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Extended Summertime fun in Sunny Portugal


Extended Summertime fun in Sunny Portugal

Beaches, Lisbon, and Castles were the top three things that our Fodor’s Travel Guide listed as “must sees” when in Portugal.  We only had nine days in the once wealthiest country in the world, so we focused on those three.  We arrived by car at the Algarve coast, in the southeastern part of the country, in the late afternoon.

There is 586 miles of Atlantic Coastline in Portugal and our goal was to find one beach town that would give us a feel for what Portugal’s coast was all about.  After a small amount of research we decided to stop for three nights in Tavira, a town of old-world European charm and history, and one of the best sandy beaches in Portugal.


We checked into a junior suite at the Vila Gale Hotel for 91 Euro ($130).  The room came with free breakfast each morning for all four of us, and I found free parking at the lot next door, so this turned out to be one of the cheapest stops of the trip.  The Vila Gale Hotel is a tour group overnight stop so everyday pasty Swedes and Germans disembarked their bus, got burnt to a crisp on the beach, chowed down on an all-inclusive nightly buffet and then moved-on to their next stop being replaced by another tour group.

Our first night we fought our way through the town center’s restaurant barkers with half empty patios to a full place with no pressure called, O Patio.  Dinner started with an inexpensive selection of small appetizers including garlic sardines, dried fish, green olives, carrots, and bread.

We ordered the house wine because I read that the house wines in Portugal are just as good as anything else you’d order and a much better value.  The house wine was rioja from the Alentejo wine region.  As our waiter, Diogo, poured it into a decanter to aerate, we talked about traveling.  Diogo was an interesting and open man who had traveled many places around the world, even living in American Samoa for a year and a half doing odd jobs.

I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the Portuguese people and their ability and willingness to speak English.  I ordered the Mordomo (peppercorn steak with a generous chunk of Serpa cheese made from sheep’s milk) which was one of the best meals I had during our one month tour of the Iberian peninsula.

The next morning we took the small ferry that leaves from the town of Tavira, through the marshes to Tavira Island and its seven miles of sandy beach.  It was mid-October, but the weather was ideal, high 80’s and full sun.  We felt like we’d stumbled upon an extended summer paradise.  There were tiki hut umbrellas and lounge chairs for rent, and a snack bar that sold cold Sagres beer, so we grabbed a couple and hit the beach.

As a former high school water polo player and still an occasional swimmer, I was able to be a real European beach goer by wearing my Speedo without fear of being perceived as too much of a creep.  On other parts of the island they allow naturism, so some may have considered me over dressed.

Just off of the beach were about a dozen restaurants.  About half had already called it a summer, and the ones that were still open seemed to have limited menus.  The ocean water was calm so the kids were able to play in the waves without too much fear that they’d get swept out to sea.

We took the 6:20 ferry back towards town, the second to last one of the day, but this one stopped further out of town.  No big deal we thought because we’re a walking family, however, we walked on a road through the marshy areas that we had passed by boat earlier in the day.  It was now dusk, and  the next day the red bumps of mosquito bites were our souvenirs from the walk home.


The three hour drive cost us just over 20 Euros in toll fees.  We crossed over the Ponte 25 de Abril, a  Golden Gate “tribute Bridge” for another two euros.   The style and color of this suspension bridge only served to foreshadow the many similarities I would discover over the next several days between San Francisco and Lisbon.

Despite our GPS directions, we got lost arriving in Lisbon.  We found a taxi driver and gave him  10E and the directions to our AirBnB apartment.  He set out across town, and I attempted to stay right on his back bumper.  Ten minutes later, we were there.  A stress-free arrival that was well-worth the 10E to me.

Our 3 bedroom, 1 bath apartment on Rua Dom Pedro near the entrance to Lisbon’s Botanical Gardens cost us 200E ($280) a night. The apartment didn’t come with parking, so I had to pay an additional 11 euros to park our car down the street at an overnight lot.

The apartment was a third story walk-up apt, but it had a kitchen and living room, plus a washing machine which is a nice bonus when you’ve been on the road for weeks.  The apartment’s resident who rented the place to us left us a few books and brochure about Lisbon.  One of them was about Mercado da Ribeira, a central market type of place with a large variety of restaurants.  We sampled many different items including blood sausage, various meats,  fish croquets, and local wines.

We taxied back to the apartment and the friendly taxi driver pointed out places of interest on the way home.  As we passed the Sao Bento Palace, the Portuguese parliament building he said, “This is where they do the stealing.”

The next day we hopped on the “must do” historic street car #28 to visit Alafama, to the old section of town.  Tourists on their way to see St. George’s Castle and the cathedral packed the street car.  It clickety-clacked it’s way up and down the steep hills offering occasional glimpses of the bay.  The similarities to San Francisco were so strong I could practically hear Tony Bennett singing, “I left my heart in sunny Lisbon.”

Rua Augusta is the “Main Street” pedestrian walk filled with shops and sidewalk cafes.  I bought my one souvenir from the trip there at Casa Macario, a purveyor of old port wines.  Some dated back over a hundred years and were priced near a thousand euros.  I bought a bottle of Kopke Colheita port from 1984, the year I graduated from high school, with the intention of sharing it with friends back home over a paella dinner and travel stories.

A great day trip from Lisbon is the town of Sintra.  It is listed as a UNSECO World Heritage site.  It’s only a thirty minute drive from Lisbon and there are many ways to get there.  Many tours offer full-day or half way day trips, you can also take the train if you want to explore it on your own.  We wanted the freedom to be able to see it at our own pace, so we took a cab there which cost 40E with tip.

After a relaxing out-of-the-way lunch at Romaria de Baco where I had a delicious  roquefort steak, we hired a moto-cab for 20 euros to take us up the winding roads to the Palacio da Pena.  The impressive 130 year old castle sits atop the hill with a view of seemingly all of Portugal.  Our travel book called it an “over-the-top” example of 19th-century Romanticism architectural expression.  We toured the colorful castle with it’s impressive turrets and domes and it’s wacky multi-cultural influences of German, Portuguese, and English art, furniture, and decoration.  We hiked back down to the town of Sintra, which was an enjoyable two mile nature trail through lush greenery.

Our small sampling of Portugal only made us want to return… so many beaches and castles, so little time.



LAX – Lisbon (1 Stop) $1,096 through cheapoair.com

Lisbon 1 bedroom apt near Principe Real (Sleeps 4)  $116 per night through AirBnB.com

Palacio da Pena, Sintra castle, www.parquesdesintra.pt