Europe part 1: Portugal

Ah, Europe.  Like an old friend, She welcomed me back this summer with magnificent scenery, delicious food and friendly locals.  Now, Mr. No Nom de Blog will be quick to call me on my selective amnesia and remind me of the challenges of traveling with young children: a two-year old in need of constant entertaining and who refuses to sit still at restaurants, and a picky seven-year old whose most memorable meal from the trip was most likely the McDonald’s chicken nuggets that he got in Sarlat.  Yes, yes, I will concede those points, and indeed eating out was often difficult with both kids. But, even with all the challenges, Europe has a hold on me that makes it hard to think of planning vacations to any other part of the world.  And really, our kids were never the worst ones on the plane or train (thank god for other screaming children!) and Soup-er Boy did broaden his macaron repretoire beyond just chocolate!  So, am now pondering Croatia for our next European adventure… hee hee.

But back to this trip.  If Europe is like an old friend, then Portugal must surely be the old aunt, whose faded grandeur hints at a glorious past and whose present is full of unexpected pleasures.  For this first trip to Portugal, we decided to stay outside of Lisbon, near Sintra in the small town of Colares, which is about 2 km from the western coast.  I had never been to Portugal before, and despite all the planning didn’t really know what to expect.  The one thing that quickly became obvious was my inability to grasp  the language.  Boston has a large Portuguese population and I’ve heard the language spoken often, but god help me I just couldn’t get the intonations or pronounce the “eshes” appropriately. My linguistic ineptitude persisted throughout the trip and contributed to a vague understanding of Portugal and the people.  With only one week, my meager experiences in Portugal left me with a few thoughts:

– I liked Sintra and the area around it more than I liked Lisbon.  In particular, I found the cultural and historical sites more interesting, unique, and better situated.  Set among rolling hills and thick forests, Sintra literally has a surprise around every hairpin turn in the too-narrow road.  From the Moorish Castle (c. 8th century) and the Pena Palace (c. 18th century) to the Montserrat Palace (c. 19th century) and the Quinta da Regalaria (c. 20th century), Sintra’s highlights are indicative of the confluence of Arab and European styles and history in Portugal.  And the results are breathtaking. Beautiful turrets and spires blending seamlessly with Moorish arches and golden domes.  I particularly enjoyed spying the castles and forts amidst the forests and from across the valleys as we drove to and from our little villa–though I did have the luxury of sightseeing while Mr. No Nom dealt with a temperamental manual transmission on hilly, narrow roads shared with trucks and giant tour buses.

– In total we spent about 12 hours in Lisbon and really did not have a chance to get to know the city.  The tiled squares were lovely but we didn’t have much time to soak in the ambiance.  And our rushed trek through the Alfama (with four kids!) gave us only a glimpse of a quaint life in the midst of the bustle of city life.  I wish we had more time to spend in Alfama and Graca.  As it was, we made our way up the hill on tram #28, got lost trying to find the Sao Jorge Castle, gave up and simply wandered our way down, thankful that the stroller wheels didn’t lose their battle against the cobblestone streets.

– If you love seafood, you will love Portugal.  Clams, mussels, octopus, fish, barnacles, squids, oh my! We couldn’t get enough of the seafood and it was really hard to order anything else on the menu.   Unfortunately, Soup-er Boy did not share in our enthusiasm, but thankfully he will eat shrimp, so he subsisted on a diet very high in shrimp content!  Now, Soup-er Girl is WHOLE other story!  She downed everything and had a particular fondness for the clams and barnacles.  Who knew!?  A girl after my own stomach.  And just wait until you hear what she ate in France…

To celebrate our 12 wedding anniversary, we left the kids at the villa with Next Doors and headed to Cantinho do Avillez in the Chiado neighborhood of Lisbon for a lovely dinner.  (Negotiating traffic and pedestrians in Lisbon is not for the faint of heart and being in the wrong lane at the wrong time did give us an unwanted tour of the less than picturesque waterfront.) The restaurant has gotten a fair amount of publicity recently courtesy of the NYT and we did encounter quite a few expats (a college professor from the Midwest and a gay couple from the Bay Area), but the meal was lovely.  Unfortunately, the lighting was not conducive for photos, so I can’t show you a picture of the amazing cherry gazpacho, traditional Portuguese steak sandwiches, or lemon sorbet with basil and vodka. But I will leave you with some other culinary photos:

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