Saturday, March 21: Sintra, Portugal

The past 24 hours have been terrific. Last night’s dinner was good, but the restaurant made it very special. First, it had two gigantic dark green doors in front, and a small sign with the name, Mesa de Frades. There was no way to open the door, and we stood there for a couple of bewildered minutes. A guy who had been talking on his phone out in the street walked over and showed us a small button to press. Soon, the owner opened the door a slight crack and asked (in Portuguese) whether we had reservations. I said we did and he ushered us in. I felt as though I was in a movie.

It was a tiny, dark place, five small tables against the wall on both sides of the room, each for two people. A few tables were pushed together. The place was ancient and we later found out it had survived the 1755 earthquake. All the tables were full once we sat down and since it was super-small, it seemed packed. The kitchen was at one end, partially exposed. It seemed that the cook was the owner’s wife or girlfriend, and he handled the tables.

Dinner was a set menu (cod fish) because the place is known mainly for its fado performances. Fado is the soul music of Portugal, we learned, and is mostly sad love songs sung with a lot of emotion. The show started at 11:15 and was to have 3 performers. Adding the three guitar players plus a singer to the front of the room by the door was an amazing feat of space utilization. We stayed for the first singer, and she was very good – young, beautiful, and so talented. We were very tired and left at about 12:30. I chatted with the singer outside about how much we enjoyed her performance. “This to me was all no problem,” she said, smiling. I love how some people here string English words together as best they can.

I later learned (from a couple we met on the tram today) that this particular place is the best of its type in Portugal and where the professional fado singers often get their start. It was an extraordinary experience.

This morning we reluctantly left Lisbon and drove an hour to Sintra, a city with beautiful architecture, some castles, and spectacular views. We walked around for a while, then looked for the tram we had read about. Soon, a group of cute, young, uniformed scouts approached us and asked whether we would buy a … pen. I said sure, but we needed directions to the train station. The scouts escorted us the three blocks to the station, chattering in English with us the entire way. They were the real deal: kind, fun, poised, and so polite. When we got there I suggested that we’d buy another pen (each scout had a fistful) but one boy said “We wouldn’t think of it,” so sincerely that I did want to hug him.

We didn’t realize the tram didn’t leave from the train station at all, although when we asked at the Information booth, it sounded as though we were close: go out the door, make a right, then a left… but we didn’t see tram tracks anywhere.

We walked past a museum and decided someone in there could probably direct us. There were three women at the front desk, which had a few people lined up to buy entry tickets. We stood aside for a second, then one of the women asked if we needed help. We mentioned our tram problem. She paused and then said something to the other two women and it looked for a second as though she was going to take us to the front door and point out where we should go.

Even better! Another woman from the counter joined her, and the one who spoke English said “Follow us!” Down some stairs, up a street, around a block, and there we were at the tiny, hidden tram station. With the two museum workers! We thanked them and presumably they headed back to work.

We took the tram ($3) to the end of the line and hung out at the ocean, then had lunch and caught the last one back at 4. We sat with a guy and girl from Lisbon who were amazed we had gotten a table at the fado restaurant last night and who loved hearing about the U.S. We hardly looked out the tram windows to appreciate the rambling beauty of Sintra, one big reason to take the tram in the first place – but that was fine.

We are staying in a very charming old hotel in the center of Sintra tonight, then heading out in the a.m. although we don’t have a solid plan yet. We have reservations in Barcelona for Thursday through Sunday, but are free to motor around until then.
(See photos on post that follows- they wouldn’t upload here)



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