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Portugal a treat for your senses!

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December 25th, 2012
Fountain on Rossio Square in Lisbon, Portugal
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The amazing thing about Europe is how countries that abut one another can be so different. Drive from one U.S. state to another and you’ll barely be able to tell the difference, but cross a border in Europe and the differences can be amazing.

The most obvious one is language, and when you go from Spain to Portugal you’ve made quite a jump, especially as Spanish is so common in the States. However, while Portuguese is harder to grasp, you’ll discover that more people speak at least passable English in Portugal than in Spain.

Another difference is in the food. While it’s true that some of the top chefs in the world are working in Spain, if you’re a tourist, you’ll probably find your palate having a more enjoyable time in Portugal. The pasties de nata, little Portuguese egg tarts that are ubiquitous, are a case in point. They’re delicious no matter where you buy them, and any country that can produce delicacies in such quantities knows what it’s doing when it comes to food.

Hilly but accessible

Lisbon is the must see stop in this small country. To be honest, Lisbon is a city more suited to the young because of its geography. While the center of Lisbon is flat, much of the city is built on the hills that rise up on both sides. Certainly most European cities are best seen while walking, and that’s very true of Lisbon, but the hills pose an extra challenge, while also providing some fabulous vistas.

On the plus side, Lisbon has lots of transportation options, in particular, a network of streetcars, which you should familiarize yourself with, as that’s how the natives get around. And the most popular line with tourists is the number 28, which winds uphill through narrow streets taking you to the Castelo de Sao Jorge with its incredible views of the city down below.

The original Castelo, like much of Lisbon, was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755, but it has been rebuilt and, of course, the views remain unchanged. Because it’s such a popular spot with tourists, there are many small restaurants in the crowded streets nearby, so it’s a good place to go early in the morning. Walk around taking in the views and then settle down for a tasty lunch. If you start walking down from the top, you’ll find other restaurants that cater to the locals, like Santa Rita, on Rua sao Mamede. There you won’t find any tourists and can savor Portuguese cuisine like a native.

Lisbon is divided into sections, each with its own personality and places to explore. Some are in the center while others are a little further afield. The heart of the city is the Baixa district, which is the commercial center. Since this area was reconstructed after the earthquake, the streets are laid out in a grid pattern, making it easy to get around, and there are many squares, some small and some quite large, with cafes where you can rest while having coffee and a pasties de nata. Located in this district is the Elevador de Santo Justa, a large structure that one can visit just for the view or else use to connect to districts on the hilltop behind it.

Renowned Portuguese pottery

Bairro Alto is the “Greenwich Village” of the city, with narrow streets filled with clubs and restaurants. Abutting this district is the Chiado, which is where you’ll find all the fancy shops. Portuguese pottery is renowned throughout the world, and you’ll discover the finest of Portuguese pottery at JAO. (If you decide to ship your purchases, be aware the cost of shipping might equal the price of the goods.)

A district a bit outside the center is Belem with the Belem Tower, a small fortress built into the Tagus river, the Belem Palace, and the must-see monastery which includes the tomb of Vasco de Gama. This part of town, along the river, is flat and the main sites are within easy walking distance. A small boutique hotel, the Altis Belem & Spa, offers its guests luxurious suites perfect for those who might like to add some spark to their romance, or else excellent meals if you’re only stopping by.

While Lisbon is on a river, the Atlantic is not very far away. A 20-minute train ride brings you to the resort towns of Estoril and Cascais. Even if lying on a beach is not your thing, there’s plenty to do with lots of shops, restaurants, and the largest casino in Europe.

Also not far from Lisbon is the historic city of Sintra, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. This hilly city has several castles, the most spectacular of which is the Palace of Pena built in the 19th century using an eclectic mix of styles and colors that will dazzle your eyes.

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