We're back from Portugal after two weeks and first of all would like to to thank all of you who contribute to TA. It makes a difference to independent travelers.
We had a bad experience with Spain a decade or more ago and have worked our way around Europe always avoiding Portugal because we weren't convinced we'd have different experiences than we did in Spain. What a big mistake that was. Portugal is simply wonderful and someday, we'd like to go back and see all the things we missed.
We started off in Lisbon and stayed in Baixa. While it isn't for everyone, we loved the fact that it was (thank you, God) flat and that restaurants were just steps away from our hotel. We never experienced any out of the ordinary hawking of goods, restaurants or psuedo drugs. Maybe it is just that we've gotten used to it and it doesn't phase us anymore but really, we thought it was comfortable and being close to the train station and metro really made for easy traveling. The only complaint I have about Lisbon and the surrounding areas is that it is a little low on directional signs to sights but that just means you get lost in the neighborhoods and see things you might have missed otherwise. Street maps were confusing to us there but we never had trouble finding a kind, understanding soul to help guide us.
Belem was great and the monastery quite beautiful but I have to say a little crowd control or to have it be open 7 days a week might help. It was a bit crazy with tour buses when we were there.
We went to Sintra and wished we could spend the night. It's wonderful and we admit to taking the bus everywhere. It's hard to say which we liked more, the Pena Palace or the National Palace and I'd advise peope to make sure they do both, they are that different. We took the morning train from Lisbon there and never saw anyone on the train that looked "shady" or intimidating (I had read it was full of nefarious characters). It was fun going to Cabo da Roca despite the fact that there was a crowd of tour buses there, too. We thought the landscape was really interesting and quite beautiful...one hour was enough.
We also took a day trip to Fatima. I don't know what I was thinking but it looked more like St. Peter's than a remote farming field. I was moved by the place (with exception of the new church which I thought looked like a convention hall) all the same and we were glad we made it there. It would have been nice if they had left some of the town the way it was but I'm sure the floods of tourists require all the restaurants, stores and hotels or they wouldn't be there.
And to Tomar. OMG...what the heck? Is that place in a time capsule? We absolutely loved Tomar and I swear to you, I think we were the only tourists there. We cannot for the life of us figure out why people aren't visiting there but it's a good thing--it is so charming and the people so nice that we want it to stay just the way it is. If someone puts this place in a popular guidebook, it will change forever. We pretty much had the Templar castle all to ourselves and saw some things that we never get to see in places like it. What a cool experience. The only problem we had in Tomar is that the online information for the place was sparse and when we got there, we found a TI that had someone working who basically could provide a map and that was it. Very little English was spoken. They didn't even have an English book at the castle. Anything we want to know about it will have to come from Amazon now, I guess. At any rate, go there but keep it a secret. It's pretty special.
We had a nice day roaming around Evora, too. I think the thing that impressed us the most were all the things that could be done with cork...plus a few churches and Roman ruins, of course. Nice town and a relaxing place to be.
During that leg of our trip we stayed at the Residencial Florescente. We loved the hotel--the guys who work the front desk were always helpful, we had no problems with internet or anything else and the breakfasts were really well done. I'd stay there again.