Belém and Sintra, Portugal

Located west of Lisbon, Belém was originally a shipbuilding district and the area where 15th-century explorers launched their vessels.  As a popular tourist destination, we headed out early to try to avoid some of the tourist congestion the district is known for.  Arriving near the Lisbon waterfront, we hopped on bus 728.  We were packed like sardines for our ride to Belém, so much for trying to beat the crowd.  

Since we had purchased the Lisbon Card, we bypassed the long line to enter the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.  Construction on this UNESCO heritage site began in 1501 and was completed over 100 years later.  Luckily, the Belém area and the ornate Monastery sustained minimal damage in the earthquake of 1755 which destroyed most of Lisbon.  Tombs of Portugal’s most famous explorer, Vasco da Gama, and of Luís de Camões, Portugal’s most celebrated poet, lie within the adjoining church.  

The popular Portuguese egg custard tart, the pastéis de nata, was created at this site by the monks, who sold the pastries to bring in revenue. In 1837 when the monastery closed, the recipe was sold to a local sugar refinery.  Their owners soon opened the Pastéis de Belém, and descendants still operate the business. This was our next stop.  A line at the bakery is the norm, but it moved quickly and Alan was soon enjoying a couple of freshly baked, warm tarts.
Belém Tower

Next on our agenda was the Tower of Belém built between 1514 and 1520.  It was an important element of the defense at the mouth of the Tagus River.  Its shape is reminiscent of medieval castles.  Climbing the 200+ stairs up the narrow, spiral stairway provided a great view of the city and the nearby Discoveries Monument.  The monument features Portuguese explorers, led by Henry the Navigator, and includes some royalty and others with links to the early Portuguese navigation.

Throne room
For our final stop in Belém, we climbed the steep hill to the Ajuda National Palace.  Following the earthquake of 1755, King Joseph refused to live in a masonry palace, so the royal family moved to a nearby wooden cabin.  Soon after, a wooden palace was built on the site of the current palace, but it was demolished and rebuilt in masonry following the death of the king.  Opened in 1795, through the years the palace suffered fire, rain damage, war, and abandonment when the royal family fled to Brazil for thirteen years.  Renovations on the palace are ongoing, and it is primarily open as a museum, but the building is also used for state dinners in the elaborate dining room.  

Once again utilizing our Lisbon Card, early the following morning we hopped on a train departing the historic Rossio station in Lisbon for the 40-minute ride to Sintra.  The verdant landscape in the area seems to transport visitors to another era.  Multiple palaces, country estates, and a medieval castle are found in this town.  Portuguese royalty spent time in this area at their palace and it became the "in" place for the rich and famous.  With a multitude of options to explore, we decided to visit the Quinta da Regaleira.  Completed in 1910, the extensive grounds and unique design elements of the palace were based on the interests of the property owner, António Monteiro.  A one-mile plus uphill walk from the center of town, this UNESCO heritage site is one of the most visited in Sintra.  Decorated with gargoyles and spires, the surrounding acreage contains towers, tunnels, multiple fountains, two wells (used for ceremonial procedures including Tarot initiation rites, not water) and a waterfall.

Moving back to Lisbon, we prepared for departing the capital and heading south.
Discoveries Monument

Church adjoining the Monastery

Alan on the grounds at Quinta da Regaleira

Initiation well

Moorish castle overlooking Sintra
Rossio Square in Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal

Arriving in the evening in Lisbon, we took a taxi to the Principe Real district for an overnight stay at a hotel and then transferred to our Airbnb apartment the following day.  Once again, we had scheduled a walking tour. We met our guide, Ana, at Largo de Camões. The large square features a bronze statue of Portugal’s greatest poet, Luis de Camões, surrounded by statues of 8 other Portuguese literature greats. We soon headed off with a group of 20 other tourists, representing a diversity of cultures, from Russia to Macau, Bulgaria to India. One of the recurring themes of Ana’s talk was the economic situation in Portugal and the strong positive impact of tourism over the past few years. Of course, there is a negative side as well. While the tourist industry has provided tens of thousands of jobs, the
Overview of Alfama district with Castelo de São Jorge
minimum wage is only 700 euros a month, and the least expensive apartment in Lisbon is around 650 euros a month, with price inflation caused by tourism.

Most of Lisbon was devastated in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami which took place in 1755. The Alfama district was the one surviving area, many buildings in this neighborhood date back to the Middle Ages. While the area is a tourist attraction itself, the gentrifications of Alfama has begun. Wealthy investors are purchasing blocks of dilapidated old buildings and are renovating the structures into expensive apartments. The labyrinth of streets, however, still survive along with countless little shops and restaurants. 

This is a challenging/exhausting city to explore. Leaving our apartment each morning we had to climb up a hill and then about 75 steps, just to get to a street-level where we could take advantage of the city’s transit system. Purchasing a Lisbon City Pass provided entry to a number of museums and other points of interest, but we appreciated it most for the city transport included in the ticket. All buses, trams, metro, and trains were covered. Even with the City Card, climbing up and down hills and stairs is an inevitable part of exploring this city.

Since the country is bordered to the west by the Atlantic, seafood is a major part of the diet,
and we enjoyed fresh seafood nightly. Grilled octopus, sea bass, and sardines were favorites.  Bacalhau, dried salted cod, is another popular ingredient which was found on the menu of almost every restaurant we visited. Introduced into their diet in the 14th century, the commodity was used on their Naval vessels starting in 1497 as a protein source which would stay good for months and could be replenished when they traveled in the cold waters far to the north.  No cod is caught near Portugal. If you order any cod dish in the country, it will be the salted variety which is soaked for at least 24 hours to remove/lessen the salt content prior to its use in a recipe.  It was not a favorite for Alan, but I enjoyed it prepared several different ways.  

Portugal is also known for its wines, and we discovered their “green” wine, which is young and slightly effervescent.  It can be white, rose, or red but never green, green is a reference to its age (or lack of age, more precisely).  A favorite new cocktail became a Porto Tónico, a dry white port, tonic water and a sliver of lime, perfect for a warm summer evening.

Countless cafes and pasteralias (pastry shops) are found along the streets.  Especially crowded first thing in the morning, these cafes offer a variety of pastries, bread, and simple sandwiches.  Pastéis de Nata is a custard tart first formulated by monks in the 18th century as a way to use up the many egg yolks they had leftover after using egg whites as starch for their clerical habits and other items.  It is the national pastry of choice.  Alan
had multiple opportunities to try different bakery's renditions, he enjoyed them all. 

The city’s beautiful ceramic tiles, known as Azulejos, were first used in the country in the early 1500s.  The story goes that King Manuel saw the tiles on a visit to Seville and ordered their installation in the palace in nearby Sintra.  Their use became ubiquitous throughout the country.  The tiles decorate the interior and exteriors of churches and palaces, homes, and fountains.  

Continuing our stay in Lisbon, we explored nearby Sintra and Belém over the following days.

Church of Nossa Senhora da Coneição Velha 

Rock art along the Tagus waterfront

Rua Augusta Arch

Largo de Camões

Commerce Square

St. Petersburg, Russia. Part 2

Our second morning we headed outside of the city to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s lavish summer palace, located along the Gulf of Finland.  Dozens of fountains grace the well-manicured grounds.  Water for the fountains comes from canals created by Peter, 12 miles uphill from the palace.  During the summer months at 11 AM each day, the Grand Cascade, next to the palace and lined with 200 bronze statues, begins with a combination of waterfalls and geysers accompanied by Russian patriotic music.  Sprawling over 250 acres, multiple walkways lead through gardens to smaller palaces, fountains or to the gulf.  

Following a lunch of borscht and dumplings, we moved on to Catherines Palace located in Pushkin.  Five golden onion-shaped domes atop the palace church were the first thing we saw on our approach.  Started in 1717, the palace was rebuilt and expanded through the years.  It was heavily damaged during World War II, and some interior renovations are still ongoing.  

Within the palace, we walked through one magnificent room after another.  The Grand Hall, which functioned as a ballroom, is 9000 square feet and the walls are lined with 300 gold-framed mirrors. The Amber Room, which reopened to the public in 2003, is surely the most ostentatious, but photos are not allowed here.  During World War II, this room was dismantled and the amber disappeared.  It was probably taken by the Nazis but no records exist on its removal.  This room, as well as other parts of the building, have been renovated as accurately as possible using old photos.  

Our guide was surprisingly frank about the current state of affairs in Russia.  This may not be the days of the KGB, but clearly many of Putin’s adversaries have suffered serious repercussions for their ideas.  Peter was adamant in his disdain for Putin and says this is the view held by the majority.  But, he felt that the power wielded by the government’s upper echelon and the country’s oligarchs cannot be overcome in the fixed elections. 

This was the final stop on our cruise.  Upon the ship’s return to Copenhagen, we are flying on to Lisbon.

St. Petersburg pics. Part 2

St. Petersburg, Russia. part 1

Prior to the start of our trip, extensive research had been done on adding Russia to our itinerary.  The difficulty and the expense of obtaining a Russian tourist visa was the prime reason we booked a cruise.  Cruise passengers obtain a temporary visa which allows entry into the country for 72 hours, if they book tours with companies licensed by the Russian government.  Booking a cruise through Vacation To Go, we were able to secure the trip for a 70% discount.  So, even though we hadn’t originally intended on taking a Baltic cruise, the Russian visa system caused this change in our itinerary.  St. Petersburg excursions booked through the same company (VTG) were half price of the outings offered through the cruise line. 

Arriving at the port, we exited the ship 2 hours before our tour.  Having heard horror stories of hour-plus long lines and surly immigration officials, we didn’t want to take a chance on missing the rendezvous with our guide.  Our exit took about 5 minutes.  Luckily, a port terminal coffee shop provided a warm hangout area.  

Over two long days, our guide, Peter, provided an almost non-stop narrative on the buildings we visited, Russian history, and current and former living conditions and politics.  While the ugly concrete residences built during the Soviet era are still prevalent, past rulers spent millions of rubles on lavish castles.  Extravagant churches still abound, but now are primarily museums.  According to Peter, only about 5% of the population attends church.  Many of the old structures are now used for concerts, etc. 

Facing the Neva River, the Hermitage has a long history which started in 1708 with the building of Peter the Great’s Winter Palace.  Through the years the palace was rebuilt in stone, and then renovated and expanded by his daughter, Elizabeth.  His granddaughter, Catherine the Great, added the Small Hermitage in 1762, and later added the Old and New Hermitage.  Overall, these structures are now referred to as The Hermitage, and it is known as one of the finest museum complexes in the world.  The collections, added to through the decades, includes three million works of art.  We did a quickly paced two-hour tour, viewing glimpses of many of the highlights.  Two DaVinci’s and twenty-three Rembrandt’s were among the works we had an opportunity to see, along with paintings by other masters of that era.  In addition to the priceless art amassed by the Czars and Czarinas, they decorated the palaces with extraordinary touches.  Gold-leaf finishes, marble carvings, doors of polished turtle shell, finely crafted mosaic tables and vases made from the rare and pricey lapis lazuli stone are found.  There is opulence in every detail. 

Fortified by a lunch of chicken stroganoff and strawberry sorbet, we moved on to the Church on the Spilled Blood.   This was perhaps the most extraordinary church we visited.  Literally built on the ground where Czar Alexander II was assassinated by terrorists in 1881, one portion of the floor shows the actual cobblestone street where he was killed, the blood-stained rocks still present.  Completed in 1907, much of the church’s wealth was looted in 1917 during the Russian revolution, and further plundered during World War II.  Some of the distinctive onion-shaped domes of the church were under renovation during our visit.  But the interior, with its gold-leaf backed ceramic tiles providing the art work, is gorgeous.

Peter and Paul Fortress founded by Peter the Great in 1703 is located on an island in the Neva River, and is the birthplace of St. Petersburg.  Walls at the fortress are 30 feet thick.  Located on the grounds, the St. Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral holds the tombs of Peter the Great and his family, and also the tombs for the Romanov family, executed by Bolsheviks in 1918.

On Vasilyevsky Island, at an area called Strelka, there are beautiful views of the city across the Neva.  The Hermitage sits along the opposite waterfront, with cruise boats passing by.  Two giant red columns, looking somewhat like lighthouses decorate the point.

We took a brief photo stop at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.  This gold-domed structure was started in 1818, and is one of the largest churches in the world.  It has operated strictly as a museum since the Soviet era.  

On our return to the ship, we traveled on a short length of a newly completed super highway.  But, according to Peter, public transit, for this city of around 6 million, is woefully inadequate.  We had a chance to see the Gazprom gas company’s Lakhta Center, which is one of the tallest building in Europe at 87 stories.  Nearby, Krestovsky Stadium, completed in 2017, is a spaceship-like looking structure with a retractable roof which holds over 70,000 fans.  It was finished with funds from the city government after private funding failed to complete the project.  

St. Petersburg pics part 1