Friday, October 12, 2007

Lisbon city tour

Day 4 was a busy yet very worthwhile day. We got an early start from Porto and five hours later were checked into the Vila Gale Opera in Lisbon located between the Alcantara and Belem quarters beneath the Ponte 25 Abril bridge. The bridge is a replica of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco and connects Lisbon with Almada across the Tagus River.

The hotel is very nice, but is a bit further away from the city center than most of the tourist hotels. It is however, adjacent to the Congress Center and the Docas - an area of restaurants and night clubs along the river.

While Porto was a small, condensed city, Lisbon immediately gives an impression of being much more metropolitan.

We acclimated ourselves to the city with a 3 1/2-hour tour with CityRama. Our bus of 30 was diverse, and our guide did an incredible job of narrating in four languages. A city tour like this gives a good opportunity to familiarize oneself with a city. You drive by many of the sites, stopping at a few, and you get detailed history and background of everything you see.

Most of our time was spent in Belem, Portuguese for Bethlehem. Our first stop was Monasteiro dos Jeronimos - a monastery began in 1502 and financed by Portugal's explorations and trade with Africa, Asia and South America. Famous explorer Vasco da Gama is entombed there.

Lucky for us, our visit coincided with a national holiday and we were treated to a parade of bands and soldiers on horseback in front of the pink presidential palace right next door.

We continued past the palace to the Museum of Coaches, which houses a collection of 57 coaches more beautiful than Cinderella's. The oldest coach is from the 16th century while others that carried gifts to the Vatican are covered in gold.

Nearby, the Torre de Belem served as a lookout point into the Atlantic to defend the port entrance.

Also in Belem is the Monument of the Discoveries erected in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. Both sides feature seven explorers, each 21 feet high, looking forward over the bow of a boat.

Next we drove to the Alfama quarter, one of the oldest parts of the city especially known for its narrow alleyways and streets. The Moors of the 8th century heavily influenced the layout of the area.

The tour ended at Rossio Square, the city's main square since the middle ages. Lots of people were enjoying a beautiful evening at the many cafes, and the teenagers were skateboarding around the Dom Pedro IV statue.

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