Before I describe some of the wonderful sights we encountered, I need to paint a brief picture of the two months leading up to our trip, events that led to a physically and emotionally exhausted husband, and a bit of a hectic start. Let's go back to just before Christmas...
We have learned in the Peasgood family not to make firm plans ahead of time, as something inevitably happens to mess up said plans (e.g. weather, illness). So we didn't have anything firmly in place in regards to Christmas. We knew we would see my family on Christmas Day, then we'd see who was around and healthy for Boxing Day and the following week, when Mike & I might head up to the cottage (possibly with other family members, possibly alone). And then we learned that Mike's mom needed to go into palliative care. She has suffered with dementia for several years, but has remained in good physical health, and always kept a positive attitude, even when she could no longer really communicate. So we made arrangements to go to Mike's brother's place, closer to Bobcaygeon where Mom lives, ahead of a potentially massive storm, 'just in case'. We packed up the car the day after we received the news (Dec. 22)--clothes, food, skis, and presents--and just as we made to leave, Mike's sister called to let us know that Mom had passed away. This made the drive up north (we still wanted to beat the storm) a somewhat subdued affair, but it also meant we got to spend more time with the family, albeit under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Jump ahead to mid-January. Another call from Mike's sister, another tragic loss in the family, this time her son, our nephew, and another extended stay with Mike's brother so that we were all closer to offer what support we could in the following several days of making arrangements and finding answers. That's another story that I won't share here, except to say that it was not an easy time.
Yet our planned trip loomed closer, and Mike had less time than hoped to get ready. Thankfully, he works with some very special people who helped keep his company on track, although he did have a few calls with various entities during both these events that he had to deal with--luckily, done remotely. But now, he's starting to scramble, and things falling off the rails (or going sideways, as his sister says) doesn't help with stress or piece of mind. Still, we had a few days to gather our wits and calm our nerves. So of course, that's when the sump pump decided to malfunction overnight and flood our basement. Only enough water to creep under the engineered hardwood floor, and only one room, but enough of a problem to involve the insurance company and emergency clean up. Three days before we're supposed to leave.
We managed to make it to the airport with time to spare, but not with a relaxed mien. I can sleep on an airplane; Mike, not quite as much. Nothing like starting a vacation high on stress, on an overnight 7+ hour flight, and landing before 7 in the morning, knowing we can't check in until 3. Nevertheless, we managed to pack quite a lot into that first day.
So, on to happier details of Portugal.
Arrive at Lisbon, take the metro to the train station, board an early train out to Sintra (about 40 minutes north of Lisbon) in the dark, trusting we're reading our Portuguese correctly. Arrive in a lovely little touristy town and find our accommodations--we couldn't check in to yet, but we could stow our luggage, so we at least didn't have to lug our backpacks around all day.
We had some famous pastries (pastel de nata) and tea/coffee to fortify us, then set out on a hike up to the Moorish castle. You can take a bus or a tuk tuk up to the castle, but we chose to walk. It's only about an hour (and many hills), but it also involved a detour that we more or less managed to follow. After a bit of backtracking, we made it up to the castle. I may have mentioned somewhere before: I like ruins. I like crawling around in ruins. We found ourselves an awesome ruin. And despite aching legs from much unaccustomed climbing to reach the castle, I climbed pretty much every set of stairs I could find in these ruins. (I also climbed a rock on the way to the ruins and scrapped my hand, but it was only a little blood) The temperature sat in the mid-teens, the sun shone, we had a perfect (if slightly sleepy) start to our trip. And we followed that with a long hike back to town, some food, and then some sleep.
Walked to Pena Palace via a slightly shorter route than the previous day. Saw the inside of Pena, then took in the views from the terrace above. The Palace began life as a monastery, suffered storm and earthquake damage a few centuries later, was abandoned for a time, then acquired in the 18th century by King consort Ferdinand II (who really liked creating romantic niches all over the place) and transformed into a summer residence for the royal family, rebuilt in a Romantic style that incorporated Medieval and Islamic elements. Eventually, the royals got booted in a revolution, and the State classified it as a national monument, turning it into a museum for tourists like us to traipse through. UNESCO claimed it as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Mostly, it's known as the colourful palace on the hill. It also has an amazing spread of gardens, which were neat to wander through, though lacked the full colour and splendor the summer months would bring. Then we surrendered and took a bus back down the hill. On narrow, winding roads as frightening speeds. Branches may have tickled the roof, but I'm pretty sure the walls didn't quite scrape the paint on the sides of the bus; barely.
We almost missed the palace part, as we spent a lot of time roaming the grounds, and we probably still missed stuff. A weird but stunning location, and lots of fun to explore.
Well, we'd already seen all we wanted of Sintra. By this time, Mike was really feeling tired, both from walking 20 000+ steps in each of the last two days, and from general exhaustion catching up to him. So he took a bit of a break while Jason and I wandered through some gardens that would no doubt look spectacular in the summer. We found some cork trees (I didn't even know cork came from the bark of such large trees), and stumbled across part of the path we had taken the first day to reach the Moorish Castle, but the sun had also taken a break on this day, and we didn't see anything I felt like taking pictures of. Still, some nice walking, and Mike joined us later for more general walking, but it turns out that 2 days is plenty to take in the sites of Sintra, at least for us. So back to our rooms to plan for the next day, when we would head out to our second trio of accommodations on the Algarve coast. With a looming train strike in the offing. What could go wrong?
Train back to Lisbon ran as scheduled, and we found ourselves at the train hub on the first day of a train strike. "Train's still coming," the ticket lady informed us, but she couldn't sell us tickets, as her computer had been locked out, making sales impossible. Website informed us 'no train.' We chose to listen to the ticket lady instead, and headed up to the appropriate platform, fingers crossed. We encountered another passenger in a similar fix. He needed to get to the coast for work, and did so on a frequent basis, so he figured we had a good chance of buying tickets from the porter. Assuming the train arrived. No announcements said it would, and no digital signs, which tracked other local trains, mentioned the high-speed one we wanted. But before we had to start exploring bus options, the train did, indeed arrive. We found the porter, and our new friend, who spoke Portuguese like a pro (his English was also excellent, though neither is his first language), conferred with the porter, who then let us on, trusting we'd pay the correct fair once we were underway and he came by to check for tickets. Presumably some people got their tickets the night before, or at least some time well in advance (our new friend couldn't get any when he tried), but the train was far from packed. Lucky us, as usually it's assigned seating, and we just sat wherever. Anyway, we paid the man and weren't kicked off a train going in excess of 200 kph. Yay!
We arrived in Albufeira and got our rental car. I highly recommend ready2drive if you want to rent a car in the Algarve. Bruno is our hero (more about him when we return the vehicle). He met us at the station with our car, sat down with us at a cafe to do the paperwork, and gave us some helpful tips. Then we set off toward Lagos and the Ponta da Piedade as a nearby destination before our resort was ready to receive us. Lovely views under a still-sunny sky, though clouds had started to roll in.
Mike and I took a walk down to the beach in the morning, and that's about all he was up for. So he went back to bed, and Jason and I took a longer walk along the coast.
Mike did not, in fact feel better when we returned, so we found a pharmacy and got him some cold and flu medication, stopped for a spot of lunch, then returned to our invalid. In the evening, Jason headed out for a walk to see the sunset of Carvoeiro from the boardwalk near the beach, and I headed back to the pharmacy to see if they had any Covid test kits, just in case. And low and behold, our dear Mike, who started the trip emotionally drained, physically exhausted, and mixing with many people on various public transits without a mask, had indeed contracted the nasty virus. Well, crap. Not the way he wanted to spend any part of the trip.
I slept the following nights on the couch, and wore my mask (which I had worn on public transit, and somehow managed to avoid any subsequent contagions) while taking care of Mike.
Jason went to hike the 7 Hanging Valleys Trail, while I got some food and liquids into Mike. We visited a doctor in case Mike needed a note for insurance if we had to make alternate travel arrangements due to Covid. Strangely, when the doctor administered the test, he got inconclusive results. Twice. Still, he figured we hadn't lied about a positive test, so issued a note just in case, though he told us he saw no reason that Mike couldn't travel. Ww walked back to the resort, and that about used up Mike's energy for the day. He went back to bed and I read on the balcony as the sun made a reappearance. Wandered around town later with Jason, ate some food, checked in with the patient. Not as exciting a day as originally planned, but the couch was surprisingly comfortable.
Happily, Mike felt well enough that we could all check out of the resort and drive back to Albufeira in anticipation of catching the train back to Lisbon. Website said 'yup, all is well.' Ticket man at the train station informed us that the trains are not, in fact, running at all that day. Well, crap. Some hasty phone searches led us to a bus schedule, with a bus scheduled to leave about 20 minutes later. From another location. And here we sat with a rented car to be returned. So we called up Bruno, our hero of the rental car, and asked if we could meet him at the bus station instead of the train station. He agreed, then called us back to ask which bus we were taking, as there were two different places to catch buses. He then gave us directions to a tourist info spot where he would wait for us and where we could leave the car, while he then drove us to the bus terminal, which had no easy parking. Truly above and beyond, and far more than any other car rental company we've ever dealt with. Five stars for Bruno, who even managed to be chipper and jovial the whole time.
Got to the bus stop, ordered tickets online, got on a bus (Mike suitably masked through this whole endeavour), and made it to Lisbon only about 1/2 hour later than the train would have taken. We found a metro to the station nearest our 3rd and final accommodation, then walked the rest of the way, arriving sometime around 6:30. Needless to say, that pretty much used up all of Mike's energy for the day. He went to bed, while Jason and I went to find some supper. Then I came home, and Jason went back out to check out Lisbon's night life.
We started the day at the famous Pastéis de Belém to try out some more custard tarts, and we got there early enough that we didn't face a huge line, although we did end up munching our pastries with tea and coffee and on the patio. I sat nearest the heater, as it wasn't much past 10 degrees yet. Then we headed out to see Jeronimos Monastery.
Being Sunday, the cathedral part had mass, so we didn't see the interior of that, and being a huge tourist attraction, we didn't stand in line to see the inside of the monastery itself either. But just seeing the outside is worth the trip.
Mike felt well enough to join us for a bigger adventure today, so we went to explore St. George's Castle (Castelo de S. Jorge)--once we figured out which bus (or tram) we wanted, and where to catch it. A bit far to walk, though Jason was game. Mike and I, not so much. So we used transit (still masked, of course). We arrived before opening, so had an opportunity to explore the outer area first. Narrow roads, but a functional little township, complete with a school and laundry hung out to dry. A fascinating mix of older and modern, rural vs urban, and all within Lisbon.
The castle itself has archeological finds from the 8th century BC with fortifications from the 1st century BC. Through a long and varied history, it passed through several hands (Celts, Greeks, Carthage, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Portuguese) and underwent many renovations. It's hard to tell just how old each section is, and even now, it's undergoing both restoration and archeological digs. It's mostly walls and stairs, some benches, cannons, dry water features, and incredible vistas. And peacocks. Don't ask me why. Maybe they're sacred guardians of the place, or just a tourist attraction. They also climb trees.
Called an Uber and made our way to the airport for a 10:40 am flight back to Toronto. The flight was only a little late, yet managed to arrive on time after 8 1/2 hours in the air. We all made it back home, went to bed early, and continue with life. Mike only tested mildly positive the next morning. So much for inconclusive tests!
Did we like Portugal? For the most part, yes. Did it have its challenges? Definitely. Would we go back? We'd like to see more of the Algarve, so probably. Will Mike ever want to travel again, given that something often goes wrong? I hope so. After all, I didn't even have to leave him at a hospital and fly home alone this time! I call that a win.