On second thought, we probably didn’t need to rent a car for the journey through Portugal.
Each city was an uphill battle. Most streets are narrow, one way and maze-like in nature. Cities such as Lisbon or Porto were never designed for cars, having existed long before their invention, and therefore never designed for parking.
The Portuguese have solved this problem by abandoning their cars anywhere, sometimes in the middle of the street at night. Armies of homeless have overcome unemployment by helping you park for a fee (a Euro or so), something like mafia protection money.
Otherwise cordial Portuguese are aggressive bastards behind the wheel. So far, Portugal is the only country so far that we had a tailgater get out of his car, try to take our keys, and punch at us through our window — all while yelling he was “crazy” in very good english. That was quite a drive.
Unfortunately, it is also the only country to rob us. Professionals punched the lock on our rental car and grabbed our camera bag and lenses — sans camera, luckily. The cops charged us 50 cents to file a police report without a description of our lost items, car or the suspects.
The car stressed our overall budget as well. The car is costing us about $37 a day, and places to stay are never cheaper than $35 either. So without even a bite to eat, we’re up at $70 for the day — yikes. We’ve mentioned it before, but we’ll shill it again: American Express’ Premium Car Rental Protection is one of our best investments. For less than $20 per rental (not per day), AMEX takes the burden of all primary coverage on any rental made using their card. Heartbroken about our significant loss with the theft, we called up AMEX to start a claim for the broken car door lock. We were happily surprised that they will cover our personal lost belongings up to $5,000 in addition to the damage. That takes some of the sting out… maybe in Asia we’ll buy a replacement lens.
But enough about the transportation, how about a little of the destination?
Narrow one way roads may madden us, yet they all lead to quaint little cities surrounded by castle walls or built around beautiful cathedrals that exist almost frozen in time. Cities like Obidos, Batalha and Evora make you feel like a Connecticut Yankee in a Portuguese Court.
Sintra offers the most amazing sites we have experienced in Europe so far. The ruins of a Moorish castle overlook the town, only to be overshadowed by Peña Palace, a majestic vacation home for royalty.
The town also has an early Playboy Mansion… we ran giggling like kids in Disneyland through hidden underground tunnels and unlit, labyrinthian grottos in Quinta da Regaliera. The wild parties and debauchery that raged there must have made the gods blush. Curiously, the brochures admit to nothing improper, despite the fact that the whole complex was built 100 years ago as a pleasure palace and vacation estate for private parties. We know better…
Visiting the sites in Sintra wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it. The Moorish Castle was 8 Euro per person, and the Quinta da Regaliera estate was 11. The lush wooded park above town was most free to wander around in, but the Peña Palace came with a high price, about 12 Euro per person. We skipped the Palace and just enjoyed the outdoors and many vista points.
Sintra is a city essentially lost in time. After regaining popularity at the turn of the century as a luxury vacation destination, many large gorgeous residences grew among the lush parkscape. As time went by, these properties were passed down through family ties, and many heirs fell on hard times. The estates have fallen into deep disrepair, most standing simply abandoned to nature. Sintra makes our wildest dreams of buying these dilapidated palaces run rampant. Go to Sintra, if only to daydream!
Sintra charmed us so deeply that it also became one of our biggest splurges. A night in the luxurious Lawrence Hotel set us back 80 Euro ($112), after some friendly pity-bargaining.
Our gamble paid off big time when an unexpected rainstorm detained us in our oversize, over-comfortable four poster bed all morning. The included breakfast stupefied us with varieties of French cheese and Spanish hams. We stuffed ourselves stupid, and grabbed yogurt containers to go (they’re only ever sold by the 4 pack here!). That meal alone would have cost us $20 on the street. A lavish bathroom filled in the equation, and our sewing-kit needs were filled by the travel pack left by the staff. Karma was really on our side with the pricey hotel, I doubt we could have enjoyed it more.
Lisbon had everything from pastry-making monks to cherry-infusion liquor bars to win us over. It is a big city with its share of all the pieces that make up a big city: beautiful streets, ghettos, tourist attractions, good food and a soaring drug trade.
Our favorite game was the “want some hash?” where traffickers would flash little brown packages at groin level. We never saw this before in Portugal, and haven’t seen it since.
Eva came down with a high fever and kidney pains upon our arrival in Lisbon, so we laid low there a few days longer than we planned. We had a comfortable room in a very friendly hostel for $35 US. The extra time wasn’t unwelcome, but we could easily skip Lisbon on future trips to Portugal — the small cities are the true attractions.
One of the greatest highlights for the weary traveler tired of wandering the wide world is the Algarve, Portugal’s Southern coast. After exploring new lands filled with old culture there is almost nothing better than to come across hidden little coves of sunny beaches to lie out on.
The coastline is dotted with grottos, caves and caverns with slivers of beach that cry out to be explored or just languidly experienced. We expected cities in the Algarve to be expensive, and touristed-out. Turns out very average prices can be found with only minor poking around. On average we spent $40 a night, and ate for about $20 at dinner. Days wind up being cheaper when you’re touring on a beach towel. We thought Lagos was a great city to spend more time in, despite it’s popularity and size. The car gave us a greater level of freedom to travel outside of town for the smaller, local beaches, but the nightlife of Lagos kept it interesting. On our way out of Portugal we came across Tavira, another fantastic city to devote a few days to… sadly, we were already booked in Seville.
Strangely, the Algarve may have won us over to Portugal almost more than the multitude of different food and beautiful tiled architecture. To lie on a quiet cove, once run by pirates, now spread with modern topless Europeans soaking up the sun without any other care in the world, was a dream come true.
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