Adventures Through Portugal
Even though I had four days scheduled for Portugal, I only had two days for free time in Lisbon where I could wander around and check things out. The other two days, I had booked a couple different tours that went to several different places throughout Portugal.
The first tour I booked was with Cooltour Lisbon to go see some historic castles that were used by the Knights Templar and the Order of Christ, which were militant religious orders in the Middle Ages. The tour started at 8:45am with a pickup from the hotel. Originally, there were supposed to be 8 people (myself included). However, three people did not show up when the guide went to pick them up, so the tour ended up being myself, a middle-aged couple from Bulgaria who spoke English, and a friendly retired couple from Georiga (USA).
The first stop was to Almourol Castle, which was built by the Knights Templar to secure the Tagus River, which runs through Lisbon. Since the castle is built in the middle of the river, we needed to take a short two-minute boat ride from the shore to the castle while the guide gave some fascinating information about the defenses of the castle and why it was situated on an island in the river. Now, times have changed significantly since the time this castle was built, so the depth of the river wasn't too deep, but centuries ago, the river was deeper and would have been more challenging to invade, especially since the path up the castle was not easy and a relatively steep climb at times. Aside from a large group of teenage kayakers, we were the only ones in the place.
After we visited the castle and got to wander around the battlements, which had no barriers, so you had to be careful lest you fall off, we got in the van and drove to the small town of Constancia, which has a population of less than a 1000 people. We did not stay too long in this place, but we stopped in order to taste a famous Portuguese pastry called "Cheese of Heaven." The guide told us this was a special pastry that is made by nuns from a nearby convent outside the town, and it is only found and sold in this particular town. It could not be found anywhere else in Portugal or the world for that matter. The pastry itself is made from almond and egg, and it actually looked more like a marshmallow than a piece of cheese. I'm not particularly shy about trying new food nowadays, so I gave it a taste. It was quite delicious and tasted moderately sweet. I would have easily bought a box of them if I had thought about it at the time.
We soon left Constancia and headed to the historic city of Tomar, where we got to see the Convent of Christ, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The building itself dates from the 12th century, but it had been added onto throughout the centuries. This was a fascinating place since the architecture was absolutely beautiful, and the guide provided a lot of interesting insight and things I would not have known otherwise. For example, he pointed out the tomb of Vasco de Gama's brother, and he showed the us what he called "the most famous window in Portugal."
This "most famous window in Portugal" is famous because it is a window that is surrounded by an extremely ornately carved stone frame with quite a bit of symbolism attached to it. It is called the "Manueline Window" because it was done in a style popularized by a Portuguese king, Manuel I (1495-1521).
By this time, it was getting into the mid-afternoon, so we stopped in a local restaurant in Tomar called Infante for lunch. It is a small yet modern restaurant run by a very friendly family with a very warm sense of hospitality, and an equally good sense of humor. For lunch, I had a meal of wild boar. I had never had wild boar before although I know it is available where I live in the Middle East. The wild boar was very tasty, and it was served with beans, vegetables, and it had just the right amount of spice.
After lunch, there was still one more site to see, a 12th-century church which was used by the Knights Templar as a burial place, but since it was Saturday, we could not go in because there was a wedding in progress. Therefore, we finished the tour a little bit earlier than expected, but that was alright. In order to make up for that, the guide dropped everyone off their hotel instead of a central point like they usually would. Overall, this was an excellent tour. The guide was extremely knowledgeable, answered questions easily, and really made sure everything ran smoothly. The tour with Cooltour Lisbon was definitely worth it, and I recommend using them.
The very next day, after another night of not-so-restful sleep because of the trance party that was occurring in Eduardo VII Park across from the hotel, I had another tour scheduled. I booked this tour with a different company called Grayline: Cityrama. I have used Grayline before in some different countries and usually found them to be pretty good and well-organized, so I thought this company would be equally as good. However, if I have to be honest, I was a bit disappointed with this tour and would opt for a different company next time.
The pickup from the hotel started out fine. I was picked up in a van from the hotel literally next door to the hotel I was staying at and then shuttled to a main meeting point which was about 2 minutes from my hotel (I could actually see the meeting point from my hotel room window). It seemed a little bit silly to me to be picked up when I was that close to the main meeting point, but it was not a problem. I could have easily walked to the meeting point and did not need to be picked up. Once we got to the main meeting point, there were many other people there. I was given a sticker with my booked tour, and then I was directed to the appropriate bus. The tour I had scheduled was going to be a long one. I was scheduled to visit the towns of Obidos, Nazare, and Fatima, which is a famous for a Marian apparition that occurred there in 1917. In addition, there would be two visits to Alcobaça Monastery and Batalha Monastery, which are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The first stop we made was to the small medieval town of Obidos. The guide gave some basic information on the bus ride and then upon reaching the destination, we were led to the main gate of the town. We were then given free time of just under one hour to wander around on our own. If I had to be honest, I was a bit disappointed with this place. We were not given any information on what to see, and instead we were just told to wander around. Since I didn't really know what to look for, I made a point to wander around a bit. With a bit of fast walking, I made my way up to the castle and walked along the battlements to get some amazing views of the Portuguese countryside, but it was not long though before it was time to head back to the bus.
We were soon on our way again to the town of Alcobaça, which is home to the Monastery of Santa Maria d'Alcobaça, which is the largest gothic monastery in Portugal. Once again, the tour guide gave some basic information and then led us to the monastery. We were then given time to wander around on our own. However, once again, we were given such limited time to explore. There was only time to walk around the church, but there was no time to see the other parts of the monastery. Despite the guide's lack of information and complete lack of time to explore the building further, I was quite impressed with this place. The interior was completely empty with no decoration, but it was amazing being in such a large space. The gothic vaulting that run up to the ceiling was particularly impressive. The construction of the building was definitely a feat of medieval engineering. The exterior of the monastery was even more impressive. and seeing the monastery from outside really gave one a sense at how large it really was.
After we left Alcobaça, we stopped in the beach town of Nazare for lunch. Nazare is about 121 km (75 miles) from Lisbon. Since the air conditioning of the bus was broken, we were given more time to explore Nazare. I had previously booked a lunch with this tour, so when we arrived at our destination, I followed half of the tour group to a restaurant called Restuarante San Miguel, which was right on the beach. The way lunch was set up was we all just sat at different tables, so I ended up sitting with a group of elderly ladies from Argentina. Since they did not speak English, I got to use my limited Spanish skills to communicate with them. The lunch itself was soup, salad, grilled fish, and a slice of melon which was really good. After lunch, we were given time to wander around the town.
There was a possibility of taking a funicular up to the top of a cliff to get a better view of the town of Nazare, but since I could not remember what time we had to be back at the bus, I did not do that because I could not risk being late for the bus and being left behind. Instead, I wandered around the general area and got some good sun since there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the weather was not terribly hot.
After we left Nazare, it was time to head to the small town of Batahla in order to see Batalha Monastery, which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. If I have to be honest, I was quite disappointed with this part of the tour. The monastery itself is quite large, but we were only given 20 minutes to quickly take pictures, check out the inside, and then get back on the bus. This was not enough time, and our tour price did not include getting to see one section of the church which was supposedly very beautiful and well-preserved in terms of its architecture. In order to see that section, we had to get into the building, stand in line, and pay money. I thought of doing that, but the line was too long, and there was no way I would have gotten to stand in line, pay for the ticket, see it, then get back on the bus in a space of 20 minutes. For me, this was the most disappointing part of the tour. I also think the tour company misrepresented this part since the voucher said entrance to Batalha Monastery was free, but the church itself was already free to enter except the one part that required payment. This should have been stated beforehand.
The last part of the tour was to head to Fatima, which is a famous Christian pilgrimage site because in 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three children several times. This is a very famous event in Catholic circles, and I had heard this story before and was familiar with it because I remember learning about it when I attended CCD (Catholic education) as a child...it was one of the few things I actually learned about while attending CCD. Even though I am not religious nor practice anymore, I figured this would be a very interesting experience.
Before we got to the actual pilgrimage site, we were taken to a factory which is essentially a giant outlet shop with pretty much any type of religious object you can find. When we arrived, everyone was given a plastic shopping basket and given about 45 minutes to wander around. The best way I could describe this place was essentially like a Walmart for religious objects.
This store had seemingly everything that a devout Catholic could want. There were medallions, scapulars, medals featuring saints and Mary, all kinds of different rosaries, crosses, crucifixes, statues of Jesus and Mary ranging from small in size to large, books on a bunch of religious topics and biographies of the three shepherd children, who saw the Virgin Mary in 1917, prayer cards, DVDs, and candles among other items. The store even had vestments that priests use for Mass since priests do also visit this place. Literally, for a devout believer, anything that you could possibly want was in this store. A person could decide to set up a shrine in their home and get all the necessary accoutrements from this one store. This place was obviously set up for tour buses that had large tour groups since the checkout lines were just like those found in a place like Sam's Club, Costco, or any large retailer. In addition, the parking lot was mainly marked for tour buses with only a small area set aside for cars. I personally thought all of this was kind of silly and seriously sad at how commercialized it was, but when people have their beliefs they feel strongly about, there is nothing that will change it, and there where will always be people to try to capitalize on a person's beliefs.
Once people were finished at the store (some people came out with several bags of stuff), we headed over to the Shrine. I had previously seen pictures of the pilgrimage site, and I knew it was large, but I was surprised at how large it truly was. Since it was Sunday, when we got there at 5pm, there was a religous procession in progress around the shrine. People were following a group of priests and singing hymns and chanting. Because we had an hour to kill here, I headed to the Basilica, which is the burial place of the three children. The basilica itself was filled with people praying and looking around. The tombs of the three children were pretty basic. Of the three children, two of them who were cousins died young, but the third one lived to become a nun, and she died in 2005 at the age of 97. Now, they are all buried in the church with the boy, Francisco buried to the right of the main altar, and the two girls, Lucia (died age 97) and Jacinta, are buried to the left of the main altar.
Once I checked out the church, the procession had ended and a mass was currently in progress in the spot where the actual apparition took place. All kinds of people were surrounding the area. There were priests, nuns, young and old people, and people in crutches and wheelchairs with some who looked like they had very serious physical disabilities.
Since I arrived around the halfway point of the mass, I stuck around for a bit, and when it was ended, I walked around the area and came upon an area where people were buying wax candles of all sizes ranging from small votives to at least 2 feet tall. They were all then heading over to an area where a fire was raging. They were then lighting the candles and tossing them in the flames. I am not entirely sure why they were doing that. I know it is common to light candles in church, but I am not sure what the purpose of throwing the candles into a raging fire was for.
Since there was still time before the bus headed back to Lisbon, I walked around the square, and it was while doing that that I saw several people on on the other side of the plaza on their knees gradually moving toward the Basilica. They were busily praying and reciting their rosaries to themselves and slowly moving forward on their knees toward the Basilica. I later found out they showing their devotion by putting up with the pain of being on their knees on hard ground. I did not partake in that. I had done something similar in Rome 9 years ago, and I can tell you in all honesty that it can be quite painful and very hard on the knees.
The last stop I made was at one of the gift shops near the shrine. This was much smaller than the factory outlet store for religious items, but one of the interesting items I saw was "Our Lady of Fatima Holy Water" that was being sold for about 2 euros. I personally thought this was a very silly thing for someone to buy. Who cares if you got holy water? What would you do with it? You don't drink it. Plus, I am not sure what would be the purpose of buying it. Maybe you would use it to sprinkle some in each room of your home to bless it? I remember the tour guide saying there was a spring nearby which supposedly has miraculous powers, and people frequently bring water bottles and fill them up with this water. In my opinion, why not go to that holy spring, get your own water, and then find one of the many priests who were around the area to bless it? It literally takes the priest about 5-10 seconds to say a quick blessing on it then do the Sign of the Cross over it. There is no reason to pay 2 euros for a bottle that says "Our Lady of Fatima Holy Water." It reminded me of the nonsense products that some late-night televangelists hawk on TV to the gullible and desperate, such as "miracle soap" and "miracle sand."
When it was time to leave Fatima, I was exhausted. It had been a long day. By the time I got back to my hotel, it was 8:30pm. Generally speaking, I can't say I was particularly pleased with this tour. The tour guide, while friendly and generally knowledgeable, was quite dull and had the most boring delivery. This often made it very difficult to pay attention. While I am very glad and thankful that I got to see these attractions, I think I would have to recommend finding a different tour operator to visit those places.
Despite the fact that the trance music festival was in full swing once again, I actually fell asleep pretty easily. The next morning, I was on my way back to my home in the Middle East although I would not actually arrive back at my apartment until the early morning the next day. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and there were no delays or problems with the flights.
Even though I was only in Portugal for 4 days, I made a major push to see as much as I could. Considering the amount of time I had, I was quite surprised with how much was done, but I know there is still so much more to check out. I only got to see the southern part of the country for this trip. There is still the central and northern part to explore. Portugal is a country I definitely hope to return to in the future. If I ever do have the chance to return in the future, I already have a good idea of what places to explore and visit, but that will have to wait until next time.
If I have to be 100% honest, I would definitely classify Portugal as being in my Top 10 Countries List. After waiting to visit for three years, I had high expectations for Portugal, and I was not disappointed.
Please enjoy this photo gallery. All pictures were taken by me. Please click on the image to make it larger.