Saturday, February 6, 2016

Exploring Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais....

It's true what I read: People in Lisbon absolutely adore children. I've gotten used to being stared at in Luxembourg (and in many of the countries we visit) with four little people trailing behind us.....we're a pretty big family in the land of 1.59 average kids. Once, I overheard an employee at an indoor playground say to another in French (not knowing I could understand), "Is she with a crèche" (school/daycare)? "Non," the other guy answered. "She said the kids are all hers!" But in Lisbon people  delighted in seeing a large family. Shopkeepers came out of their stores to give each of my kids individual attention, airport employees tickled Bitsy's nose, and no one could seem to resist teasing John. People are warm and take so much pride in their country; everyone knows its history. The city itself is beautiful with unexpected sea views hiding around corners, tiled walls and red roofs; it's old, gritty and colorful; thriving and convivial; rough-and-tumble. We loved it.

We arrived at our 150-year-old Airbnb apartment in the Alfami neighborhood, Lisbon's oldest, on Saturday afternoon. There's always incredible excitement as the kids run around to check out all the beds and open every door. We couldn't believe our luck as we looked out our balcony doors at the Lisbon Cathedral facing us and saw orange trees. Of course the first order of business was to go straight outside and pick some fruit. We rounded the corner and snacked on duck and mushroom empanadas, custard tarts, and tiny coconut pies wrapped in beautiful paper from a charming outdoor kiosk. Then we jumped in one of the many tuktuks -- kind of like high-speed, souped-up golf carts -- that were lined up in front of the cathedral, and we flew through the steep narrow cobblestone streets. It was ridiculously dangerous and impossibly fun. On the level below our apartment was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Cruze's Credo Café with insane smells coming out of the kitchen, so we stopped for dinner. (We later learned it was ranked #59 out of 3,064 restaurants in Lisbon!). The staff played with Bitsy and brought us traditional Portuguese entrées … pork with polenta, salted cod fish and three bowls of clams for John and Madeline. That night everyone slept like a baby (except for, ahem, the baby....Bitsy was sick). So, we mostly slept like babies....up until the garbage truck came through our street at midnight and all the locals who lived in our building came home at 2am. Okay, so the first night, we didn't sleep like babies at all. But we loved being in the heart of the city, and we were ready for a huge adventure the next morning...
Picking oranges! (Not quite sweet yet)...
You can see the sea everywhere....
A tuktuk in front of the Cathedral
We stopped for fresh pastries and coffee and met our tour guide, Nuno, who owns Lisbon Riders. We zipped off to Sintra, a seaside town only 30 minutes away -- its cooler climate attracted Portuguese nobility through the ages, so it's dotted with treasures. We started with the exquisite mountaintop Peno Palace. Because of its proximity to the sea, it often sits under permanent fog with the cloud line actually below the castle. But that day, there was brilliant sunshine and flowering plants, which made the castle's bright colors and Moorish influence stand out even more. 
Nuno (pronounced Noonoo) and Charlie!
The charming streets of Sintra
Next up was Quinta da Regaleira, our favorite stop of the entire vacation. It was like an enchanted garden filled with caves, waterfalls, lush green tropical plants and mazes… Every corner felt like it held a secret. After winding through the gardens, pausing for the kids to climb into turrets, play in fountains and pet friendly cats, we came to a opening, which led us through darkened tunnels to a dramatic four-story inverted spiral staircase. Technically called an initiatic well, the subterranean tower sinks 27 meters into the earth. It rained earlier that morning, so we listened to the echoes of dripping water as we carefully walked down the stone steps. At the bottom, we followed more tunnels, and eventually emerged in a clearing that looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings. There were stepping stones through a pond with a narrow rope bridge overhead and delicate waterfalls. It felt mysterious and magical. It made you want to whisper.
We got back in the van and had a two-hour authentic lunch at a family-owned Portuguese restaurant. I think Nuno, our guide, was genuinely surprised watching young American kids begging for more fresh fish as Rob flayed it from the bones at our table. No doubt it was pulled out of the sea that morning; I pantomimed and smiled with the old Portuguese couple working the grill outside. No chicken tenders or grilled cheese at this joint (thank goodness). We enjoyed a glass of Green Wine, or Vinho Verde -- made in the North, effervescent and bubbly. 

Next up, we stopped at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe, and watched the Atlantic crash against 150 meter cliffs… Sort of a Portuguese Cliffs of Moher. Of course within seconds Madeline and John were both scuttling under the fence protecting them from imminent death...
Next we stopped in Boca do Inferno (Portuguese for Mouth of Hell), a natural cavern carved into the seaside cliffs - you could feel the spray as the angry waves pounded and slashed the rock. 
We finished the day in Cascais, a fishing village-turned resort town (which gained popularity after Portuguese royalty lived there briefly) -- the kids played in the sand for a hour. They were so tired when we got home from a full day that they ate leftover breakfast pastries in our apartment kitchen for dinner and fell asleep. And Bitsy was such a good sport that no one even noticed she was fighting a virus and was on an antibiotic for a double ear infection. That sweet baby girl. Gosh, how I love her.
After such a long day steering the kids away from so many precarious ledges, we wanted them to be able to run and relax the next day. We took a cab to Lisbon's oceanarium, the second largest aquarium in Europe…it was fabulous! And then we took a fun 20-minute ride in a telecabine dangling over the harber, and let the kids play and climb around the boardwalk (we only lost John once).  I popped into a Portuguese children's boutique and bought Bitsy the most beautiful embroidered and ruffled outfits I've ever seen, complete with knee socks and velvet shoes, all for prices I'd spend at Target. On our way home we stopped in a local grocery store and picked up dinner -- fresh mussels and easy pizzas. Bam.
Fun Telecabine ride.
The way these two love mussels boggles my mind.
Our third and final day was perfect. We hopped on Tram 28 for a quintessentially Lisbon experience. These vintage trolleys from the 1930s would be in a museum most anywhere else, but they're still used in Lisbon to climb the steep cobblestone hills (my calves and quads are sore after walking for 3 1/2 days!). The tram was packed like sardines, but while guidebooks said it would be filled with tourists, we found ours slammed with local commuters. An elderly woman climbed on and chastised a younger person for not offering me a seat with the baby. We had a friendly exchange where I insisted she take the newly-open seat (she had to be at least 80!) but she wouldn't hear of it. We got off at the flea market where I bought traditional Portuguese pottery -- a giant tomato soup tureen on a leaf platter -- from a lovely man named Amerigo (which we loved). 
It was packed! The kids loved it! Sort of.....
Then it cleared out. This is the elderly women (beside the kids) who ushered me into the first available seat!
Amerigo's shop.
We walked to lunch, and after a beautiful meal outside on a terrace, we explored the Castelo de S. Jorge around the corner -- an 11th century castle with a gorgeous view of the city below and some noisy peacocks. That afternoon, Rob walked to a barber for a much-needed haircut. He waited with the Portuguese locals until it was his turn. We laughed until I had tears in my eyes when he got home -- his hair was shaved to nothing at the sides, long on top and slicked straight back with incredible amounts of thick gel. It will forever be known as Rob's Portuguese Haircut.
When in Portugal, do as the Portugese do!
Lisbon treated us well. I recently asked the kids if they liked Barcelona or Lisbon better. Madeline immediately answered, "That's an impossible question." (How cute is she?). On our last night, after the kids went to bed, Rob and I brainstormed our next vacation -- Ireland, Scotland and Amsterdam. 

This whole seeing-the-world thing is pretty great.


Unknown said...

I just laughed so hard at Robs Portugu-do. He looks like someone from the old school back Street Boys or Menudo. Love. Great entry. Made me smile the whole time and resources love our experiences where you visited. Xo! EB and the GA peaches

Unknown said...

Best line ever: Of course within seconds Madeline and John were both scuttling under the fence protecting them from imminent death...

So great. Done and done. Our next place to explore!!