Lisbon and the Algarve
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we return to Portugal. Stick around. With a little luck...we'll catch one of these.
Portugal has centuries of history and culture chiseled into its grand buildings and ground between its salty cobbles. It was once a global superpower with a vast empire stretching from Africa to Brazil and all the way to the Far East. Then it was the poorest nation in Western Europe. Today it's thriving once again as an equal partner in the European Union.
In Lisbon we'll delve into a colorful capital rich in history. We'll sing with locals buried deep in the old town, sip coffee on stools once warmed by great Portuguese poets, covet slinky art nouveau jewelry and marvel at the architectural heritage of the age of discovery. Then we'll head for the 'lands end' of Europe where we'll fish for octopi and savor the freshest of seafood on the south coast of my travel dreams.
Portugal and Spain fill the Iberian Peninsula, sharing the oldest border in Europe. From Lisbon we travel south to the Algarve, checking out the resort city of Lagos and Cape Sagres, before settling into the fishing village of Salema.
We're starting in Lisbon, a city of about 600,000 on the yawning mouth of the Tejo River. With its huge port welcoming ships from around the globe, this city of Magellan and Vasco da Gama still feels like Europe's gateway to the world.
Lisbon's mile-and-a-half long suspension bridge — one of the longest in the world — was built in 1966 by the same company that built its cousin in San Francisco.
A towering statue of Christ overlooks Lisbon from across the Tejo River, stretching his arms wide to symbolically bless the city.
Lisbon is a ramshackle but charming mix of now and then. Old trolleys clatter up and down its hills, bird-stained statues mark grand squares, taxis rattle and screech around cobbled corners and well-worn people hang out in Art Nouveau cafés. Survey the city's charm on a trolley. Sleek new ones glide while vintage models from the 1920s shake and shiver through the old town. Climbing steep hills, and somehow weaving within inches of parked cars, they offer sightseers cheap and breezy views of this great city.
Lisbon's history goes all the way back to Roman times. But its golden age was the 15th and 16th centuries, when Vasco da Gama and the gang sailed around Africa and opened new trade routes to India, making the city one of Europe's wealthiest.
Portugal's Age of Discovery fueled an economic and cultural boom time in the 1500s. In the early 1700s, the gold and diamonds of Brazil, one of Portugal's colonies, made Lisbon even wealthier.
The scarred pillars of the rebuilt church of Saõ Domingos evoke the worst calamity in Portuguese history. On All Saints' Day in 1755, while most of the population was in church, a tremendous earthquake struck the city.
They say candles quivered as far away as Ireland. 30,000 died as two-thirds of Lisbon was leveled. It was three disasters in the space of a few horrible minutes. After the quake, fires raged through the city, then a huge massive tidal wave blasted the harbor.
The city was reconstructed under the energetic and eventually dictatorial leadership of its Prime Minister; Marquês de Pombal. The new Lisbon was built on a progressive grid plan, with broad boulevards and square squares.
And today, the city — with its Pombaline squares newly buffed and a financial boost from its membership in the European Union — seems better organized, cleaner, more prosperous and people-friendly than ever. And, with some of Europe's lowest prices, Lisbon is easy on the budget.
Lisbon's castle of St. George was first built by the Muslim Moors who swept in from North Africa and conquered this region in the eighth century. After Portugal's King Afonso Henriques beat the Moors in the 12th century, the castle became a royal palace. Later, the king moved and the castle fell into ruins. While the castle is a barren shell, it's surrounded by a peaceful and inviting park with the city's best viewpoint.
Lisbon's salty sailors' quarter, the Alfama, tumbles from the castle to the river. It dates back over 1,000 years to Moorish days. The tangled street plan here is one of the few aspects of Lisbon to survive the great quake of 1755, helping make the Alfama a cobbled playground of Old World color.
The Alfama's urban-jungle roads are squeezed into a maze of confusing alleys. Bent houses comfort each other in their romantic shabbiness. The air drips with laundry and the smell of clams and raw fish.
With the help of my friend and fellow tour guide Claudia da Costa, a wander through the Alfama takes on some meaning.
Claudia: I just love this place. I just love this place...see everybody is just here. Everybody knows each other you see...You can leave the door open because they know each other. Here you don't have police because they protect each other. It's like a big family. It's very, very nice.
Here you have St Anthony. St Anthony is the local patron saint and the fishermen's patron saint because fishermen live here. And then you have plastic bags filled with water because we say these keep away the flies.
Rick: Does it work?
Claudia: asks woman in Portuguese
Claudia: (Asks woman in Portuguese.) It works!
Rick: No flies?
Woman: (Portuguese response and laughter.)
Claudia: In the Alfama traditions are strong. If a woman loses her husband, she will wear black for the rest of her life and if some reason she wants to stop wearing it, I think her neighborhood would question her about her respect, about her love for her husband, because traditions are very, very strong here.
And traditions survive in the passionate music called Fado. We're having dinner in a restaurant which serenades diners with the folk music of Lisbon's back streets. This is an experience I like to recommend in my guidebooks — ideal for rustic Portuguese cuisine seasoned with this unforgettable music.
The Marquês de Pombal's rebuilt center of Lisbon — called the Baixa — is today a flat, inviting shopping area of grid-patterned streets. The main boulevard is pedestrians-only Rua Augusta. The uniform post-earthquake or "Pombaline" architecture is utilitarian. It is decorated only with wrought iron and tiles. In the years after the earthquake Lisbon did a lot of building without a lot of money.
The Santa Justa elevator was built to connect the lower town with the high town. It was constructed in 1902 — a few years after its inspiration...the Eiffel Tower.
The Rossio train station brings in workers from the suburbs, and a funicular works hard all day, hauling people from the lower town to the characteristic Bairro Alto or high town.
While in the high town we're visiting the Port Wine Institute where you can sample Portugal's most famous beverage in clubby comfort. While here, you can select from a menu of 300 different ports, most available by the glass. Port differs from wine in that its fermentation process is cut short by the addition of pure alcohol, which fortifies it. Even so, there is great diversity amongst ports
Rick: What should we try? Give us two glasses please.
Server: Two glasses, OK. I recommend tawny 10 year. It's excellent wine.... it's very good wine...tawny 10 year.
A ten-year tawny is a blend of ports of various ages averaging 10 years old.
Rick: What do you eat with this?
Server: With ice cream it's excellent
Rick: Ice cream?
Server: Yes, ice cream or with pastries it's very good
Rick: I can imagine it with ice cream. Hmm this one looks like it would match up well with a complex Rocky Road or perhaps a pralines and cream...
Down the street, the church of San Roque was built by the Jesuits in the 16th century. The acoustics here are top-notch, important in a Jesuit church where the emphasis is on the sermon. The ceiling — while flat and made of wood — is painted to give the illusion of marble arches and domes.
The Chapel of St. John the Baptist is one of the most costly chapels per square inch ever constructed. It looks like it came right out of the Vatican...because it did. Made in Rome out of the most precious materials, it was used for one papal Mass. Then it was disasembled and shipped here to Lisbon. While these look like paintings, they are actually intricate mosaics. A Vatican specialty, mosaics were used to avoid damage from candle smoke that would darken paintings.
Coffeehouse junkies have a near-religious experience nearby at the grand old A Brasileira café. This café retains some of the ambiance it had back in the 1920s and 30s when it was the literary and creative soul of Lisbon. It was the hangout of avant-garde poets, writers, and painters...and it's still a good place for a cup of coffee and a pastel de Nata. The beloved poet Pessoa still sits outside.
Lisbon, the capital of the Portuguese-speaking world — is a melting pot of its once vast empire. Immigrants from former colonies such as Mozambique and Angola have added diversity and flavor to the city, making it as likely that you'll hear African music these days as Portuguese Fado.
This is a great taxi town. Cabbies stick to their meters and are generally good-humored. Rides are cheap and decals on the window clearly spell out all charges in English. Especially if you're sharing costs, Lisbon's cabs are an economic time-saver. We're heading Lisbon's top art museum.
The Gulbenkian Museum offers one of the most enjoyable museum experiences in all of Europe. The cool, uncrowded, gorgeously lit museum displays only a few exquisite works from each epoch. Visitors stroll across the globe through five millennia of human history, appreciating our ancestors by seeing objects they considered beautiful.
Five thousand years ago, Egyptian civilization brought an unprecedented refinement to humankind. This feline-topped coffin held the mummified remains of a cat.
Mesopotamian reliefs remind us that it was in the Fertile Crescent (present-day Iraq) that writing was invented.
Centuries later, but still long before Christ, the Greeks took civilization to new heights. This vase, decorated with scenes of half-human satyrs chasing human women, reminds us of the rational Greeks' struggle to overcome their barbarian, animal-like urges.
The collection helps bring to life the mysterious world of the Moors who ruled this part of Europe through the Middle Ages. They came from an Arabic and Muslim realm where ornately-patterned tiles, and fine glass lamps decorated mosques, palaces and gardens.
In the 1500s, Portuguese sailors began trading with China. Among the many treasures they brought home were blue-and-white Ming ceramics which became all the rage, inspiring the Delftware of Holland and Portugal's azulejos tiles.
The creativity of medieval Europe was devoted mostly to its Christian faith. Foldup altarpieces eight inches tall helped travelers worship. Early Bibles and religious books were richly decorated. Illuminated manuscripts like these were some of Europe's finest pre-Renaissance art.
Later, Renaissance and Baroque painters celebrated God's creation in the faces of ordinary people, whether Ghirlandaio's fresh-faced young maiden, Frans Hals' wrinkled old woman or Rembrandt's portrait of an old man, whose crease-lined hands tell the story of his life.
Gulbenkian's collection of furniture once actually owned by French kings is a royal homeshow. It shows off the Louis XIV style — ornate, with curved legs and animal-clawed feet, and the Louis XVI style — straight-legged, tapered and more modern.
Follow the progression of Europe's increasingly refined styles from stormy Romanticism (like this tumultuous shipwreck by Turner) to Pre-Raphaelite dreamscapes (like this Mirror of Venus), to the glinting, shimmering Impressionism of Monet, Renoir and the Englishman John Singer Sargent.
And finish your walk through Gulbenkian's garden of manmade beauty with the nubile Art Nouveau glasswork and jewelry of the French designer René Lalique.
A trolley takes us along the waterfront from downtown Lisbon to the Belém District, a stately pincushion of important sights from the days when Portugal was Europe's richest power.
Belém survived the big earthquake. Because of that, Portugal's suddenly safety-conscious and rattled royalty chose to live out here — in wooden rather than stone buildings. To this day, Portugal's royal palace stands behind these walls.
The adjacent royal stables now house one of Europe's top coach museums. In 1905 the last Queen of Portugal realized cars would make horse-drawn carriages obsolete. She decided to preserve her fine collection of royal coaches. The museum shows 70 dazzling carriages in her elegant old riding room.
The oldest is the crude and simple coach used by King Philip II to shuttle between Madrid and Lisbon in around 1600. This coach had no driver's seat; its drivers would actually ride the horses. With bad roads and crude leather-strap suspension, the ride was slow and rough. You'll have to trust me on this, but if you lift up the cushion, you'll find a potty hole — also handy for road sickness.
Tracing the evolution of coaches through the next century, You'll notice the decoration evolves along with the comfort. The Portuguese coat of arms indicates this carriage was part of the royal fleet. The ornamentation includes a folk festival of exotic faces from Portugal's distant colonies.
The lumbering Ocean Coach is as ornate as it is long. At the stern, gold figures symbolizing the Atlantic and Indian Oceans holding hands, reminded all of Portugal's mastery of the sea.
Just down the street is the Jerónomos Monastery with Lisbon's most impressive church. King Manuel — who ruled around the year 1500 — built this giant church and monastery as a thanks for overseas discoveries.
Manual financed the construction in part with "pepper money," a five percent tax levied on spices brought back from India. He built all this on the site of a humble sailors' chapel where seafarers prayed before embarking on their frightening voyages. The style of Manuel's church? Manueline.
This uniquely Portuguese style reflects the wealth of the times and the many cultural influences of the Age of Discovery. Manueline decoration is ornate, featuring motifs from the sea.
This style is on the cusp of the Renaissance. Unlike earlier medieval churches, the interior is more open. Palm tree-like columns are slender, rather than massive, and the side isles are as lofty as the nave.
The interior is decorated with more age of discovery motifs: monsters evoke the mystery of undiscovered lands, a totem pole of faces celebrates Portuguese conquests, artichokes — eaten for vitamin C to fight scurvy — remind of hardships sailors faced at sea and the ceiling — a boy scout handbook of knots — trumpets Portugal's technical expertise.
This is Vasco da Gama's tomb. In 1497, he spent an evening praying here for a safe voyage. The next morning he set sail with four ships — caravels like this — and 150 men.
His mission? To find a direct trade route to the vast, untapped wealth of Asia. When he succeeded (sailing around Africa), sea trade eclipsed overland trade with Asia. And almost immediately, Italy's trade plummeted, Portugal's sky-rocketed and Europe's seafaring countries along the Atlantic — England, Holland, Spain and Portugal — emerged as economic powerhouses.
With all that prosperity came money for art. These lacy Manueline cloisters — my favorite in all of Europe — are the architectural highlight of Belém. The sheer size of this religious complex is a testament to the religious motivation that — along with money — propelled the Age of Discovery.
The Belém Tower, with more textbook Manueline decore, protected Lisbon's harbor and today symbolizes the voyages that made Portugal powerful. This was the last sight sailors saw as they left and the first when they returned, bearing gold and spices
The giant Monument to the Discoveries — built in 1960, on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death, shows that exploring the world was a team effort. Standing on the prow of a ship are royalty, poets and painters, knights who Christianized foreign lands with the sword, great explorers such as Vasco da Gama, and, finally, the man who spearheaded the push for exploration...Prince Henry the Navigator, holding the ship that made it possible: a caravel.
To mix in a little fun in the sun with our history, we're driving three hours south to the rugged southwestern tip of Portugal...Cape Sagres. This was as close as you could get to the edge of our flat Earth in the days before Columbus. A lighthouse marks what was referred to even in ancient times as "the end of the world." Today, salt-of-the-earth merchants sell seaworthy sweaters. Fishermen cast their lines off the dizzying cliffs. And tourists go for that "end of Europe" photo.
Five centuries ago, Prince Henry the Navigator, determined to broaden Europe's horizons and spread Catholicism, established his sailing school right here. This was Henry's mission control, from where he sent sailors ever further into the unknown. And here he debriefed shipwrecked and frustrated explorers as they washed ashore.
Little remains of Henry's original school beyond this evocative circle. No one knows for sure its function. Some believe it was a tool for celestial navigation. Others think it was a wind-compass, a flag in the middle blowing in the direction of the wind. What ever the case, sailors came here to learn everything they needed to know to be world explorers: map-making, ship-building, navigation...even languages and salesmanship for mingling with the locals in newly discovered lands.
Today, Cape Sagres marks the western tip of the Algarve. Portugal's south coast was once known as Europe's last undiscovered tourist frontier. But now it's well-discovered, the darling of tour brochures and much like Spain's Costa del Sol...paved, packed and pretty developed.
Lagos, with a jet-ski marina and a beach-party old town, is as enjoyable as a big-city resort can be. The major town on this stretch of coast, Lagos hides some history. It was the capital of the Algarve in the 13th and 14th centuries. The first great Portuguese maritime expeditions embarked from here, and Europe's first African slave market was held under these arches. The old town, defined by its medieval wall, is a jumble of pedestrian streets, funky craft shops, seafood restaurants and sunburned tourists. The beaches — with the exotic rock formations of postcard fame — are dramatic. But Lagos is pretty touristy for my taste.
One bit of old Algarve magic still glitters quietly in the sun — Salema. This simple fishing village has just enough B&Bs and restaurants, a classic beach — and endless sun. Salema has a split personality: The whitewashed old town is for locals, the other half was built for tourists. Locals and tourists pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence.
Salema is still a fishing village. Weather-worn fishermen, oblivious to the tourists, go about their work while old timers remember about the days when life was "only fish and hunger."
The pottery jars stacked everywhere are octopus traps. They get shore leave only for a periodic barnacle scraping. Otherwise they're busy at sea catching octopi.
Local fisherman, Louise, is taking us out to check the pots. They're strung along the seabed just off shore — a technique that has changed little since ancient times. The octopus, thinking these pots would make a cozy place to set an ambush, climbs in and gets ambushed himself. When the fisherman hoist's him in, he hangs on, unaware he's made his final mistake. The octopus is indelicately maced out of his refuge and ends up in the village market and who knows...perhaps on my dinner plate tonight.
These days locals hook more tourists than fish. They rent cheap and characteristic rooms to travelers. For a little more comfort and convenience, you can stay at Pensión Mare. The breakfast is a buffet and comes with a view...guests enjoy Internet access and plenty of sightseeing tips...and the living room is mostly under the sun.
For seafood lovers, the Algarve is as good as it gets. Salema's handful of surfside restaurants have a knack for friendly service, getting white fish just right and complimenting that with plenty of vegetables.
After a great lunch, the beach beckons and after so much history and art, Salema is refreshing for its lack of turnstiles. The major activity is no activity...stretched out on the sand. While locals grab the shade, tourists see how slow they can get their pulse under the Algarve sun.
Whether in a fishing village like Salema or a big city like Lisbon, Portugal's an endearing land with a superpower past that mixes comfortably with a charming and laid-back present. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.