steel arch bridge over the River Douro designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame; the historical waterfront area; and the Romanesque Cathedral.

There's also the surprisingly beautiful Palacio da Bolsa, loosely translated as the Stock Exchange Palace, with its ornate Arab Room built by city merchants to impress visiting port buyers.

The ultramodern cruise terminal in the port of Leixoes, north of the city, was opened in 2015 and for its size is one of the most stylish I have ever seen.

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