Portugal – Exploring Sintra

Our second day in Portugal, we woke up refreshed and ready to roll.  Our plan for this day was to grab a quick coffee and head to the Rossio Train station, catch the train to Sintra and explore the castles and do some hiking.  Sintra is a quaint and historic little town about 40 miles west of downtown Lisbon, it borders the National Park which contains several Palaces and Castles that have been built over the centuries.

Our first stop was the local coffee and sandwich shop across from the hotel, This is a fantastic place to watch the locals starting about their day.  I’m sure the shop owners see there share of tourist, but we really enjoyed standing at the counter with our Cappuccino and watching the locals come in and order an espresso, slam it down and be on their way in 60 seconds…


The Train ride out to Sintra is a very easy day trip idea, It only cost a few dollars round trip.  The Train winds its way thru the Lisbon suburbs, along the track you will see all the apartment buildings with their laundry drying on the balcony.

After we arrived in Sintra, we had about a 10 minute walk to the center of the village, where we found the dramatic Sintra National Palace.  We chose to skip the tour, since we had a few more castles and palaces to go…  From here the quick hike up to the Castle of the Moors.  From there we continued hiking up to the Pena National Palace, and exploring the grounds – there are many hiking trails, and at the highest point is the Cruz Alta cross.  All of this was a great day trip of hiking and taking in the views.

Sintra National Palace

Pena National Palace

Pena National Palace



Castle of the Moors

Castle of the Moors

Portugal – Exploring Lisbon

It is always hard for me to complain about a flight or Airline when redeeming miles.  However, I spent a lot of miles on this redemption, and the product delivered was ‘not competitive’.  I was genuinely concerned that my American MD80 from AUS->DFW was older than I was.  My Strategy for 2014 had been to build the AA and BA miles balance.  Lets just say that has changed for 2015 & 2016.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m way behind on this miles and points game for frequent flyers.   In the future, I will most likely to stick with Southwest, were the loyalty program is simple to earn and simple to use.

We landed in Madrid at around 9:30 am… after a 9 hour flight from Dallas, I’ve been here before in 2011 or 2012…  “I sure don’t remember it looking like this…”  I think the fields of hay had been harvested, and what was left was the patchwork of brown and tan fields.  MAD is a fairly large airport, and we had about 90 minutes to get to the other terminal to catch our BA flight to Lisbon.  Contrasted with the AA  redemption, this was a great value redemption on BA, it cost me 9000 avios and $45 for both of us to fly one-way MAD->LIS.

Descending into Lisbon, everything was lush and green.  Once we landed in LIS, we opted for the Taxi to get to the Hotel.  I had researched other options like the subway, and Uber… I still have yet to pull the trigger on Uber, but I have read enough to feel comfortable with it.  Last time I did the subway thing, I think my wife was ready to kill me… so I opted for the most convenient option of a Cab.  The cost was around $12-$14.  We got a real dud as a driver, who claimed not to speak any English, that’s ok, we got to our hotel just fine.

The weather forecast turned out great, we had some off and on rain showers our first day in Lisbon, but after that, it was mostly dry and warm during the day, but cool at night.  Our plan A was to spend a few days in Lisbon, and then rent a car and head north to Porto if the weather was good.

We love staying a boutique hotels, there is just something about them that we like.  I had debated about several places, after reviewing TripAdvisor and looking at different areas of town, we settled on 3 nights at the LX Boutique Hotel (www.lxboutiquehotel.com) located in the south-west lower Baixa area very near the river, and close to the historical central area of Lisbon.  This turned out to be a great Hotel, the staff was outstanding, and the restaurant was fantastic.  More on that later.  The Hotel itself is old, but Modern and renovated, with fancy glass walled bathrooms and elaborate room murals.  One of the most impressive things about the hotel was how friendly the staff was, I know this can be an overused term, but everyone we dealt with was super nice, and very welcoming… they demonstrated a sense of pride which reflected in their attitude.  Reception informed us that we should check out the restaurant “welcome hour” at 6pm for a free drink.

At this point we were tired, but excited… our goal was to quickly change clothes and head out to explore.  If we laid down on the bed, we could have easily passed out.   So off we went, generally walking east along the river.  we soon stumbled into a large square, the Praça do Comércio.  At the opposite end is the Ru Augusta Arch which was built in the 1870’s to commemorate the reconstruction of the city after the 1755 earthquake.


Ru Augusta Arch

Continuing east… we wandered thru the small streets and ally’s of the Alfama district, the oldest district of Lisbon.  We made our way up the hill, dodging the quick rain showers, to the Moorish castle, São Jorge Castle.  The views were worth the Hike.


After exploring the Castle, we made our way down into the main shopping area of the city.  As part of my planning, I knew that we would need to get to the Rossio train station to take the train to Sintra the next day, so we walked by it to get an idea of where it was, and how far it was.

Then we found Ru Augusta, which is the main pedestrian street that runs from Rossio Square down to the Ru Augusta Arch.  There are lots of shops and restaurants and people.  The smoke and aroma from the many roasted chestnut vendors lingers thru the streets.  It reminded me of a smaller version of Barcelona’s “La Rambla” with street performers and selfie stick vendors.   By this time, the sun was settling on late afternoon, and our feet were tired, so we decided to stop and try some interesting and delicious Pastel De Bacalhau (codfish cakes) and some white port wine at Casa Portuguesa do.


We made it back to the Hotel in time to check out the Welcome Hour, which is held in the attached sushi restaurant at the Hotel.  It was phenomenal, a small sushi appetizer and a glass of sparkling wine greeted us.  I can’t say enough about the cozy atmosphere and the very nice staff.  We added on to our appetizer with another plate of sushi, and a glass of Portuguese red wine, and called it a night, retiring to our room.  We were exhausted but excited about visiting Sintra the next day, which we wanted to get there fairly early to catch the first train, and hopefully get ahead of most of the tourist.

NEXT – a train tour of the Lisbon suburbs and a full day of hiking in Sintra.

Planning Portugal

If you live in the United States, November – Thanksgiving week can be a good time to travel internationally.  For us, every couple of years Thanksgiving is a window of opportunity to go somewhere.  The family is off doing other things, and a plan comes together to go on a trip.  For this particular thanksgiving, we looked at the calendar, our “vacation” bank and work schedules and figured out we had 9-10 days (S,S,M,T,W,Th,F,S,S,M).

We had considered New Zealand, but looking at flights, it takes two or three days to get there… then adjusting to the time change, would leave us roughly 5 days to see NZ and a day to travel back.  It could be done, but wasn’t ideal… when we researched things that we wanted to do, we realized quickly that this was a place we would want to spend several weeks, and that NZ would have to be another trip another time.  Additionally, we could not find reasonable priced flights or good availability with Miles.  I don’t know if this is most people or not, but when I start dreaming about going somewhere – one of my deciding factors is getting a “good deal” or not… what constitutes a good deal? For some reason, I have thresholds, that I just have a hard time getting past, like paying more than $1000 dollars to fly round trip to Europe seems outrageous.  Maybe I’m off my rocker, I just have a certain propensity to consume..  once something gets too expensive, my desire to consume goes down dramatically.  Anyway, I’m off topic again…

So after the NZ idea became unrealistic, we started researching another idea, Portugal.  I was able to find Flight availability for two using my AA miles, unfortunately it would use up almost all of my 220,000 miles that I had been stockpiling for a big trip.  That is okay really, since I have been planning to purge them all anyway.  AA was showing good availability from AUS->MAD via DFW arriving in MAD around 9:50am.

Planning for the Trip – Usually we spend a few weeks getting ideas about what we want to see, then make a basic outline and timeline of those locations… leaving some options open in case we want to stay longer somewhere or keep exploring.   So the initial plan was to start in Porto (northern city of Portugal), explore that area for a few days, and then head south stopping along the way, and ending in Lisbon.  This would have made the most of our logistics, and timing.  However, I could only find ‘reasonable’ flights from MAD to Porto early Sunday morning which did not work for our inbound flight to MAD… instead of wasting a day in MAD, we decided to just head to Lisbon straight away.   At this time of year, the weather can be tricky, it could be 40 degrees and raining, or it could be 65 and pleasant… So after lining up the flights – our starting point would be Lisbon, and we could either go North toward Porto, or South toward Lagos, and the sunny beaches… we decided this would be a gametime call based on the weather, if it looked okay, we would head north… if miserable, then we would head south.

We planned to arrive in Lisbon Sunday afternoon, check into the hotel, and start exploring… since neither one of us can really sleep on a plane, we have found that usually after an overnight flight to Europe, we do better getting out and walking/exploring, walking some more, and staying awake until later in the evening, when we are exhausted from walking and jet-lagged.  This allows us to crash and wake up at a semi normal time the next day, somewhat adjusted.  This sounds dangerously like a “travel tip” 🙂 …  It works pretty well for us, but makes for a really long day.  Next, the plan was to visit the town of Sintra via local train on Monday since a lot of the tourist sites are closed on Monday.  Then on Tuesday we would explore other areas of Lisbon, like Belem and some of the cool neighborhoods.   If that all worked out, we tentatively planned to check out of Lisbon and rent a car and head to Porto.  Google Maps estimated the Drive at around 2.5 hours via the toll roads, and I thought a “small” deviation thru the Douro Valley would be a good idea.  We hate spending a ton of time driving in the car… From Porto, we would plan to make our way back toward Lisbon, we had our eye on a few villages that we might want to stay in and make day trips from there… but we had no concrete plan, and decided to wait and make the final decision as we went…  Again, one of the benefits of traveling in Europe over the Thanksgiving holidays is generally depending on where you go – you don’t need reservations, and rooms are easy to find.  Having said that I do like to have our first night hotel planned, and our departure night hotel plan figured out.

Having the actual Logistics worked out for getting there and getting back home takes some of the stress off of traveling in general, and makes you look “really smart” in front of your spouse.

  1. I figured out flight timings, including connections, getting from terminal to terminal, and allowing for delays.
  2. I decided the best method to get from Airport to Hotel was a Taxi, Taxi’s are inexpensive in Lisbon.
  3. When is the best time to rent a Car? in this case, you really do not want a car in Lisbon, there is no place to really park it.  So we planned to rent the car when we left Lisbon and headed north.  Turns out Lisbon is very walk-able City.  Public Transport is reasonable.
  4. Staying near the departing airport when we have a early morning return flight, and making sure I understand the logistics involved in getting up and getting to the airport, including baggage was critical in getting home on time, of course we never really wanted to leave Portugal.

NEXT… Arriving in Lisbon – getting to our hotel, exploring that first day to avoid the Jet Lag. walking walking walking.  Finding Bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fish cakes) and white port wine.


LX Boutique and Praca Duque da Terceira

Looking Back on 2015

Looking back over the wing, we traveled a lot more than I remembered during 2015, overall it was a good travel year.  Several work trips factored heavily into this, and an unexpected opportunity to go to Ireland for a wedding and a 24 hour stopover in NYC also helped increase this metric.  However, our big trip this year was Portugal.

British Air 787 Heathrow

British Air 787 @ Heathrow

Trips Taken: 6

  • January – Warsaw/London
  • February – Red River, NM
  • May – Seattle, Washington
  • June – Ireland & stopover in New York City.
  • September – Warsaw/London
  • November – Portugal

Miles Flown: 49,160

Memorable experiences:

  • Exploring Ireland, specifically the towns of Kinsale, Galway and Killarney.
  • Exploring Brighton, England on a very pleasant September day.
  • Exploring the Douro Valley and a fish market in Nazaré, Portugal.
  • Finally experiencing NYC.

Spent(purged) almost all my legacy US carrier miles – So my strategy is changing with regard to collecting Airline miles… like many people, I’m frustrated with American, Delta and United or what many folks consider the Legacy US carriers.  I’m now focusing my loyalty to SouthWest… and other reward type accounts for 2016, a story for another time.

A new wine store opened up near my home, which has allowed me to enjoy some new affordable wines from around the world.  It’s a big chain, but for now, the collection seems to offer some good international varieties.

Sadly, we suffered a few losses in 2015.  It is part of life… but it is never easy, so we celebrate those memories and move forward thankful for our time with them, we raise a toast to them, such that they may not be forgotten.IMG_5503