Portugal's Heartland

Leaving Lisbon for the countryside, we eat barnacles in the salty old fishing town of Nazaré, march with pilgrims to Fatima on the anniversary of a miracle, ponder the local Romeo and Juliet in Alcobaça, sample university life in Coimbra, and rummage through the riches of Portugal's Golden Age.

Travel Details

Casa Pasteis de Belém

In Belém, the Casa Pasteis de Belém café is the birthplace of the wonderful custard tart that's called pastel de nata throughout Portugal but here is dubbed pastel de Belém. Since 1837, locals have come to this café to get them warm out of the oven (daily 8:00–24:00, Rua de Belém 84-92). Sit down and enjoy one with a café com leite. Sprinkle on the cinnamon and powdered sugar. If the to-go line is too long, there's plenty of seating and perhaps faster service (if you need a WC, this is an easy choice).


Ginjinha (zheen-ZHEEN-yah) is a favorite Lisbon drink. The sweet liquor is made from the sour cherry–like ginja berry, sugar, and schnapps. It's sold for €1 a shot in funky old shops throughout town. Buy it with or without berries (com elas or sem elas — that's "with them" or "without them") and gelada (if you want it poured from a chilled bottle — very nice). The oldest ginjinha joint in town is a colorful hole-in-the-wall at Largo de São Domingos 8 (just off northeast corner of Rossio, across from entrance of "eating lane"). Another ginjinha bar is nearby on the "eating lane" itself, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, next to #59.


On May 13, 1917, three children were tending sheep when the sky lit up and a woman — Mary, the mother of Christ, "a lady brighter than the sun" — appeared standing in an oak tree. (It's the tree to the left of the large basilica.) In the midst of bloody World War I, she brought a message that peace was coming. The war raged on, so on the 13th day of each of the next five months, Mary dropped in again to call for peace and to repeat three messages. Word spread, bringing many curious pilgrims. The three kids — Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta — were grilled mercilessly by authorities trying to debunk their preposterous visions, but the children remained convinced of what they'd seen. (In 1930, the Vatican recognized the Virgin of Fátima as legit.)

Finally, on October 13, 70,000 people assembled near the oak tree. They were drenched in a rainstorm when suddenly, the sun came out, grew blindingly bright, danced around the sky (writing "God's fiery signature"), then plunged to the earth. When the crowd came to its senses, the sun was shining and the rain had dried.

Today, tens of thousands of believers come to rejoice in this modern miracle, most of them during the months of May to October. Fátima, Lourdes (in France), and Medjugorje (in Bosnia-Herzegovina) are the three big Mary sights in Europe.

Restaurant Trovador

In Coimbra, this restaurant, while a bit touristy, serves good food in a classic romantic setting, with entertaining dinner fado performances nearly nightly in summer from 21:30 (Fri-Sat only off-season). It's the place for an old-town splurge (daily fixed-price meal, closed Sun, facing the old cathedral on Largo de Sé Velha 15, reservations essential to eat with the music — ask for a seat with a music view, tel. 239-825-475).


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, delighted to be your travel partner. This time we return for a quick look at Lisbon before heading north for small town Portuguese adventures.

We'll remember Lisbon's glory days, eat barnacles with a fisherwoman, learn the story of Portugal's Romeo and Juliet, dance on the beach, march with pilgrims on the anniversary of a miracle, and sample student life at the Oxford of Portugal.

Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with its neighbor, Spain. From Lisbon, we travel north to Nazaré, Alcobaca, Fatima and Coimbra.

Like no other European capital, Lisbon has an old time charm — it feels like San Francisco but older, grittier... and less expensive.

The city is a complex mix: Immigrants from its former empire, the boost of a recent world's fair, a vibrant young democracy — after a long period of fascism — and money from the European Union all give Lisbon bounce. But grand old Lisbon was built with the riches of new world discoveries.

This monument honors an entire culture of discovery: Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorers, great writers, poets, missionaries and the queen.

A trip through Portugal is littered with reminders of how these people made this country a European power. We're in the Lisbon suburb of Belem, famous for its monuments, museums and this monastery — where sailors worshipped before sailing into the unknown.

A wing of the monastery, now Portugal's naval museum shows how this little country built a mighty empire in the late 15th century, then reaped a rich harvest.

Local guide Angela da Silva explained how her country pulled this off.

Rick: Did Vasco da Gama use this boat here?

Angela: Not this one, these are very nice, but this one is special. This is a Caraval, and it was the Portuguese secret weapon to travel. We could sail into the wind, and it was perfect for long voyages. Vasco da Gama used one of these to reach India.

Angela: These are navigational instruments. We Portuguese became experts at navigating by the stars. Why is that important? Now we could sail away from the coastline.

Angela: The sphere represents the world. According to tradition, the band divides the world between Spain and Portugal.

The great explorers brought in the money and Portugal's royalty spent it. This starburst of Brazilian gold and jewels was an 18th century gift from king to church.

And the Portuguese good life wasn't limited to kings and queens. This popular bakery is famous for its custard cakes — Pasties de Belem. You'll find these all over Portugal — but they originated right here.

Behind the lazy cafe scene, a sweet sweatshop cranks out 10,000 tasty delights a day. They tried mechanizing the process but it just wasn't the same. Why are these so special? It's a secret — carefully kept since 1837. Only three workers and the boss know the complete recipe.

Rick: Okay, what is this?

Waiter: Cinnamon?

Rick: Si.

Waiter: Sugar?

Rick: Si. Thank you

Remember the basic economic equation: Through the Middle Ages, Italy dominated European trade with the East. Then within ten years of Vasco da Gama's voyage around Africa to India, Italy's trade plummeted and Portugal's skyrocketed.

From that point on, Europe's economic superpowers faced the Atlantic. But the Lisbon we see today was built from scratch after an earthquake leveled the city in 1755. It took the near dictatorial leadership of the Marques de Pombal to rebuild the city and he did it in a grand and modern style.

The Avenue of Liberty provides Lisbon with a proud Champs Elysees-type spine. A series of fine squares decorated with regal monuments lead through one of Europe's first modern grid plan city centers to the harbor front.

Plenty of character and color is packed into this checkerboard street plan

And tiny hole in the wall bars serve just one drink: Ginjinha. This favorite Lisbon drink is a sweet liquor made from the sour cherry-like ginja berry, sugar and schnapps. The only choices are; with or without berries, com or sem fruta.

Manolo: When something is good, and you don't have words, is to say better, you say this is greatest than ginjinha, this is better than ginjinha.

Rick: In Portuguese?

Manolo: In Portuguese, "Eshtu sabe conain ginjinhas." In Portugal when someone is impressed by the taste of something they say "Sabe melhor que nem ginjinhas"

There's plenty more to see in Lisbon, but it's time for the countryside.

All over Europe new bridges, tunnels and freeways like this are making travel easier than ever. We're heading north for Nazaré, Fatima and Coimbra... now all within just two hours of Lisbon.

Our first stop: the fishing town of Nazaré. It's off-season and, as I stress in my guidebooks, with no crowds we can drop into town without a reservation.

In Nazaré, locals renting spare rooms clamor for your business. Women camp out at the bus station and on the road into town — waving signs advertising rooms for rent in five languages — hoping to snare arriving tourists.

In Portugal, rooms rented in private homes — that's quartos — offer the best budget beds. And getting lost is just not an option. Senora Amada rents several fine rooms.

Your room is likely to be large, homey and furnished old-time elegant — generally better than a hotel room for half the cost. The bathroom is just down the hall...and the beach is just down the street.

While quite touristy in the summer, Nazaré offers a surprisingly good look at old Portugal. Somehow the traditions survive and the locals merrily go about their black-shawl ways. Wander the back lanes for an intimate look at Portuguese family-in-the-street life.

Nazaré's women are famous for wearing skirts with seven petticoats. In the old days, they'd sit on the beach waiting for their fishermen to sail home. To keep warm during a cold sea wind but remain modest, they'd wear several petticoats in order to fold layers over their head, back and legs.

Folk groups play proudly for visitors. This one, the town's oldest, has been kickin' up Nazaré sand since 1934.

I got hooked on Nazaré back when colorful fishing boats littered its beach. Now the boats moor comfortably in a modern harbor and in the summertime, the beach is packed with sunbathers. But we're here in April — almost no tourists and lots of local color.

Squadrons of sun-dried and salted fish are crucified on nets and left under the mid-day sun. Locals claim they're delightful... but I'd rather eat barnacles.

Percebes are local raw barnacles, sold on the street like munchies.

Rick: Barnacles, I'd never thought I'd eat a barnacle.

Merchants are happy to demonstrate how to eat them. They figure if they can get you to eat one, you'll buy a kilo. They're served with the beer in local bars, like corn nuts.

Rick: Got it, percebes! Give me five!

Nazaré's funicular was built in 1889 — the same year as the Eiffel Tower — designed by a disciple of Eiffel. It leads to another town, Sitio, high above Nazaré. Sitio feels different. Its people are farmers, not fishing folk. They've got less sand but more view.

It's dinnertime and we've followed the locals to Restaurant O Buzio. Tempting appetizers are put on the table. Be warned: you'll pay for each nibble. If you don't want them, just say so. These were too tasty to miss.

Vinho Verde — literally "green wine" — is a Portuguese specialty. Refreshing and a bit like champagne without the bubbles, it's a new wine — picked, made, and drunk within a year.

A few miles from Nazaré, Portugal's National Museum of Wine takes you from grape juice to vino. Formerly the local cooperative winery, its 20 huge half-buried tanks are now part of the museum.

Imagine, 60,000 gallons of grape juice... busily fermenting... on its way to wine.

Guide: All these barrels are made of French and Portuguese oak. And are made for sweet wine and brandy.

Rick: A lot of brandy.

The museum shows off the Portuguese wine culture in a series of rooms that used to be fermenting vats.

The wine museum is at the edge of Alcobaca, a town more famous for its abbey. Built after the Christians chased out the Moors, it became one of the most powerful abbeys around and a cultural center of 13th-century Portugal.

For 600 years the abbey was filled with hard work, prayer, and lots of meditative silence.

The 18th-century kitchen's giant tiled ovens could roast six oxen simultaneously. The industrious monks rerouted part of a river to get running water. And there were plenty of fine hard surfaces for slicing and dicing.

The brothers would wash at this fountain before proceeding into the Dining Hall.

At mealtimes, hundreds of monks filled this room eating in silence as one monk stood here on the "Readers' Pulpit" and read from the Bible.

Monastic life ended here in 1834. That's when the king decided the powerful church was an obstacle to his vision of a modern Portugal and disbanded all monasteries.

The Abbey's Gothic church — perhaps the finest in Portugal — offers a clean and bright break from the heavier Iberian norm. A long narrow nave leads to the finely carved 14th century tombs of Portugal's most romantic and tragic couple, King Pedro I and Dona Inês de Castro.

Pedro, heir to the Portuguese throne, was in love with the Spanish aristocrat Inês. Concerned about Spanish influence, Pedro's father forbade their marriage. They married secretly. The angry king had Inês murdered.

When heart-broken Pedro became king, he executed her murderers. It's said he had his bride's corpse exhumed, cloaked in a purple robe, and crowned. Then he made the entire royal court kiss the hand of his dead queen.

Like religious alarm clocks, the attending angels seem poised to wake the couple on Judgment Day. For over 600 years Pedro and Inês have rested here... feet-to-feet, so that when the trumpets blow, they'll rise and be together again.

A few miles away is Fatima, one of Europe's most important pilgrimage sights. The basilica, facing a vast square, marks the spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared several times.

On May 13, 1917 three young shepherds reported being visited by the Virgin Mary who said "peace is needed." World War I raged on, and she appeared again on the 13th day of each of the next five months — each time calling for peace.

Ever since, on the 13th of every month, pilgrims gather here. In 1930 the Vatican recognized Fatima as a bona fide miracle.

An hour north of Fatima is Coimbra — Portugal's leading city for 200 years. Only as Portugal's maritime fortunes rose, was landlocked Coimbra surpassed by the port of Lisbon.

Today Coimbra is Portugal's third-largest city and home to the country's oldest and most prestigious university. Coimbra is a mini-Lisbon-everything good about urban Portugal without the intensity of a big city.

It was established by the Romans at a strategic bridge over the Mondego River. This square, Largo da Portagem, is a great place to begin your Coimbra visit — drop by the tourist office, then — pick up a pastry.

Coimbra is a delight on foot. You'll find yourself doing laps along the pedestrian-only main drag. It's perfectly straight — Roman designed.

It's fun to read history into modern street plans. There's the straight Roman road. There's the ancient racecourse. The circular street pattern outlines the wall used by Romans, Moors, and Christians to protect Coimbra.

Historically the rich could afford to live within the protective city walls in the high town and the poor lived outside the walls. Even today, the low town remains a poorer, more colorful section.

The pedestrian drag ends at another people-friendly square — Porta Santa Cruz. And the fine old cafe Santa Cruz awaits with a reward for anyone completing the hike.

The cafe was built as part of the church. But, like the abbey at Alcobaca, it was abandoned after the dissolution of the monasteries. In the 1920s this cafe was the haunt of Portuguese intellectuals...the women's room used to be a confessional.

I've arranged with the tourist office to meet a local guide. Throughout Europe, the tourist offices have lists of guides available for hire. Sometime, hiring a private guide is time and money well spent.

This gate leads into Coimbra's old town. Its name, Arco de Almedina, means "gate to the medina" — a reminder of Moorish times. Part of the old town wall, it's a double gate with a 90 degree kink in the middle for easier defense.

Notice the two square boiling oil holes in the ceiling — to turn attacking Moors into fritters.

Coimbra's Old Cathedral stands like a fortress in the historic center.

After a little travel in Spain or Portugal you can almost predict the same old story: Christians push out the Moors, tear down their mosque, and build a church. Some of these stones were actually part of the Mosque, which stood here until 1064.

The façade even feels Arabic. Notice the crenellations along the roof of the fortress-like church. The Moors, while retreating, were still a threat.

Seven hundred years ago, Coimbra's university taught the medieval basics: law, medicine, grammar, and logic. With Portugal's seafaring orientation, astronomy and geometry were added.

Today these students are celebrating the completion of another year of studies.

The university's Baroque library displays 30,000 books. University researchers can still actually check out these centuries-old volumes. At the "high altar" stands its founder, the Divine Monarch John V. The reading tables — inlaid with exotic woods: ebony from Sri Lanka and rosewood from Brazil — are ornamented with copper and silver inkwells. The gold leaf is South American and the motifs are Chinese. Everything reminds the visitor that Portugal's wealth was immense-and imported.

The heavy teak door is kept shut to keep out the humidity.

This perch, behind the chapel, offers a fine orientation view of Coimbra. Those noisily painted blue and gold windows mark a "Republica" — a Coimbra frat house.

Traditionally, Coimbra students — usually from the same distant town — lived together in groups of about a dozen in communal houses called "republicas." Today they function as tiny fraternities — some are highly cultured, others are more rowdy. This place is Republica Baco... literally the house of Bacchus.

What's so good about this place? Students brag that in one year you gain the experience of a lifetime.

I've had my share of student meals. Tonight we're dining out.

Restaurant Trovador serves fine Portuguese cuisine with fado performances most nights. It's the place for an old town splurge. The waiter insisted I try the goat cooked in red wine. Good advice.

In Lisbon's famous fado, the women sing to men. Here in Coimbra, men sing to women. The songs are of love — usually sad, unanswered love. For 200 years these musicians have been just one more soulful thread in the tapestry of Portuguese life.

Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our look at Portugal. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time... keep on travelin'. Adeus