Lisbon, Portugal

This is another huge post, a la Florence. You've been warned... 

After arriving home from Brussels on Friday night, I spent most of Saturday on the couch trying to fend off a cold. A bit too much travel of late I guess. It must have worked, as I was feeling well enough on Sunday to get up and go for a run. As it turns out, the London Marathon just happened to be on, and pretty much outside my front door. I certainly did pick a central location. While this was pretty cool on one hand (as I got to see part of the race), it was a bit of a pain on another as the course route pretty much cut the city in half, and I couldn’t get over to the parks to go for a run. I was forced to change my route, and cut it a bit short as a result. Of well, such is life. Just for fun, I signed up for next year’s race. Much like New York, it’s a lottery so the chances are small that I’ll get in.

Monday morning I was back out to Heathrow and on a plane to Lisbon. We are having our quarterly sales meeting in Lisbon, and I have a presentation to make as part of the festivities. I got to the hotel around noon, and joined the team for lunch. Just after lunch the sessions kicked off and we spent the rest of the afternoon locked up in meeting rooms. After the meetings, but before dinner I went outside and went for a short walk around the neighborhood. The hotel is in a nice area of town, up on top of a hill near Parque Eduardo VII. The park was layed out in 1903 in honor of England’s King Edward the VII who visited that year. Climbing up to the top provided stunning views over the city.

Parque Eduardo VII

Parque Eduardo VII

After dinner in the hotel, a group of us went out for drinks in an area referred to as “The Docks”. More accurately, Doca de Santo Amaro, a trendy area under the massive Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (kind of looks like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco). The strip of bars and restaurants made for a fun, albeit late night. 

Ponte 25 de Abril bridge at night 

Ponte 25 de Abril bridge at night 

Tuesday, the sprung a bit of a surprise on me and moved up my presentation. Given my tendencies to procrastinate, I had to scramble to finish the damn thing. It went OK, but I was pretty wired after it. I decided to go out for a run – not my smartest of ideas. Lisbon is built on a series of 7 very large hills, and I think I climbed all of them. What had been intended as a short run ended up as an hour and 15 minutes, ending with a long climb up the hill to the hotel. Just about killed me!

After the run I had a shower and met some of my coworkers down in the bar. We piled into taxis and headed out to find some dinner. We ended up half way to the “Docks” area again, and as we were walking along noticed this very cool looking restaurant. We inquired, it was open and we went in. As it turned out, it was one of the best meals ever! The restaurant’s name is Kais, and it is a warehouse conversion, done up better than I’ve seen anywhere. The place is huge – probably seats 500 people – and they’ve left most of the original warehouse features, like the original hoists and such in place. The atmosphere was perfect – they had jazz playing in the background – and the food (mostly seafood) was amazing. When they did the conversion they pushed out the windows and planted trees in the windows. The place was very cool. 

After dinner we ended up back in the bars, and the insanity continued…

Kais restaurant - fabulous meal 

Kais restaurant - fabulous meal 

2008-04-18

For the balance of the week, I was pretty much confined to the hotel. I got for a couple of runs, and every night we ended up back at the bars. I can’t keep up with these sales guys! Every night, they’re out until 4 or 5 am, them back at the sessions for 8:30 am. Way too much for me – I had to bail around 1 or 2 every night. The meeting wrapped up around noon on Friday, and I was able to head out and do some exploring finally!

2008-04-19

On Friday the sales meeting ended and I was on my own in Lisbon for the weekend. When the trip was originally planned, I had decided to stay on the weekend and check out the city. Fortunately, I have an “in”, in Lisbon. My friend Dora that I went to university with, her sister Dina is the Finance Director at the Four Seasons in Lisbon, and she was able to hook me up with a very good rate at the best hotel in Lisbon. But more on that later (thanks Dora!). Sadly, the weather in Lisbon took a turn for the worse on Thursday. We’ve been getting a bizarre combination of sun and rain – it will pour for 15 minutes, then get sunny for an hour or so. Very odd, and it makes it tough to wander around and see things.

Praco Commercio;

Praco Commercio;

Night shot of the Elevador Santa Justa

Night shot of the Elevador Santa Justa

But I’m not one to let minor things like the weather deter me. We wrapped up the sales meeting around noon, and then I headed off to the Four Seasons to check in and get setup for the weekend. What a hotel! I have stayed at Four Season’s before, and the service is unbelievable. There’s someone at every door to open it for you. Check in breezes through, and the person that checks you in escorts you to the elevators. When the elevator let’s you off on your floor, there’s someone responsible for the floor that greets you by name and walks you to your room. Amazing – service the way it should be. And needless to say, the rooms are beautiful, and the hotel amazingly appointed. Throughout the weekend there were more amazing touches, like the hand-delivered notes for my diner reservation, or thee constant checks on "if I needed anything". The most over the top example was the hand-delivered letter informing me that I had a voice mail message - I guess I didn't check it quickly enough! This is how every trip should be…

View from my hotel room, over the city

View from my hotel room, over the city

After getting settled, I did a quick change of cloths and headed out. It was raining, so I thought I’d be smart and headed for an indoor venue. I started with the Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, a museum/art gallery set-up by an oil magnate from the early 1900s. This is a great little gallery, covering pretty much any kind of art you can imagine, from the west to the east, from the time of the Egyptians forward. While not deep, it, covers a lot of ground. It starts with a small Egyptians collection, branches out to Greco-Roman Art, Persian and Ottoman tapestries and rugs; books from the 12th to the 17th century from all over the world; ceramics from everywhere imaginable; painting and sculpture; and furniture. The breadth of the collection is impressive. In the collection of paintings, there’s everything from pre-Renaissance to the Impressionists. The collections has some pretty big names – Rembrandt, Rubins, Turner, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and even some Rodin sculptures. I especially likes the collection of Venetian art – I really like the highly-detailed nature of it; it’s almost architectural in nature.

After wandering the gallery for a few hours I came out to better weather. I popped back to the hotel and picked up my camera and headed down to the old town. I started off down by the Rossio, the train station. I wandered down to the Praca do Comercio, a former royal palace in the heart of the old city, near the river. From there I wandered east (insert downpour…), towards the Alfama district. This was very cool – tight, winding streets through one of the oldest sections of down. My wanderings took me past the Se (cathedral) de Lisboa, and up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a huge castle perched on top of the hill. I didn’t have time to go into it, but plan to go back. I had a conference call at 5:00, so I started back. 

 Views over Lisbon, from one of the many scenic viewpoints

One of the things I love about wandering European cities are the small things you run across that you don’t expect. In this case, it was a museum built over top of the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, from the time of Nero. They discovered it as they were doing excavations in the area. This thing was big – seated up to 5,000 people. I love that sort of thing.

Roman amphitheater, under the city streets

Roman amphitheater, under the city streets

After my call, I chilled out in my room for a bit. I was planning to meet up with Dina, whenever she got clear of her day. I stopped for a drink in the bar – excellent atmosphere with live piano, and after a bit Dina joined me. We had an excellent evening, chatting and whatnot, and had an excellent dinner in the hotel. Her boyfriend joined us later in the evening, and we had a good time. I was going to go out after we were done, but it was pouring, so I called it a night. 

2008-04-20

Saturday I planned a day trip to the town of Sintra, a little ways outside Lisbon. While I’m not really a tour person, this seemed like the best way to see a lot, in a short amount of time. Plus, it was a small tour – 8 people max (we ended up with 7), so I figured my risk was limited. As with the previous days, the weather was poor. It was raining when I headed down to the meeting location. On the plus side, the guy doing the tour, Nunu, was very cool – highly engaging, and as it turned out, very knowledgeable. As we headed out of town, past the stadiums built for Euro 2004 for Sporting Lisbon and Benfica, the skies opened up and it absolutely poured! The rain continued for 15 or 20 minutes as we headed out of town and away from the coast. 

Our first stop was a former royal palace and hunting lodge called Queluz National Palace. Frankly, it wasn’t that impressive. It was big, and in it’s time must have been something, but it has not aged well. In all honesty, that was something I noticed of a lot of the things I visited in Portugal – they have not kept them up very well. Many of them need major restoration. Anyway, the interior wasn’t all that impressive, but the gardens were pretty cool. So I wandered around the gardens for a bit, before jumping back in the van. I was the first one back from the group – I guess they found it more interesting than I did.

Transient
A couple of views of the  Queluz National Palace and gardens

A couple of views of the  Queluz National Palace and gardens

After that, we continued on to Sintra. The rain actually stopped at this point, and cleared up a bit. Other than the odd, very brief shower, it was OK for most of the rest of the day. Sintra was the former summer home of the Portuguese royalty, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the visit, I can understand why! After driving through the very quaint little town, we would our way up this incredibly steep road to the entrance to the Palacia da Pena. The palace was built in the 1840s, during the high of the Romantic period. The Romantic’s were known for buildings that drew on aspects of various different architectural styles, and mashed them all together. Normally, it doesn’t work (personal opinion), but this place was fantastic (in every sense of the word…)! Here’s the description from the guide book – “…a wild fantasy of domes, towers, ramparts and walkways approached through mock-Manueline drawbridge that does not draw. A compelling riot of kitsch…”. You get the idea. It’s too hard to describe. We spent the better part of the late morning and lunch time exploring the palace. I enjoyed it thoroughly!

We they headed into Sintra, and explored the town for a bit. Nunu pointed out a good little restaurant for lunch, and recommended the local pastries. The Palacio Nacional and a couple of other major buildings dominate, but the small, winding streets made it an excellent spot to explore for a couple of hours. 

Street scene in Sintra

Street scene in Sintra

One of the amazing estates just outside of town 

One of the amazing estates just outside of town 

After lunch we headed back out on the road, and wound our way along winding roads through a National Park, back towards the ocean. We stopped at Cabo da Roca, or lands end – the most westerly point on mainland Europe. It’s pretty much just a rocky point of land at the edge of the ocean – Next stop, New York - but it was worth the stop. 

Cabo da Roca - lands end

That brief stop lead to a very picturesque drive along the coast, back towards Lisbon. The road was pretty spectacular, as you would expect and it allowed for a number of short stops to enjoy the view over the surrounding countryside and the coast. The main stop was in Cascais, Lisbon summer resort town. We stopped for an hour or so to wander along the water front, under the looming presence of the Citadel. Apparently this was where António de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s dictator spent his last days holed up, until he died in 1970. Strangely, Portugal ran as a dictatorship until the 1974 “Carnation Revolution”. We couldn’t go in as it was under renovation. The waterfront area was quite nice, and after wandering for a bit I found a small patio overlooking the sea with a nice bar and had a drink. It was a pleasant end to the day. 

Harbor at with the Citadel in the background;

Harbor at with the Citadel in the background;

Transient

On the way home we passed through Estoril, another beachside town. All around, it was a good day. Would have been better if the weather had cooperated more, but I can’t control that…

I got back to the hotel around 6ish, and had the concierge make me dinner reservations. I had picked a restaurant out of the guide book that sounded interesting, and Dina had confirmed that it was a good choice. Busy apparently, as I had to settle for an “early” reservation at 8:00. The restaurant, Bica do Sapato is part-owned by John Malkovich, and is another former warehouse conversion. Not as cool as the one I went to earlier in the week, but pretty nice nonetheless. It’s situated right on the river, and I can imagine how much nicer it would be in the summer. The meal was fabulous – more excellent seafood – and the service was good. I’ve also taken a liking to Portuguese wine. 

After dinner, I walked back to the hotel by winding my way through various back streets of the older part of the city. It seems I haven’t completely lost my sense of direction, as I got back to familiar ground after making some pretty cool discoveries along the way.

Night shot of a random church,

Night shot of a random church,

View over Lisbon at night

View over Lisbon at night

Once back in familiar territory, I made my way towards the Bairro Alto – Lisbon’s famed bar district. It only comes alive around midnight, so I was a little early but there were signs of life. This area is a warren of small streets, and every door seems to open into a smallish bar. It was already starting to pick up, so I stopped in a couple of bars to people-watch for a bit. It was pretty fun, but I bored of it before long. As I started to wander back I came upon a small city park, on the edge of the hill. It had an amazing view back across the city to the castle. While it wasn’t too late, I decided to call it a night and grabbed a cab.

Sunday I woke up to much the same weather – sun for a while, then rain, then more sun. I had already made plans to meet up with Dina again for a late lunch, and had decided that it was going to be a more relaxing day. I had booked myself a massage in the Four Season’s spa for later in the morning. I started the day by heading up to the roof to use the fitness facilities. The gym may have had one of the best views in the city, and running on the treadmill for half an hour was a great start to the day. Plus it was sunny for that half hour… After my workout, I headed down for my appointment in the spa. Before the massage I used the pool, and swam a few laps. While waiting, I watched the weather go through a torrential downpour phase, which seemed to justify my decision. The massage was amazing – a more relaxing variant over the therapeutic ones I normally get – a nice change. After that, I checked out of the hotel and headed out to meet with Dina.

We had agreed to meet in the Belem area of Lisbon, down by the river. This had the added advantage of being close to a couple of major sights in Lisbon that I wanted to see. As I was about half an hour early for our meeting, I checked out Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a monument put up in the 60’s in honor of the history of the city as it relates to explorers. It’s pretty impressive. 

Padrao dos Descobrimentos

At that point I was interrupted by another downpour, which was OK since it was time to meet Dina. We had a nice lunch on the waterfront, chatted for a while, and I even had a chance to chat with Dora for a bit, on the phone of course. After lunch the weather cleared and the sun came back out for the rest of the afternoon. We walked a little ways down the waterfront and checked out the Torre de Belem. Now this one is impressive. Built in the 1500’s as part of the city’s defenses, it survived the earthquake in the 1750’s that wiped out like 80% of Lisbon. The earthquake actually changed the course of the river, leaving the Torre a little way out in the river, rather than in the middle of the river where it started. The Torre is supposed to be the best example of Manueline architecture in Lisbon, and is an impressive site. We climbed around for a bit and checked it out. Dina departed at that point, having been an excellent host and tour guide. 

I didn’t have a lot of time before I needed to be at the airport, but I had a couple of things I wanted to see. First, since I was in the area, I had to check out the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. This huge, complex was another excellent example of Manueline architecture, and I had a chance to check out the main chapel and the cloisters. The cloisters were by far the more impressive of the two. The place was huge – I don’t think the pictures I took will really impress on you the scale of the place, but it’s all I’ve got. 

After wandering about the cloisters for a while, I hopped in another taxi and headed up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge. Built on the highest hill in Lisbon, there have been fortifications here since the 11th century, starting with the Moors. It’s an impressive structure, perched up on the hill, with amazing views over the city. I didn’t have nearly enough time to wander around, but I did get to see a fair bit of it. The views from the top of the towers were especially good. After that, it was off to the airport for the flight home. 

The Castelo de Sao Jorge, various views 

All in al, it was a very good week. I didn’t really have enough time, but there never is. I definitely want to go back to Lisbon, and take more time to explore the city in more detail. There are so many interesting little areas, each with their own personalities. And many of the sites that I did get to see I only had a chance to look at in passing, and they deserve way more attention. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to get back.