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* Part I - Lisbon and Mainland Portugal - November 1-4, 2013


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Featuring the Estoril Coast, Azores & Madeira Islands

Joe Laufer’s ICQ Tours through Collette Vacations: November 1-13, 2013

My Adventure in Portugal and the Azores – November 1-13, 2013

I’m leaving on Friday evening, November 1, for thirteen days in Portugal and the Azores.  I’ll be traveling with 10 friends and fellow adventurers on a tour managed by Collette Vacations.  In the past, I would keep in touch with family, friends and other fellow travelers by e-mail.  I thought that I’d try something new this time by creating a travel blog that I plan to update daily along the route (when I have access to the internet).  This is the first of the Portugal trip blog entries, being sent to test the new blog and to give you an opportunity to follow our journey through central Portugal and two of its neighboring islands.

On Friday at 2:30 in the afternoon we will all gather at my home in Vincentown, where we will board a shuttle to Philadelphia International Airport for our 6:45 p.m. Lufthansa flight.   Our overnight flight  lands at Frankfurt, Germany at 7:45 a.m, and then  we take a plane to Lisbon, arriving at 11:15 a.m.  Traveling with me are Tami Kessler and Rita Wood, who are leaving a day early, on October 31 to get a jump on jet lag.  Flying with me are Janet Aaronson and Penny Lovenduski, Fran Daily and Janet Mee, Hans Rottau, Fred Horner and Gus Haines. We’ve all traveled together on multiple occasions.  My wife, Penny, has opted out of this trip, and I will definitely miss having her with us.

Lisbon, St. Michael (Azores) and Madeira.

The first third of our tour takes place in and around Lisbon and the Estoril Coast of Portugal, which is more or less the west-central part of the country and consists of a 3-night stay at a 5-star hotel in Lisbon.  Saturday afternoon is relatively free, and then we attend a welcome dinner where we get to meet the rest of our touring party (about 30 other people from around the USA and Canada).  On Sunday, Nov. 3, we tour the highlights of Lisbon and travel north along the coast to Sintra, Cascais, and Estoril.  On Monday, Nov. 4, we head north again to the shrine of Fatima, Nazare, and Obidos.  You may have seen the record-breaking surfer on TV earlier this week – that huge storm wave he navigated came to shore at Nazare where we will be on Monday.

We fly from Lisbon on Tuesday morning, Nov. 4, north-west over the Atlantic to the largest of the Azore Islands, St. Michael, where we will stay for the next four days.  On  Thursday, Nov. 7, some of us will go whale and dolphin watching.  We fly out of the Azores on Saturday, Nov. 9, headed due south over the Atlantic to the Island of Madeira — boasting of a subtropical climate and nicknamed the “Pearl of the Atlantic.”  We explore this bit of paradise for the next three days, flying back to Lisbon on Tuesday, November 12, for our last full day and overnight in Portugal, returning home on Wednesday, November 13.

Day 2 – Arrival and First Full Day in Lisbon

Well, after a six hour overnight flight from Philadelphia to Frankfurt and another three hours from Frankfurt to Lisbon, our feet are on the ground in this beautiful, historic coastal city  whose heritage centers around Prince Henry the Navigator and the many discoveries that can be attributed to the adventurous Portuguese navigators who took advantage of their marvelous seaside location at the western edge of the European continent.  After about an hour delay in the Philly Airport due to Fridays pesky weather, we took off at 7:30 p.m., but thanks to a nice tail wind, arrived at Frankfort at the scheduled time Saturday morning, then boarded a 3 hour flight to Lisbon, arriving in beautiful sunshine and warm weather. On the way to our hotel from the airport, our Collette tour manager, Jose Fagundes, of Portuguese heritage, but a native of Boston,  described the monuments and architecture along the way. Lisbon is a very modern city, mainly because it had to be rebuilt from the ground up after a major earthquake in the late 1800s.

There is a major soccer tournament in Lisbon this weekend and one of the champion teams is located in our 5 star hotel, the elegant Hotel Altis, which is located right in the center of town.  Crowds gather out in front of the hotel to see the players and get their autographs.  We are worried that if they win this afternoon there will be mayhem in our hotel tonight. Before dinner this evening we had an orientation with our tour manager and met the rest of our tour buddies.  We have the largest single group, a total of 11 from New Jersey.  There are 31 others, giving us a group total of 42 people from all over the country, namely California, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Boston, to name only a few of the locations of people I personally had an opportunity to chat with so far.  We had a really nice dinner of local cuisine.

The real touring begins tomorrow after breakfast.  We will travel north along the coast to the magical towns of Sintra, Cascais, and Estoril and complete our all day excursion with a tour of the highlights of the City of Lisbon.  The forecast is for warm and sunny weather.    More later!

Day 3 – Sunday, November 3 – Lisbon – Sintra – Cascais – Estoril – Lisbon

We are staying in Lisbon for only  three nights of our 13-day tour, so we are packing a lot in.  Today was a busy day of touring by coach.  We started the day by touring the major attractions of Lisbon, including Jeronimo’s Monastery (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Moorish Alfama Quarter, The unique Monument to the Discoveries, which proclaims Portugal’s undeniable role in the exploration of the world, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, dominates the riverfront and includes all the major discoverers.

Prince Henry the Navigator, who founded a school for sailors in Sagres, leads the pack, with Vasco da Gama close behind.

This monument of the explorers is in the form of a ship with dozens of Portuguese luminaries looking Westward over the sea.

A much older fortress (and another UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Tower of Belen is nearby on the waterfront.  We then boarded the coach for a picturesque ride north to  the town of Sintra – where the whole town qualifies as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Buildings of Sintra are unique in their architecture and caused us to marvel at the creativity of their designers and flamboyance of their occupants.  Later, we got a sense of the recreational significance of Portugal as we visited Cascais and Estoril, beautiful seaside resorts which made us wish we were here earlier in the season – except that we were grateful we didn’t have to wrestle with the crowds.

Monday, November 4, 2013 – Lisbon, Obidos, Nazare, Fatima, Lisbon

This is our last full day in Lisbon (although we will return here at the very end of the tour for our flight home).  We traveled north to what is known as the “Silver Coast,” a region of sleepy villages, vineyards and ancient castles.  We left our hotel at 8:30 a.m. under cloudy skies.  At 11:30 we arrived at a medieval hill town, a UNESCO world heritage site by the name of Obidos.  We navigated the narrow streets of shops, churches and fountains to the very top, where there was an old fort.  It was like stepping back in time – except for the souvenirs.

After a little over an hour here, we left at 11 for the coastal town of Nazare.  We were hoping for sunshine, but instead our luck ran out and we got rain and wind.  The waves of the Atlantic Ocean were crashing into the cliffs as they were last week during a major storm.  Nazare is the town where the world record was broken last week for the highest wave ever surfed.  We saw the exact spot where all those pictures shown on TV and in newspapers last week celebrated that record-breaking surf event.  The rain dampened this particular visit, but we had a nice lunch here – mainly fresh fish, because this was a fishing village before it became a very popular beach resort.

Next, we toured a magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site, the Batalha monastery, which reminded me very much of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in both architecture and massive size.  It is definitely a hidden treasure, especially because of its remote and unlikely location, built as a monument to one of the Portuguese Royal families.

Finally, at 3:30 we headed for nearby FATIMA, the great pilgrimage site where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to 3 young peasant children 1917 and which has grown to a shrine on a par with Lourdes.  As a child in Catholic School the story of Fatima was held up to us as an important message promoting the saying of the Rosary and praying for the conversion of Russia.  Today I saw the exact spot where the Virgin Mary appeared and where I joined many faithful praying, lighting candles and touring the various locations on these massive grounds related to the message of Fatima.  As a child, hearing those stories, I could never have imagined someday standing in the very spot where this modern miracle occurred. The rain added to the drama, but one of the things that impressed me most, because I wasnt expecting it, was that there are two sections of the Berlin Wall on exhibit here, symbolic of the fact the what we were inspired to pray for as Catholic School kids through the Message of Fatima became a reality with the extinction of European Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We are now wrapping things up here in Lisbon, because we fly out of  Lisbon tomorrow morning for St. Michael’s Island, the largest of the 9 Azore Islands, where we will be for the next  four days, hopefully basking in the sun of the Atlantic Ocean.  I’ll see how the computer technology in the next hotel will allow me to continue this blog.  Take care.

Tuesday & Wednesday, November 5 & 6, 2013 – First Two Days on San Miguel Island, Azores.

It has been non-stop since Tuesday morning when we boarded our 2-hour Sata International Airlines flight from Lisbon to San Miguel Island in the Azores.  It was like flying from San Francisco to Hawaii, except that we flew over the Atlantic to a time zone one-hour closer to New York. We landed at 1:45 p.m. on San Miguel, the largest of the 9 Azorean Islands.  We did not go to our hotel immediately, but our bus dropped us off in the center of Porta Delgado, our seaside home base for the next four days in the Azores. We took a walking tour of the quaint old City with its black and white sidewalks and buildings and monuments in the same black and white decor.   We had been warned that the weather in the Azores was unpredictable and that within one twenty-four hour period we could experience all four seasons intermittently.  My small backpack contained a sweater, a fleece vest, a jacket, a plastic poncho, umbrella, and sunglasses to cover any weather eventuality, and I used all of them during our afternoon of exploration.  When the sun came out intermittently, it was warm and beautiful.  Even when it rained, it was delightful.  Just being here was very exciting, no matter what the weather.

Several remarked that the Azores had qualities of other special places we had visited  – like the 40 shades of green of Ireland and the excitement of port cities whose claim to fame was fishing, water sports and unique restaurants.   Although low hanging clouds almost prevented us from seeing some of the most magnificent mountain and valley vistas and ocean seascapes, we followed the advice of our tour manager to have patience and leave it to the Azorean angels to lift the clouds, and miraculously, they parted as predicted, to reveal some of the most awe inspiring vistas we had ever seen.  So we got to see a unique blue and green lake created from a Vocanic crater at Sete Cidades (Seven Cities), stood on the rim of another crater, had a capuchino in a small story book farm village, and were awed by seaside vistas of cliffs, rocks and crashing waves and capped the day with a view of a magnificent sunset.

We arrived at our modern 4-star hotel at 6:30 p.m. to check in and within a half hour were back on the road to a special restaurant for our welcome meal in the Azores, consisting mainly of seafood delicacies and local wines.

The pace continued today, Wednesday, when we visited first a pineapple plantation (taste samples included), then a seacoast overlook, a tea plantation (more free samples), a traditional Azorean volcanic-heated lunch stew, (ask me about it when you see me), a visit to Caldeiras (hot springs), a walk through Terra Nostra Botanical gardens, and a few other scenic stops before returning to the hotel. Thus ended day 2 and the first half of our Azorean adventure.

Tomorrow we get up early for a Whale and Dolphin watching excursion, 7 miles out into the Atlantic.  More about that in the next entry.  Hope Ím not boring you – but I just wanted to share the highlights of this multi-faceted adventure.

Last 2 Days on San Miguel - Thursday and Friday, November 7 and 8

When you are two hours off the coast of Europe on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, it is hard to rely on computers to do what you want them to do.  Thus, I was unable to access my blog to write today's entry.  We just completed our final day in the Azores, and leave early tomorrow morning for a three hour flight south to the sub tropical island of Madeira.

This is to bring you up to date on the past two days since my last posting.  We spent Thursday morning looking for Whales and Dolphins out at sea along the south coast of San Miguel island, Azores.  We had lots of luck with frolicking and playful dolphins, but never encountered a whale.  The adventure was nevertheless very worthwhile for other reasons: beautiful views of the coast from off shore, a magnificent rainbow sighting, and a really great ride on a rather choppy and churning ocean which challenged our balance and our stomachs. We also discovered some small volcanic islands off shore.  It was a great 3 hour excursion.  We had the rest of the day off to explore the port city of Ponta Delgada.

We are fortunate to have a great group of 42 fun-loving people from all over the country and have made some new lifelong friends in the process. 

Today, Friday, we spent the day experiencing some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Some have compared it to the landscape of Hawaii -- others, to Ireland.  No matter what it definitely awed us all.  We began with a view from an observation deck high on a mountain of Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake) in the middle of San Miguel.  Then we drove north and east to the coast for some magnificent cliff-side seascapes.  We visited several quaint towns on the eastern shore of the Island, among them Ribiera Grande, a historic town where we also toured a distillery and a tile studio --samples of the licquer included, as well as a craft demonstration at the tile factory.  Then on to the highest point on this beautiful Island, the town of Nordeste, then to the original island settlement of Povoacao, first settled in 1432.  We ended the day with a gourmet meal at a popular restaurant near our hotel.  It was a great farewell to this enchanted island.

Its off to bed now for an early wake-up call and our flight south over the Atlantic.  Hopefully the computers in Madeira will be more friendly.  Till then, have a great day.

Arrival in Madeira - Saturday, November 9th .

After rising early on Saturday morning (November 9)  and heading to the Ponta Delgada airport for a two hour flight south to Madeira  Island, we arrived at around noon in this sub-tropical island, 500 miles off the south eastern coast of  Portugal.  We were greeted by warm Atlantic sea breezes and beautiful sunshine.  Our introduction was via a quick bus tour of the downtown area, and then a brief walking tour in Cathedral square and along a festive street of outdoor coffee shops where there were street entertainers, musical groups and a very relaxed Saturday afternoon crowd of locals drinking wine, beer and cappuccinos, and enjoying local pastries - and naturally, we  joined in.  We then were taken by bus to our hotel, just a few minutes away in the hilly port city of Funchal, the most populated city in Madeira and our home for the next 3 days.

Our jaws dropped in awe as we disembarked at the 5-star, lush resort hotel by the name of Pestan Casino Park Hotel.  As we entered  the lobby we were offered complimentary drinks of either Madeira wine or Orange juice.  My room overlooks the bay where two huge cruise ships are docked.  Below my balcony is the outdoor swimming pool where every beach chair is occupied by sunbathing guests.  It is quite a place.
Our tour guide told us there was a Saturday evening Mass in the Cathedral - about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, where we had toured earlier.  It was, however, a false alarm, as we went and there was no Mass at that time, although our intentions were good.  We were on our own for the evening, and selected our own restaurant, also within the neighborhood of the hotel.  I had a great typical fish meal with complimentary Madeira wine in a quaint restaurant called The Chalet. 

My first impression of Madeira is that it very much resembles Monaco and the French Riviera.  The hotels are elegant and the weather is balmy.  It is a beautiful  location for a vacation.  Madeira was chosen recently by several magazines as among the top ten best vacation destinations in the world - and I can see why.  We saw a banner in the Cathedral earlier saying that in 2015 it will be celebrating its 500th Anniversary.  We were told by our tour guide that the island was accidentally discovered when a ship was blown here during a storm in the early 1500s.  The island is only about the size of Puerto Rico, with a mountain range down the middle.  We’ve seen a lot already, but we understand that the best is yet to come, and the weather forecasts are positive for the next few days as our tour winds down.

Sunday and Monday, November 10 and 11 – Final Days in Madeira

These final days can best be compared to the grand finale of a great fireworks display. It was as though the first eleven days of our tour, as magnificent as they were paled in comparison with the extravagance of the last two days. We saw more variety and more beauty than we had seen on the previous eleven days. On Sunday we visited Camara de Lobos and then the Cabo Girao Cliffs. Then we drove to Sao Vicente, Catheta and Paul Da Serra plateau – each area having its own unique character and beauty. The day ended with a bar snack in the hotel – mainly of sweets and pastries.

On Monday, the scenery exceeded the beauty of the day before. First we went to Poiso to see Madeira’s 3 rd highest peak, Pico do Areeiro and the vast vista that surrounded it. We then stopped at Ribeiro Frio and Santana as we navigated the narrow coastal roads with their many tunnels and seascapes. Some of us also succumbed to the Madeira tourist “must” of a dry toboggan ride in a whicker cart down the mountain above Funchal. We closed the day and our visit to Madeira attending an espetada dinner and folk dance show at a classic Funchal restaurant.

Tuesday, November 12 – Back to Lisbon

We flew back to Lisbon early Tuesday morning, returning to the Hotel Altis where it all began two weeks earlier. Some of us decided to join our Collette Tour Manager, Jose Fagundes to the Belem Tower area via tram for the best pastries in Portugal. The “voyage” was a bit of an effort on the croweded local tram, but the reward of a great treat was a welcome reward for the effort.We had our farewell dinner at 7:30 p.m. and then headed to bed.

Wednesday, November 13 – Flight home to Philadelphia.












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