Immersive Travel Experience Paris

This destination, which I call Immersive Travel Experience Paris, is the 1st of Four in the France and Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the France and Italy circuit are described in The France and Italy Travel Planning post.

Paris is the City of Light, the City of Romance, and my favorite city in Europe. Steeped in history, it is the birthplace of Gothic Architecture. And it has a great variety of architecture, like eye candy throughout the city. There are examples from the French Renaissance, the Classical Revival, Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, and rounded out by the 20th century Art Deco style. The city is beautifully laid out with wide boulevards, dotted with architectural wonders inspired from these periods, waiting to be discovered, and enjoyed. Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores many of these delights.

Beyond history and architecture, Paris is known for a caliber of cuisine found in few places around the world. French cooking is an art form, and French food can be a work of art. Ingredients, presentation and service blended together to make for a dining experience that is distinctly French. Paris is a city where chefs are revered, and it is respectable to be a professional waiter. The many dimensions of Food is at the core of French culture. And Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores the variety of edible art found around the city.

Arrival

We traveled with another couple on this occasion. The direct flight from my home base of Atlanta was a non-eventful (the very best kind) affair that took about 9 hours. The transatlantic flight was fairly endurable with bulkhead seating in what Delta calls their Economy Comfort section. Eating awful food, drinking horrible wine, and watching movies on a tiny outdated screen is how I passed the time. Transportation is what we endure to have an immersive travel experience at our destinations.

We deplaned in a herd, and stampeded to passport control and baggage claim. I find international entry and departure to be more organized and efficient in European airports. And it was the case on this particular occasion, with multiple fast-moving queues at passport control. There was relatively little interaction with the passport control officer, merely a quick stamping of the passports, and we were on our way.

We headed to the ground transportation section of the arrival flight deck with our luggage in tow. The objective was to find a taxi sufficiently large to carry four adults and our luggage. We were directed to a waiting van by an airport employee. Another point of efficiency at European airports is grabbing a taxi. And we set off for central Paris, working our way through mid-afternoon traffic. We arrived at our 1st Arrondissement boutique hotel an hour later, and began our immersive travel experience in Paris.

Settling in

The boutique hotel Le Relais des Halles is located on a quiet, pedestrian only street in the heart of central Paris, the 1st Arrondissement. It was the perfect location for a four night stay, in walking distance to all of the things we wanted to see and do. The taxi driver was able to drop us off in front of the hotel in spite of the fact it’s located on a pedestrian only street. Taxis and service vehicles are exempted.

This boutique hotel, with all of its 19 rooms, was simply charming. It had a 24 hour service desk, a modest, but comfortable lobby, and breakfast was served daily on premises in their medieval looking dining hall. Our Superior Double room was a good size by European standards. The bed was very comfortable, and the bathroom was nicely appointed with an upscale shower. The remainder of the amenities were what should be expected, like good WIFI, an in-room safe, and a reasonably sound-proof room. This was the perfect hotel, with a great location, good amenities, and the personal service found in smaller hotel operations.

The Hotel Le Relais des Halles

Meandering Along the Seine

We were eager to stretch our legs and explore after the nine-hour transatlantic flight. With the relatively efficient European airport experience behind us, it was time to allow the immersive travel experience in Paris to unfold before us. I thought there would be no better introduction to Paris than unwinding with a glass of wine at a charming Parisian cafe, followed by a stroll along the Seine en route to our first proper meal in Paris.

The first part of the plan was easy because Paris is awash in charming cafes, and they all serve good wine and food on a casual timeline. We found the Cafe L’Amazonial as we proceeded towards the Seine. We had a nice cheese and charcuterie board to go with the bottle of red wine we ordered.

L’Amazonial

The cafe looked like an inviting stop for a snack and a bottle of wine. We had a charcuterie and fromage board, with a nice bottle of red wine. It was a lovely introduction to the Parisian food scene for our friends.

The difference between a cafe and a restaurant in Paris

First time travelers to France need to understand the difference between a cafe and a restaurant. One allows for a very casual experience where drinks alone may be ordered, or in combination with snacks, or even a full meal. There is no expectation on the customer. It is a casual, anything goes sort of affair. A restaurant experience calls for a level of formality, along with a minimal amount of time spent. One would raise eyebrows, and likely would not be served, attempting to order only a bottle of wine and a cheese/charcuterie board at a restaurant.

The stroll along the Seine was an excellent introduction to the architectural eye candy that awaits the visitor in Paris. We crossed the Seine traversing Ile de la Cite via Pont Neuf to get to the left bank – La Rive Gauche. We continued our meandering along the Seine for about an hour, taking in the scenery, and stopping for photo opportunities as the mood struck us.

Pasco

This is a restaurant in a residential neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement where my wife and I celebrated our anniversary ten years earlier. We had such a wonderful time, we decided to share this place with our friends. Pasco had gone upscale since the last time we visited, with the cuisine a bit more on the haut side, and the portions smaller. We sampled a variety of the menu from starters to dessert, and finished the meal with a photo-op with the owner, who had no recollection of our visit ten years earlier.

Champs-Élysées Promenade

This would be a big day of discovery in central Paris, experienced as a grand promenade on our first full day in the city. And like all big days, it must start with an uplifting meal to bring energy, and mood up to proper levels.

Le Pain Quotidient

This breakfast and brunch bistro was recommended to us by the concierge at our boutique hotel, and it turned out to be a chain. We found a second one not far from the hotel on Rue Montorguiel. The food was good, as was the service. Three of us tried the quiche, which was a bit upscale for breakfast by US standards.

Palais Royal

Our Champs-Élysées trek proceeded after breakfast with our first stop at Palais Royal. A lovely example of Parisian architecture, originally designed in the early 18th century to be the home of a cardinal. This Parisian landmark is a bit out of the way, and isn’t particularly easy to find. It has an interesting courtyard, garden and monuments. We had it to ourselves, a testament to how off the beaten tourist path this site still is.

Le Louvre

The Louvre was our next stop en route to the Champs-Élysées promenade. I should mention that museum touring is both logistically simplified, as well as made affordable with a Paris Museum Pass. Avoiding the lines to purchase individual museum entrance tickets is priceless. We did not linger in the Louvre. We strolled through the grand space with the purpose of seeing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.  A proper tour of the Louvre could easily be a whole day affair, but it’s not what we intended on this particular day. Getting a sense of its grandeur, architecture and history sufficed for our visit. And with that experience behind us, we set off for our next stop.

Jardin de Tuilleries and Musée de l’Orangerie

Continuing our way en route to the Champs-Élysées, we cross the lovely Jardins de Tuilleries. More history unfolds before us as these gardens were created in the 16th century following a Florentine design, as ordered by Catherine de Medici. We continue our stroll to the side of the garden closest to the Place de la Concorde and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Covered by the Paris Museum Pass, this intimate homage to Impressionist painters, is most famous for Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings which are permanently displayed here.

Place de la Concorde to Arc de Triomphe

The feature of the day. This elegant promenade should be on everyone’s Parisian itinerary. Ornately groomed sycamores, and exclusive designer shops line both sides of this grand boulevard, which hosts some prominent French events annually, including the finish of Le Tour de France, Bastille Day parades, and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

There is no better people watching opportunity in Paris. With elegant Parisians going about their day, mixed with the visitor crowds from all over the world, it’s like drama unfolding before your eyes as you stroll from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.  Steeped in history, this grand promenade was designed in the early 17th century, so a slow pace to soak it all in is in order. The length of the route is merely 2 kilometers, and can easily be walked in 30 minutes. But with a stop for a proper lunch at one its fine cafes, the journey can be made to linger for a few hours.

L’Alsace

This is a Champs-Elysees cafe/restaurant about half way between Place de la Concorde and L’Arc de Triomphe. This was our lunch stop after a bit of discovery trekking on day two in Paris. We had a variety of seafood, including mussels, escargot and fish, along with a nice bottle of rose wine. The rose wine would become a theme for this trip.

Arc de Triomphe

Naturally we must stop and tour this grand Napoleonic monument at the terminus of our climatic Parisian stroll. Built by Napoleon at the height of his influence in the early 19th century, the Arc is the place from which 12 avenues radiate out. A roundabout surrounds it where some of the most chaotic driving known to humanity can be observed. The Arc is a quintessential Parisian landmark, with only the Eiffel Tower having greater recognition.

L’Escargot Montorgueil

We finished our grand day of exploration with dinner at this restaurant, just around the corner from our hotel. I introduced our friends to escargot at lunch earlier in the day, and they wanted to try a full course for themselves. We had a variety of main dishes, like veal, beef, and duck, but the highlight was the escargot. And in particular the escargot with foie gras was the hit of the evening. I asked the waiter, because the combination was new to me. He said that the French considered it déclassé, but the tourists loved it – so it stayed on the menu. I thought it was interesting that the restaurant accommodated visitor demand in light of the local sentiment. Apparently supply and demand worked in France.

Île de la Cité Promenade

Île de la Cité is the larger of the two islands in the Seine River, the other being Île Saint-Louis. La Cité remains the center of Paris, and all road distances are still measured from the 0 km center point located in the square facing Notre-Dame’s western towers, called the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame. This island was the original ancient “Paris” in Roman times, up through the early medieval era.

La Sainte-Chapelle

An easy walk of less than 3 kilometers leads onto the main island across Le Pont du Change to the first destination – Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic Holy Royal Chapel is the highlight of the medieval Palais de la Cité, with its stunning stained glass display. This is the most beautiful stained glass I’ve seen in all of my travels.

Notre Dame de Paris

Our next stop would be the grand medieval Cathedral of Notre Dame, among the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Flying buttresses were necessary to support its walls, and prevent them from bulging out because the original design had the walls too thin for the height of the cathedral. The design flaw turned into a key attribute of this architecture, making Notre Dame de Paris easily recognizable. The famous gargoyle statuary was placed at strategic locations around the outside of the cathedral to serve as column supports and water spouts.

The cathedral  houses some of the most important relics from Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment from the crucifixion cross of Christ, and one of the Holy Nails. None of these are on display, of course.

 

Île Saint-Louis

We crossed the le Pont Saint-Louis to enter the residential oasis in the heart of Paris called Ile Saint-Louis. The smaller of the two natural islands in the Seine, it has narrow one lane roads, with cafe/restaurants sprinkled here and there, and of course – the renowned Berthillion ice cream shop.

Berthillon

This little place is the pinnacle of ice cream in Paris. Sadly, Raymond Berthillon passed away in 2014, but left behind a French ice cream legacy. There is nothing better than a Berthillon cone after a long stroll on Ile Saint Louis, visiting the Notre Dame cathedral, and Sainte Chapelle.

Le Jules Verne

This was dinner at the end our Île de la Cite/Saint-Louis promenade, at the unusually named restaurant comprising most of the 2nd deck on the Eiffel Tower. The restaurant’s namesake and Gustave Eiffel were best friends. This meal was meant to be the highlight of our experience in Paris. I planned to be seated before sunset, and linger over dinner to watch the Parisian skyline light up before my eyes. This meal was comprised of six courses of haute cuisine, each paired with a wine selection. The food was memorable, the service was a white-glove affair, and the entire experience was a perfect punctuation to our evening in Paris, and worth every centime.

Rue Montorgueil

This little slice of central Parisian life is called Rue Montorgueil. Two hundred meters from our boutique hotel lies this pedestrian only street, lined with cafes, restaurants and produce vendors. We walked its length more than once, which is why it’s worth mentioning. We visited restaurants and cafes here. I stopped on occasion to buy fresh berries, and snacked as I explored sights and sounds of the local experience. No matter what part of Paris you spend your nights, spend one afternoon wandering this little gem of a street.

Le Petit Carreaux

We discovered this little street-side cafe as we strolled up Rue Montorguiel taking in the sights and rubbing elbows with the locals. En route to this cafe, I bought some plump and fresh looking raspberries from a street vendor and snacked as I wandered. We had confit du canard – which is one of my favorite Parisian cafe staples, salmon, and somebody had to order the ubiquitous cheeseburger – and they did it right.

 

Les Galeries Lafayette

Is there such a thing as going to Paris without shopping? I think not! And, this is the place to shop. Plenty of floors of high grade Haute Couture, many of the most recognized brands in the world. The kind of place where a silk scarf will set you back a month’s mortgage payment on your high-end hacienda.

There is a roof-top cafe above Les Galeries Lafayette. There is no charge to walk up and take in the view, so the roof-top area is rather crowded. The views of Paris were spectacular. The cocktails were pricy, but the charge was mostly for the view, not the drinks. Worth the price. Also good for people watching.

 

Side Trip to Versailles

Twenty kilometers south of central Paris lies the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Once the seat of French power as Louis XIV had relocated the royal court away from Paris. The palace was the standard of grandeur, opulence, and royal showmanship across Europe in its time. And still today, few buildings in the world stand up to Versailles in stature.

It was an easy thirty minute Uber ride from Central Paris to Versailles. In addition to the opportunity to tour the Palace and Gardens, the road trip itself to Versailles was interesting. It gave us the opportunity to see the modern day suburb of Versailles, along with its reputation at the higher end of the economic spectrum.

As seen from the photos, the palace itself can be crowded. We visited at the end of May, before the high season. But there may not be a low season to visit Versailles because it is very popular with tourists. However, the gardens are expansive, allowing for a less dense visiting experience. I very much enjoyed the visit, in particular the gardens with the gravity fed fountains – superbly engineered, and still perform well to this day without any hydraulic systems.

Le Petite Venise

This restaurant was in a garden area on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. There were few dining opportunities of any kind on the grounds, and so this place was packed. We were fortunate to be seated, having arrived early. The seabream fillets, and the risotto were very good.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Paris. To be fair, this was my 5th Paris experience – and I enjoyed it more than the previous four. Ooooh la la! What a grand time it was!  I don’t know that a more immersive travel experience can be had, but I’m willing to try, naturally. Four days in Paris is a start. It’s just enough to kindle the desire for the rest of the city. Paris requires a month of exploration to appreciate what it has to offer. Four nights is the appetizer that would bring the first time visitor back for a second serving – count me in for four servings after my first. Its draw is alluring and reels the traveler back – charmingly.

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Lisbon

This is the 2nd destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire spanning from the 1500s through the 1800s, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides – called Miradouros. The first time visitor will be enchanted with all that Lisbon has to offer, especially the high quality, very affordable food scene. Lisbon is a seafood lovers delight, especially for anyone on a budget.

 

Arrival

As the second stop on the Portugal itinerary, we arrived by train from Porto in just over three hours in the early afternoon on December 26. The train ride was uneventful, with the countryside whistling by as the train made steady progress towards Lisbon. We arrived at the Lisboa Rossio train station, relatively close to our apartment – just a five minute taxi ride away. In fact, it took longer to hail the taxi than it took to get to our destination.

The contrast between Porto, and Lisbon on arrival was both immediate and obvious. Porto was a fraction of the size of Lisbon, had an intimate feel to it, people seemed friendly and approachable, the pace of life was slower, and even the restaurants and cafes felt more familiar. Lisbon was a larger, more diversified city, definitely with a charm all its own, and more of everything than Porto – museums, parks, monuments, restaurants – waiting to be discovered. Lisbon felt a little more rough around the edges, perhaps a little more gritty than Porto. Different, yet charming.

 

Settling in

I booked the Lisbon apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in a residential neighborhood, with easy walking access to all of the interesting parts of town. It had wonderful views over the rooftops of the city from the back of the apartment. We had our own Miradouro right inside the apartment.

The apartment was spacious with over 1,000 square feet of interior space, which is relatively large by European standards for a single bedroom dwelling. It was fully equipped with a washer/dryer, WIFI, a bed that might have been a bit more comfortable, and a shower with ample hot water. Five nights in Lisbon were comfortably spent, with all that a traveling couple would need.  And the best – there was a true Miradouro just outside the apartment overlooking the city all the way to the water: The Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount.

The photos below are some of the views we had from our lovely apartment, and the video is from the Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount, just outside the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

Continuing the leisurely pace we started in Porto, upon arrival in Lisbon we set out to discover the city and its neighborhoods. The first local point of interest we sought out was the port of Lisbon and its centrally located Praca do Comercio, or Commerce Square.

 

We eventually found our way to Costelo Sao Jorge while strolling through the twists and turns of the medieval streets of the Alfama. This neighborhood has been in existence for a thousand years, and people still sell fish from their door stoops – a throwback to medieval times.  The Costelo is the very top of the climb in the Alfama, and is one of the more impressive Mirodouros in Lisbon, with spectacular views.

 

We taxied to Almada to see the impressive statue of Christ, essentially an homage to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Very impressive was the Ponte 25 de Abril, the enormous suspension bridge built by the same American company that built the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, and looks remarkably similar to the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Still a bit off the beaten path of tourism, and something mostly the locals would see, we visited Estufa Fria, the botanical garden in the center of Parque Eduardo VII which was started in 1910.

 

We took a marvelous walk starting at Campo Santa Clara, and terminating in Praca do Imperio in Belem. We visited the National Pantheon at Campo Santa Clara, which included the final resting place of historical Portuguese figures, most notable among them was Vasco da Gama. It was at least a ten mile walk round trip on a beautifully blustery, sunny day in Lisbon at the end of December.

 

On our last day in Lisbon, we took tram 28, which stopped close to our apartment, to places unknown, simply following our sense of discovery. We found a wonderful 800 year old former monastery, turned into a brewery, then into a restaurant – see the food scene below.  We also found a Port wine tasting cafe with a huge variety of the good stuff. I tried a 40 year old vintage Port, which was a wonderful aperitif leading up to dinner.We spent our last full day in Lisbon simply discovering, and meandering.

 

Day Trip to Sintra and Cascais

With five nights in Lisbon, we were afforded the opportunity to get out of the city to explore interesting destinations nearby.  The Moorish designed Sintra National Palace, richly decorated in period tile is the major attraction for visitors near Sintra. The nearby Pena National Palace, perched on a hilltop, is a Mirodouro all unto itself – with sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. All of this scenery was an easy short train ride from Lisbon.

 

Cascais is a beach resort town, in the vicinity of Sintra, and we taxied over for a visit from Sintra. This town is home to the medieval Nossa Senhora da Luz Fort and the Citadel Palace, although neither of these two were accessible during our visit. It was still nice, further exploring a bit away from the big city of Lisbon, and enjoying a beer on the beach in December.

 

 

Food Scene

Matas – Lunch

This was a little mom and pop cafe, with a couple of tables indoors, and a couple of umbrella covered tables outdoors. They specialized in seafood, and everything was fresh. The prices were unbelievably affordable. We both ordered the grilled octopus with potatoes for lunch. It was very good.

 

Matas – Dinner

Lunch was so good, we simply couldn’t resist going back for dinner. We noticed how extensive the fish menu was at lunch, and decided to give it a try for dinner. We had a couple bowls of soup as appetizers, with grilled seabass, and grilled bream for the main course. It was like a home cooked meal. Very local, and very good a second time.

 

Chapito a Mesa

This little restaurant was discovered on our way back from Castelo Sao Jorge. They had an outside seating area with incredible views overlooking the city.  We ordered mountain smoked ham, and grilled shrimp with tropical fruit and vinaigrette. Snacking with a view.

 

Chimera

We found this local restaurant after we toured the botanical gardens at the suggestion of our taxi driver. Another small, family run restaurant with incredibly reasonable prices for everything on the menu. We each had soup, and fish tacos with rice and beans.

 

Via Graca

This was a very upscale restaurant situated just a hundred yards from our apartment. The menu read like a high drama novel, with specialties included for the holidays. I couldn’t make sense of the a la carte portion of the menu, so we decided on the tasting menu for two, which also came with a wine pairing. It was very good, and reasonably priced for this caliber of cuisine.

 

A Margem

We stumbled upon this riverside cafe on our long walk along the River Tagus, very near the monument to Maritime Explorers, and the Balem Lighthouse. We both ordered soup for appetizer, and a mixed protein plate. Not sure how else to describe it – beefsteak, ham, with an egg on top, fries and rice on the side. Different.

 

Satelite da Graca

This is a very local little place just a few minutes walk from the apartment. We started with some homemade soup, followed by shrimp in a garlic sauce, and squid with potatoes. We ended with a chocolate mousse for dessert. I enjoyed a local white wine with the meal.

 

Cervejaria Trindade

The building housing this restaurant was 800 years old, and started as a monastery. The building transitioned to a brewery over time, and later added the restaurant. It was cavernously large, capable of seating hundreds of people. All of the waiters were dressed as monks. We started with some soup, and we ordered a lobster casserole for two. I enjoyed several beers with this meal.

 

Estrela da Graca

Another little neighborhood place, just a few minutes walk from the apartment. We seemed to have started nearly every meal with soup. It simply was offered everywhere; we like soup, and it takes the chill of late December away. We had grilled seabass, and grilled octopus, with a salad on the side. We finished with a slice of orange cake, and creme brulee.

 

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Lisbon. In a word – hilly. Calves and hamstrings did get a workout while getting around Lisbon. There were outdoor stairs leading from an upper part of town to a lower part, occasionally hundreds of steps at a time. It was a thrill getting lost deep in some local neighborhood, and having to discover our way out. Lisbon was a beautiful, diversified city, comprised of many interesting neighborhoods. My favorite was the Alfama – the medieval part of Lisbon, spared from the destruction of the earthquake of 1755, with steep and twisty narrow lanes traversed by the famous Tram 28, and topped with the crown that is the 11th century Sao Jorge Costelo, and its wonderfully scenic Miradouros.

 

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Porto

This is the first destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced was our first stop in Portugal. With a history dating back to the 3rd century BC, and having passed through the hands of the Celts, Romans, and Moors, with all having added something to the history of this lovely city. With a four night stay in Porto, it afforded me plenty of opportunity to explore the medieval center of town, the Douro river front, tour some of the Port wine cellars, and simply be a local for the Christmas holiday.

 

Arrival

It was quite the voyage leading to our arrival in Porto, with a Transatlantic flight from my home base in Atlanta to Madrid, a layover in Madrid with a connecting flight to Lisbon, then a train from Lisbon to Porto, ending with a taxi to the apartment from the airport. The flight to Lisbon was delayed, causing us to miss our scheduled train to Porto, and required new tickets with all of the associated hassle. It was a great joy on arrival, if for no other reason – no more planes, trains, or taxis for a four nights.

 

Settling in

I booked the Porto apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in an ideal location. It had wonderful views of the Douro River from its back windows, and more nice views of the square of the Palacio da Bolsa, and the Jardim do Enfante Dom Henrique from the front windows. It was cozy, with all of the accommodations needed for a four night stay, including a washing machine which is very important for us, as we travel light with only carry-on luggage. The Douro River walk, the historic and medieval parts of town, as well as dozens of restaurants and cafes were easily accessible within a few minutes walk from this wonderful location.

Below are some of the wonderful views we enjoyed from the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

We took Porto at a very leisurely pace. It’s what it demanded. There was so much to see, and there was no hurry to get it done. There were several points of interest on our first day of exploration, starting with Vila Nova de Gaia, right along the Douro River. The Rabelo boats, used to transport the Port wine to the city were along the river, still used today as a continuation of the centuries long tradition. We enjoyed the views from the Telerifico de Gaia, the cable car leading to some wonderful vistas of the city. Yes, touristy, and still a wonderful experience. And we enjoyed a wonderful walk to the Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar.

 

On day two we visited the Palacio do Bolsa. Literally right across the street from our apartment. Then we toured the Taylor’s Port House where we had a wonderfully memorable meal, included in the food scene section, and new insights into the history of Port wine. My wife is not a wine fan, but she loved the Port, especially the ruby – the younger, the sweeter, which was right up her alley. Young, sweet, and fortified to 40 proof. It sneaks up on a person. We ended the day with a stroll through the center of town, enjoying the Christmas decor in the main square.

 

On our final full day in Porto, Christmas Day, we meandered through town finding those places we had not previously visited, including the Torre dos Clerigos. We had a wonderful long walk along the Douro River, and took in some picturesque scenery as the sunset – including the photo that is the feature for the home page on this site – the bridge at sunset, with the lights reflecting on the water. We had in fact walked for so long, that we couldn’t walk back to the apartment. We hailed an Uber on Christmas Day late, and amazingly the driver actually showed up. I had an interesting conversation with the driver, a young man who was supplementing his income, working towards a university degree. The entire fare was so inexpensive that I left the driver a significant tip in gratitude, and recognition that it was Christmas. He reluctantly accepted. The Portuguese are are wonderful, warm people.

 

 

Food Scene

The food was to die for good. While bacalhao, the salted cod dishes served in a variety of manner – with grilled being my favorite, and especially popular at Christmas, was the national dish – I believe octopus was also a Portuguese national dish. I have had octopus all over the Mediterranean, and Adriatic, but nothing of this caliber. It was so tender, melt in your mouth tender – while still maintaining the proper flavor and texture. Clearly one needs to be a fan of octopus, and I am. I was so curious as to how this miracle happened that I had to ask. It was explained to me in one of the restaurants we visited that the Portuguese cook octopus twice. Typically the first cooking is done through poaching, then the final step is grilling. They also use octopus in rice casseroles, which I’ve documented in the food scene. Portugal is an octopus lover’s heaven.

 

Adega Sao Nicolau

Dinner is served later in Portugal, typically 8:00PM. We had been on the road for twenty-six hours with planes, trains, and taxis. So we were hungry on arrival just after 5:00PM, and could not wait until regular local dinner hours. We wandered from the apartment and found this little place open – by little I mean a grand total of 4 tables indoors. We ordered grilled octopus, with boiled potatoes and an egg, and fried sardines with rice and beans on the side. We shared a slice of torte, and a glass of Aguardente – the grape brandy used to fortify Port wine. The Aguardente was ladled from a jar filled with drunken cherries. It was a wonderful first meal, and the Aguardente was a digestif reminiscent of Bulgarian Rakia, or Peruvian Pisco. The octopus was like nothing I’ve had anywhere else, very tender.

 

Casa Adao

We arrived right at noon when they opened for lunch. This mom and pop restaurant is a local favorite for working guys, and it filled to capacity immediately after they opened. The working guys were fed immediately upon arrival – they were expected as part of daily ritual, and they were gone thirty minutes later. Workmen’s lunch. We ordered a rice casserole with octopus and shrimp for two, and fried octopus on the side. It was like a homemade meal. The octopus was melt in your mouth tender, like nothing I’ve had before. There was too much food for two hungry people. I don’t know that there’s a more local, immersive lunch experience.

 

A Grade

We shared octopus in olive oil as our appetizer, followed by a cream of spinach soup. I tried the grilled bacalhao (salt cod) – one of the national dishes of Portugal, and very popular around Christmas. My wife ordered the fried hake with a cabbage side. We shared a rice casserole with our meal, and had a baked apple for dessert with a glass of Tawny Port. Incredible meal.

 

Barao Fladgate

This was the restaurant we visited at the end of the Taylor’s Wine House tour and Port tasting. This lunch was included as part of the tour as a package. We had the cream of asparagus soup, and marinated sardines on toast for appetizers, we both had grilled sea bass on a bed of gnocchi for our main course, and orange spongecake for dessert with our last glass of Port.

 

Carris Hotel

This was the only place open on Christmas Eve for dinner, a cafe attached to the hotel. Most people seated were having drinks and snacks. We each ordered grilled sausage with egg, and frites, with melon and pineapple for dessert.

 

RIB Beef and Wine

This was a fancy Christmas luncheon menu. We had beef carpaccio, and parmentier soup with mushrooms for appetizers, two beef courses – veal, and entrecote, then carrot pudding with green apple sorbet for dessert. Upscale and tasty, but twice the price of the next most expensive meal we’d had in Porto.

 

Forno Velho

This was Christmas dinner at a hotel restaurant. Hotels were the only places open on Christmas Day. We had a tomato salad and seafood soup for appetizers, grouper with mussels and clams, and suckling pig with homemade potato chips for our main courses. We shared a chocolate shell filled with mangoes all dipped in chocolate sauce. Very nice meal.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Porto. Among the most immersive travel experiences I’ve ever had. The apartment location was ideal, if not perfect. The weather was very accommodating over Christmas. The food was both delightful and memorable – and remarkably affordable. The locals were both warm and friendly – although English was not pervasive everywhere a visitor might have gone. With very fond memories of lovely Porto, I find myself longing for an extended visit sometime in the future. I could live in Porto. Easily.

 

Related Topics

 

Portugal Travel Planning

Portugal Travel Planning

Motivation – Portugal Travel Planning

With architecture dating back to the 1500 – 1800s, when Portugal had a mighty maritime empire, a food culture centering around the bounty of the sea, and a tradition of winemaking that includes fortified, vintage Port, there are plenty of motivations to visit this gem of the Iberian Peninsula.  Portugal’s history has been touched by a variety of cultures, including Romans, Visigoths, and the Moors over the millennia – all have left something, adding to what is the modern day country and culture of Portugal. On top of all this, add the fact that Portugal is very affordable by European standards, with good weather year-round, a visit to Portugal is impossible to resist. And lastly, a visit to Portugal is a must for anyone wishing to round out their European immersive travel experiences.

 

Itinerary – Portugal Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 9 nights on this trip, starting at the end of December, 2015. I resisted the urge to schedule more than 2 destinations, which would have diluted the amount of time spent at any one of them. My immersive travel motto calls for enough time at each destination to enable familiarity, and exploration, all leading to an immersive travel experience. Immersion happens best at a leisurely pace, where it’s more about being there than doing more.

The city of Porto, nestled on the Douro River, with its medieval architecture, friendly locals, the source of Port wine, and a food scene that simply must be experienced, was at the top of my list for destinations in Portugal – ahead of Lisbon.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides, and will enchant the first time visitor.

 

Porto – 4 Nights

 

Lisbon – 5 nights

 

Logistics – Portugal Travel Planning

At the time this trip was planned, there were no regularly scheduled, direct flights from my home base in Atlanta to either Lisbon or Porto. The best I could do to minimize travel time, and therefore optimize my immersive travel experience, was to book a direct flight to Madrid. There were plenty of options for connections from Madrid to Lisbon, but fewer and more complex options to Porto. Again in the interest of time, I elected to fly to Lisbon.

The choice to visit Porto first on this itinerary is borne by the logistics necessary to fly back to Madrid for the return trip home. Had I elected to visit Lisbon first, it would have required a very early train ride from Porto back to Lisbon to catch the connecting flight to Madrid. The connection times from the train station to the airport in Lisbon were too tight, and would have been an uncomfortable experience even if successful.

I elected to use the Portuguese rail system to get to and from Porto, rather than rent a car. I very much enjoy driving, as it adds to the immersion for me, but on this occasion it didn’t make sense. A vehicle was simply unnecessary for either Porto or Lisbon. The train was sufficient to go round trip to Porto from Lisbon, and it had some immersive travel experience all its own.

I rented an apartment in both Porto as well as Lisbon for this trip. Apartments make for a much more immersive travel experience, in my opinion. There were plenty of high quality properties available on multiple holiday rental websites. I had a good selection that met my criteria of being in residential areas, and in historic parts of town to choose from. There was no need to even consider a hotel.

 

Resources – Portugal Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them.  Both apartments for this trip were booked through HomeAway.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, and I find the travel forums specific to my destinations particularly useful. There’s no better advice than from someone that’s already done what I’m planning to do.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

 

Epilogue – Portugal Travel Planning

Reflections on Portugal. This trip was a fabulous entree to Portugal – a sort of nine-night highlight tour of some of the best the country had to offer. It whetted my appetite. While I had a wonderful time exploring Porto and Lisbon – and Porto was by far the more immersive travel experience, it left me wanting to come back and further explore the places in between. In my opinion, that is the hallmark of a well planned travel itinerary. It should be immersive, steeped in discovery, but always leave you wanting to further explore. And this lovely country, wonderfully affordable, with its friendly population, and its approachable culture, merits much more of my exploration in the future.

 

 

Related Topics

Split

This is the 3rd destination of three in the Croatia itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Croatia circuit are described in The Croatia Travel Planning post.

Founded by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC, and made famous by the Roman emperor Diocletian, the city of Split is the second largest in Croatia. It has a long history, having passed through the hands of Romans, Venetians, and Byzantines over the centuries. At its core are the remains of the massive palace and grounds erected by Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century. The palace was comprised of 200 buildings within its white stone walls, with a cathedral at its center, now housing cafes, restaurants, shops, and people’s homes. It is the historic as well as current center of the city, with both locals and visitors alike gravitating to it.

 

Arrival

It was a pleasant three hour drive along the Adriatic from Dubrovnik to Split on a day that started overcast, with a drizzle in the air, but which turned out to be perfect for a leisurely drive. The serpentine two lane road clung to the Adriatic coast as picturesque scenery drifted by, passing the few little towns which peppered the coast. The drive was among the most pleasurable I’ve had in Europe, with wispy clouds hanging on a blue sky as a backdrop, and the Adriatic in the foreground. The road was sparsely traveled on that Sunday morning, all of which made it so pleasurable – the joys of driving a German car on a twisty two lane road along the water with so few fellow motorists.

 

Settling in

The apartment was centrally located, and only a five minute walk to the palace complex, and the heart of the old city. Convenient, secure parking was available close to the apartment, so I didn’t have to worry about the Audi while not in use. Our lovely Croatian hostess Marina met us at the apartment, and showed us to our home for four nights in Split. The two-level, 2 bedroom apartment had all of the comforts and necessities a couple would need, including a washer – a real bonus for those traveling light, with only carry-on luggage.

We wasted little time lingering at the apartment, as we were both eager to stretch our legs, and do some initial exploration of the old town. A nice meal was on my short list of immediate things to do, and armed with recommendations from Marina, we set off for the center of the old town.

The photo gallery below shows the views from the apartment, as well as the unusual light treatment for the stairs leading to the second floor.

 

Discovery Trek

The real heart of Split lies within what remains of Diocletian’s palace. Originally built as a rectangular fortress, it has an impressive gate at each of its four walls – named after metals: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron. The area around the palace is a labyrinth of passages and alleyways, that open up into courtyards and broader roads. Some 3,000 people call the palace complex home. Visitors are charmed by the great variety of restaurants and cafes within the palace complex. The heart of Split is very compact, and easily walkable end to end, and criss-crossing all of it in a single leisurely afternoon. We took a guided tour of the palace grounds from a seasoned tour guide, which I would highly recommend. There’s just too much history to absorb without the help of a knowledgeable person.

For Game of Thrones fans, Split is a filming location for the famous HBO Series. You might recognize some of your favorite series locations in the photos below.