A Sensational Sojourn to the Iberian Peninsula with
Insight Vacations (Part One)
Pictures Courtesy of Renegade Photography
"If I knew that after I died, you would shed a tear for me,
it would be worth it to die."
Such were the sentiments of the chanteuse's melodic, plaintive plea at the Café Luso in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon one not-so-long-ago night. The evening of my second day in Lisbon was devoted to one of Portugal's most famous exports—fado music. In comparison to fado's heartbreakingly melancholy laments, American country music's tear-jerking ballads may as well be John Philip Sousa marches. Nothing is as heart-wrenching as fado; and at Café Luso, you can expect a whole lotta' vocal anguish and exquisite tragedy for your buck.
And I might add, right here, that my trip to the Iberian Peninsula represented a lot of value, also, for the tariff: I chose to take a more unusual trip this time around, and not go it alone. But rather, I opted to travel with Insight Vacations, on one of its luxury sojourns. As the old Greyhound ad used to more or less say, "Take the bus... and leave the driving to us," and that is what I opted to do. In this case, the "us" was the skillful Insight driver, Helder Almeaida, and the motor coach was no pedestrian Greyhound; it was a sleek, classy Mercedes-Benz, outfitted comfortably with what Insight calls "business-class legroom," which they take quite seriously. The company's tag line, "the art of touring in style" delivers; I could stretch my long legs out and rest contentedly during the entire trip. I hasten to add that the coach is equipped with WiFi, and even a loo, at the lower level near the egress. Helder kept the cupboards stocked with cold drinks, candies, and so on. It was obvious that Insight was not whistling Dixie when it noted that its trips are truly comfortable and deluxe all around.
Moreover, I relished that I didn't have to take out my phone once for checking GPS or directions. Our intrepid and charming (not to mention knowledgeable) guide, Toni Aguilar, was all that you would want in a fearless leader; he is so much more than a "fixer" or a "traveling concierge," as one of the company's staff whispered to me. A non-practicing attorney, Aguilar has been leading groups for Insight for nearly 20 years and he knows his stuff...and could not have been more accommodating and helpful, fielding individual requests, questions, and queries. Insight also supplies local guides in each city, and they are extremely well-informed about their locales; in Lisbon we were graced with Laura.
We started our Lisbon adventure with a stop at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos an architecturally stunning monastery, home to the Order of Saint Jerom, located near the district of Belém.
Both the monastery and the Tower Belém were declared UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1983, and thus they are all the more worth a visit; moreover, the tomb of Vasco da Gama is in the monastery, and I have always admired his adventurous spirit. I particularly liked our visit to the seaside monuments, or rather riverside monuments, adjacent to the Tagus River, one of which is the prow-shaped memorial, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a tribute to Portugal's astonishing, and perhaps under-recognized (at least on these shores, here across the pond) intrepid explorers. For the record, Portugal has nearly 1,200 miles of coastline.
Most Americans, I suspect, have forgotten fifth-grade geography and history and have no sense of the extent to which Portugal ruled the waves, long before "Hail, Britannia," started considering the Atlantic and the Pacific its personal monopolistic oceans. (On another trip to Portugal, along the scenic Douro River in the north, I stopped in Porto, where the highly educational and fascinating museum, World of Discoveries, beckoned; it was there that costumed and very well educated historical interpreters guided me through Portugal's sundry territorial conquests from India, Macau, Africa, to Brazil, and on and on...selective destinations, but assuredly spanning the globe.) The massive mosaic on the pavement at this Lisbon riverside shrine handsomely attests to Portugal's maritime dominance and depicts a map of the world in colored stone inlays. Plying the vast, marble or garnite oceans are several galleons, each with the red Portuguese cross billowing on its sails; detailed stone inlays annotate the flattened sphere's land masses. It is both attention-grabbing and edifying.
We next visited, as special guests (read: no queue for us, a perk that is but one of the "signature" experiences that Insight arranges, so you feel like a VIP with behind-the-scenes access), one of the most celebrated culinary destination in all of Portugal, I would hazard: Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, known for its famous—nay, legendary—pasteis de Belém. These delicacies are petite, airy custard tarts that melt in your mouth. Made since 1837, they are churned out by the bakery to the tune of 10,000 a day! Only three people in the entire patisserie know the recipe, and I guess all three are never allowed to be on the same plane at the same time.
The café is massive, and is decorated in the signature blue-and-white Portuguese azul tiles that one sees everywhere. It is no accident that the bakery is near the church, as it is said that these mouth-watering "eggs-travaganzas" were first made by the Jerónimos monks. Outside the bakery, is yet another mosaic sidewalk with "Pasteis de Belém" and "1837" spelled out in stone mosaics. These decorative sidewalks, with striking geometric designs, are seemingly everywhere, and are usually crafted in swirling charcoal and white patterns; they are referred to as calçada portuguesa. (Just as an aside, if you've got time to spare here, nearby the Antiga Confeitaria are the planetarium, the ethnology museum, the archeological museum and about three or four others.)
Our second day in Lisbon was actually spent on the road to nearby hamlets, each of some distinction. I could not have been more pleased to take in the famous Estoril and Cacais (less than a half hour away), along with the exquisite hillside town of Sintra (a mere 15-minute hop from Estoril). Cascais is a little seaside village that has, over the centuries, been home to Phoenicians, Arabs, and Romans, and by mid-12th century was substantially Christian. Summertimes are busy here, but in the fall and spring shoulder seasons, it's quiet and peaceful. I meandered around the charming streets, ogling at the lavish vacation homes, awash in greenery and sporting symphonies of flowers. You will be charmed, as I was, by the diminutive merry-go-round at the town's entrance, with carousel zoo animals that were painted dazzlingly—a swan, a rooter, a pig, a tiger, a lion, a monkey, a giraffe, an elephant, and oh, yes, a coupla' predictable horses. Take a ride!
Sintra is a delightful, quaint village (although it's not that tiny, what with about 400,000 residents) and one you should spend time exploring. The day we arrived a sudden squall exploded from the steely, ashen clouds—and true to our expectations, Helder had a compartment full of oversize umbrellas. To disperse among us. Although walking the picturesque, cobbled streets of this ancient town was less than ideal in a monsoon, I still managed to enjoy myself and nipped into a few "caves" for a taste of local wines and some really delicious native port; there were, also, petite boutiques with the exquisitely hand-embroidered linens and cottons that Portugal is known for. We even had time for a quickie trip to the town's very famous Palácio Nacional, the national palace.
The next day, it was time to leave Lisbon, short as the trip was, to start to savor more of the countryside, in the lovely Alentejo region, north of the Algarve, and an area responsible for a majority of the country's wines....not to mention pork and other delicacies. The rolling, verdant hills glide by, as Toni tells us about the legendary cork oak trees for which Portugal is known and which supply the globe with nearly 50% of the cork used for everything from bottle stoppers to trivets. We make a slight detour to Vila Nogueira de Azeitão, a charming little community, to visit the José Maria Da Fonesco winery, established in 1834. We tour the lush grounds (led by a seventh-generation member of the proprietors, the Soares Franco clan) and we sample some very appealing and well-priced wine, among the winery's nearly three dozen brands. Among the memorable and the fine: Periquita Reserva and Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal. If I heard my guide correctly, the company produces 13 million liters of vino a year, 80% of which is exported. I notice, however, another branded bottle on the way out—and it is Lancer's—that has made into the base of a lamp!
Click here to continue the voyage, with Part Two of our journey.
All the Details:
For information on an Iberian holiday with Insight Vacations, and for a complete listing of the company's 113 different sojourns, call 1-888-680-1241 or click here. The company offers seven different styles of touring from Country Roads Tours to Regional Tours. Insight Vacations has journeys in well over three dozen countries in Europe; the starting price per person, double-occupancy, for a typical 10-day journey (a Premium Escorted Journey-level tour) is $2,225. A typical 11-day tour with the top-level package (called Gold Luxury Tours), starts at $4,125 per person, double-occupancy. These two top-tier levels of touring offer luxury service/lodgings/meals, well above the average tour-company's offerings and provide upscale hotels, fine dining venues, and the company's "signature" events, which are interesting, local experiences that most tourists do not get to sample on other, typical group tours. Signature experiences are designed to give a hands-on familiarity and understanding of a region, so that an Insight guest is an active participant in a country's culture, not merely an observer. Additionally, Insight offers an early-payment fee reduction and a discounted plan for solo travelers.