Your Vacation in Lights: A reader's trip to Lisbon

On a day trip to Sintra, the author snapped this view of the National Palace, much of which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries.
On a day trip to Sintra, the author snapped this view of the National Palace, much of which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. (Winifred Scheffler)
Friday, July 30, 2010; 1:48 PM

Winifred Scheffler of Arlington is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured; in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of your fellow readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

The trip: Lisbon.

Who: A 77-year-old who is learning to live with sciatica following an osteoporotic vertebral fracture last year.

Why: I wanted to see and feel the geography of two of my favorite authors, Jose Saramago and Antonio Antunes.

When: I found a two-week window in late March that fit with Lisbon's spring weather. Quick decision!

Preparation: None to speak of, except last-minute reservations on Air France out of Washington Dulles and a room in a pensione recommended on the Internet. Also, a pre-trip coffee date with a friend once posted in Lisbon.

Packing: Two pairs of pants, one skirt, tops. I don't do heavy.

Fear of flying: I admit it, so please spare me the statistics. But the flight to Paris, where I changed planes, passed like a flash, thanks to a long conversation with a young Greek American restaurateur from Delaware on his way to Greece to get married. Then I immersed myself in the Spanish translation of Saramago's "All the Names." I didn't want to look like an old lady desperate for conversation.

Are you my hotel? An information clerk at the airport had circled my trolley stop on a city map but accidentally kept my pensione confirmation, the only document I had showing the name of the place. I got off the bus at Rossio station, and as my gaze wandered around the busy square, I saw the words "Pensao Geres" on a weathered building. The name rang a bell. I trundled my bag across the square and climbed several flights to the reception desk. A few more flights and I reached a tiny but spotless room, with gauzy white curtains that billowed from an open balcony window. Clean sheets, a shower, a teeny television perched atop a wardrobe: What more did I need?

Tour time: I signed up for an all-day trip to the Pena Palace above the hillside town of Sintra, with stops at the resort town of Cascais and at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of mainland Europe. For Lisbon sightseeing, I joined walking tours that left daily from Rossio Square, in addition to an open-topped bus tour.

A princess of a guide: Our guide at the Pena Palace, a romantic folly built on the remains of a 16th-century monastery, was a multilingual Mary Poppins, dressed in a flowing cape and sensible shoes. As we threaded through narrow passages, she kept our group together. Raising her furled umbrella with authority, she announced to any interlopers the first words I learned in Portuguese: "Delante de mi, no pasaras" ("No one gets ahead of me").

Food journal: The food got better as I better understood the menus. At first, there were a few bloopers: a hot dog wrapped in pastry for breakfast (I thought it was a chocolate croissant), codfish hash (I thought I'd ordered it braised) and trout whose bones I couldn't pick while the poor creature's eyes were focused on me. Luckily, the waiter understood my gestures and brought it back beheaded. Several streets above the central plaza in Sintra, I found the Tacho Real restaurant, where, to the gentle strumming of a guitar, I enjoyed a salmon entree cooked to perfection.

Cafe culture: Post offices, train stations and government office buildings all have coffee shops, so you can sip an espresso while you wait your turn to buy stamps, a train ticket, etc. At one spot, I discovered the Obama, an orange/banana/mango smoothie.

City moves: A high point was the Alfama, the old Moorish quarter with narrow, cobbled streets festooned with colorful laundry, blue-tile pictures identifying community bathhouses and tiny restaurants where fado artists first audition. I couldn't imagine wending my way alone through those dark tunnels at night. Fortunately, I discovered live fado performances at an auditorium in the nearby Chiado neighborhood. I was able to enjoy the music live and buy my only souvenir from the trip, an Amalia Rodrigues CD.

The language unspoken: Speaking Spanish does not endear you to the locals. At best, they may consider you geographically impaired. At worst, they may be reminded that Spain's domination doomed their empire. (Okay, my history is weak and my proud walking tour guide was a vehement nationalist.) So I mostly relied on plain old English.

Lisbon, the novel: It was a liberating trip, because I momentarily conquered the creeping timidity that seems to accompany aging. But that wasn't all. I belong to a writers group and have been uninspired for some time. One night at Pensao Geres, I imagined two characters who kept me awake with their story. I transcribed their "tale" and titled it "Love and Death in Lisbon."

Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report each month. To submit, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own), and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail

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