Our latest Viking Voyage (we go on our 6th trip with them this year) was absolutely wonderful. With a 2-day pre-extension in Lisbon (and a 2-day post on our own in Lisbon), we ended up spending 6 phenomenal days in one of my new favorite cities on the planet. Lisbon is gorgeous, very compact and highly accessible. Don't even think about going unless you book the Lisbon pre-extension. And whatever you do, don't miss the Taste of Lisbon optional excursion.
The river part of our serene journey started on September 6, 2016 on the Viking (baby longship) Osfrid. While I will tell you many ways the whole trip could have been better still, my five star rating stands. Overall, we had an absolutely fantastic time. And, man oh man, did I get some great pictures. Portugal is one very picturesque country. (Photography and traveling are my hobbies. You can see my best pictures from our recent vacations here: www.RhodesVacations.com)
LISBON PART OF TRIP
From the time we got to the lovely Tivoli Hotel, we were already having a great time. The hotel has much to recommend it. When you go to breakfast (a large buffet in a beautiful room full of rich wood paneling and large picture windows), be sure and get a table that looks out onto the Avenida in front of the hotel. This is one of the most tranquil streets I've ever seen. With a very wide central pedestrian median that goes on for at least a mile, it is lined with huge trees hundreds of years old and has large walkways made of colorful stones set in mosaic patterns. I could spend days sitting on one of its park benches. So relaxing. But I digress. Back to the hotel. One final note, be sure and go up to the bar area on top of the hotel at night. It’s a hopping scene with great mood lighting and music. Half of the young adults in Lisbon seem to be there. But, most of all, it has great views of Lisbon's lights at night from the top. Be sure and take your camera when you go up to it.
We had such a fabulous time in the endlessly charming Lisbon that it's hard to list everything we did, so I'll just stick to some of our favorites. We heard a lot of excellent fado music (something I didn't even think I would like), but none was better than the performance we got during the optional Taste of Lisbon excursion that we went on. But more than just the music and the dinner were the acting and dancing on the stage. It was a near perfect evening. My favorite was of one of the leading singers, who was so emotive in her acting and so compelling in her smiles that I couldn't stop trying to capture pictures of her.
The best walking tour of trip was the one of the Bairro Alto in Lisbon, which is part of the pre-extension. In contrast, the tour of the Alfama District of Lisbon, which is part of the regular tour, was good but way too much of it was done on a bus. The Bairro Alto tour was all done on foot, so you really got to see the lovely tiled buildings with their intricate grill work, the enchantingly narrow and colorful streets and the overall charm of the byways of the city. Our Bairro Alto guide was terrific. She realized that the best guides aren't rapid-fire fact machines but entertainers who know how to weave humorous stories and make cute little remarks. Also, the Alfama tour spent time at the Maritime Museum. It's almost always a waste of time when a guided tour includes museum visits.
You will have a fair amount of time on your own in Lisbon, and there is so much to do. Taking one of the fun old trams is a must but follow the Viking guides recommendation, as we did. Don't go on the public trams, which will have you waiting hours to get on and quite likely make you stand for its hour and a half trip. Instead go on one of the private trams, which look exactly the same. While they cost more, they will save you hours of wasted time standing and waiting for the public ones, and they will always have a seat for you once on board. Supposedly too, the public one is frequented by pickpockets. The tram whips around narrow streets and provides a constant steam of great visuals.
Arguably the most stunning site in Lisbon is the Jeronimos Monastery, which should be on your must-see list. Also good is the castle, which, although in ruins, provides breath-taking views of the city since the castle is set high on the hill above the city. The way to get to the castle is with a taxi. Taxis in Lisbon are reasonably priced and easy to hail. The coach museum near the Jeronimos Monastery is well worth a visit. Filled with restored coaches, it really takes you back in time to when traveling was particularly elegant.
One day we hired a private car and driver, which wasn't that expensive, and went to Sintra, most of all to see Pena Palace. A fantastical and ridiculously colorful place, it is a palace as Walt Disney might have imagined one. The town itself too was pretty. Later we went to the westernmost part of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca, and admired its jagged cliffs and crashing surf. An extraordinary day out.
Finally, just walking around Lisbon's various squares and narrow streets provide endless delight. We ended up eating outside several time at LVSO Central Italian Restaurant in Rossio Square. The people watching there is great fun, and the waiters are real charmers and clowns. We always got one of the tables closest to the wide sidewalk. And, while we were in Lisbon during an unseasonable heat wave with temperatures in the upper 90s, the trees, the awnings and the good breezes made for very relaxing and quite comfortable outdoor dining nonetheless.
SHIP PART OF THE TRIP
Of the 13 days we spent in Portugal, 7 of them were on the ship, so let's talk about that part of our adventure. First and foremost, the staff and the people we met on the ship were extremely friendly. Our tour director Elia and our guide Iuri were uniformly terrific. My wife has mobility issues, and Iuri was constantly checking on her as we were walking to make absolutely sure she was always ok. The restaurant staff, which sometimes weren't quite as organized as they should have been, were extremely friendly and hard-working. On land and on the ship, everyone spoke very clear English, and they were able to easily understand a wide variety of accents easily, even my thick Texan. Quite a surprise was that, unlike all of the other Viking cruises we've been on, the captain was around a lot and liked to strike up conversations with the guests. His English too was perfect, and he proved to be a good story teller.
The part of the ship we liked the least was the food, which was at best ok and was the worst of any Viking trip. Ironically, the best food, which was consistently fabulous, was on the Viking Truvor this summer in Russia. The chef on the Truvor is scheduled to move to one of Portugal ships next year. Almost made me wish we'd waited. But, to be honest, we didn't care much for the food off the boat either. The worst meal I got was some inedible cod for lunch in Lisbon.
Being a baby longship, everything was shrunk, but it was a still a longship. On the regular size longships, there are many round tables for six at dinner, so meeting people is easy. The baby longship has many fewer such tables, and they are oblong rather than circular. The problem with an oblong table is that there are almost always 2-3 conversations going on simultaneously while, with round tables, it is usually just one. One conversation makes it a lot more fun and easier to hear people. But the ship did have a very large top deck, which proved to be a great place to gather while cruising and after dinner, when the lights on the hills were truly magical.
And, speaking of magical moments, one of the best occurred the first evening on the ship when, just after dinner, the captain took us on a slow ride up and down Douro River to see the lights of Porto at night. All I can say is WOW!
The Douro River provides endless scenic vistas while cruising. The high hills (or low mountains or whatever you call them) are full of vineyards, olive trees and almond trees. While you are there you live in a blue green world. Lush green hillsides are on your left and right while the rich blue of the sky and river are above and below you. Because of a broken lock on our trip, they had to re-sequence the days, which ended up giving us a full day cruising at the end. This proved to be a blessing, not a curse. Just about everyone spent the day on the top deck enjoying the great views and the lovely weather, which had cooled back into the normally seasonal 80s. We only had one early morning of rain the whole trip, and the rain was gone by the time we left the boat.
Since I've been writing for a while now and still haven't mentioned any of the places we visited from the ship, you might wonder why. It's because this isn't a trip where you go to see a few big sites. It's more one of enjoying the smaller ones. But we did visit some pretty sites during the cruise.
Castelo Rodrigo was fascinating and beautiful. A stunningly pretty little rocky and isolated town set high up on a small mountaintop, it was perhaps the best thing we saw while on the ship part of the trip. I am very glad that I chose the "strenuous" walking tour that day. Very mislabeled, it wasn't even up to a moderate level.
Lamego was a peaceful little town to wander through, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Salamanca was quite pretty, but the included lunch there was almost inedible, and the flamenco dancing we were shown wasn't very good. My wife had suggested we skip the included lunch and flamenco performance and wander around Salamanca instead. Should have taken her advice. Others did this and had a much better time than we did.
One night we had a dinner at old monastery. The setting was lovely and the fado singing was pretty good but not nearly as good as in Lisbon or Coimbra. Actually, the only part of the Coimbra visit I really enjoyed was the excellent fado performance after lunch there.
Some of the places like the inside of the Mateus Palace, the library in Coimbra, the main church in Lamego didn't allow photography even without flash. This is just plain stupid in my opinion. I saw many people ignoring the rule and snapping pictures with their cameras and cell phones.
The low point of the tour was Favaios, where we saw one of the world's smallest and most boring bakeries and visited a not very interesting small museum.
On the optional tour to Guimaraes, the only good part was a brief walk through the streets of the town. There just wasn't much else there other than a very plain castle. Don't waste your money. Stay on the ship and enjoy the cruising instead.
A couple of times after dinner, the crew led us all in a big conga line, which proved to be a whole of fun. What was very disappointing was that there were no team games as entertainment as there have been on every other Viking trip we've taken. For example, in Russia they had a game called Liar. Three members of the staff would give us the definitions and derivations of obscure English words, but only one of them was telling the truth. We divided into small teams to guess who was truthful each time. It was hilarious and marvelous fun.
Internet, internet, internet! Viking, come on. In this day and age, there is no excuse for painfully slow speed internet. The days of dial-up class speeds are so last millennium. Airplanes and other cruise ships are adopting faster technologies and so should you. We ignored this failing by chewing up lots of cellular data at very pricy rates.
We had a terrific time that we will never forget. We are busy having fun now thinking about our 7th (and maybe 8th) Viking trip for 2017. So many places; so little time!
FYI - The regular Veranda rooms on the baby longships that Viking uses in Portugal are much smaller than on the regular longships. While the bathroom is fine, there is no space on either side of the bed for a chair. Because of this, it makes good sense to go for the Veranda Suites, which have lots of room and are extremely well laid out. Couldn't have been more comfortable. LOVED our Veranda Suite!