From an architectural perspective, the city is charming but not grand or anything like other capital cities of Europe. I wondered about this and soon discovered why. Apparently, the people of Lisbon have been humbled by the forces of mother nature. It seems wherever you go, you hear about the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755. It comes up in every conversation about the city. Evidently, this natural disaster knocked a proud capital off its pedestal which they never reclaimed in the competitive game of world capitals. Nevertheless, it may have left a more livable city it some ways as the streets are not designed around cars or big public parades, but rather for walking. In fact, I was charmed by sidewalks. Strange it may sound, they are beautifully different from anywhere else. The tiles, appropriately called Portuguese pavement or calcada portuguesa, come in many mosaic patterns. One can find these tiles everywhere on the streets of central Lisbon in an incredible variety of artistic patterns.
Accommodations: we stayed at the Pousada de Lisboa for four nights. I must say it has the best location of any hotel in Lisbon. It’s smack in the middle of the historic center close to everything by foot. The hotel was a former government ministry, so the hallways are grand, the walls thick which make for a luxe quiet interior. Here’s what I liked best about the property besides the location; quiet, friendly service, clean and peaceful room décor, generous buffet breakfast. Here’s what I disliked, poor room lighting (too much use of pin spot-lights, step in tub-showers that require acrobatic footing, hair dryers that barely blow and a steakhouse restaurant in a city known for fantastic fish. Overall, still a great hotel and good value.
Tours: we arranged a 4-hour city tour with a driver guide to get a feel for how the city is laid out that included a coffee break at the famous Pastéis de Belem for their famous custard mini-pies. These are so delicious that you could eat a dozen on the spot. We also arranged for a full-day driver and guide to go to Sintra and Cascais. Loved Sintra’s castle, although the day we were there is rained so we were not able to take in the gorgeous gardens that surround the palace. We also visited the most western spot in Europe, which to be honest, is not so overwhelming, but had to do it for the photo album. In this region there are other historic castles to visit. I wish we had more time to explore as the architecture and settings are different than from the castles you find in northern Europe.
Culinary: We had only wonderful meals in Lisbon. Our fist dinner was at Clube de Joranlistas. A family run restaurant with super fresh clean food that was very reasonable. It was like being in a private home. The service and food were elegant but casual. We also stopped at the Time Out Mercado for lunch and found it fascinating but too crowded, and difficult to find a table. Nevertheless, I still recommend it as a place to visit, it’s full of life. Our colleague arranged dinner one night at Lisboete. One word here, Wow! This small family run restaurant features fresh fish and is prepared by a Parisian chef who knows what he’s doing. We had a pre-fix 6 course dinner for 40 euros each that was beautifully presented and prepared. A real pleasant surprise and the wine list equally good and value priced. Of course, we could not visit Lisbon without dinner and a Fado show. We went to Ofaia and loved it. Food was excellent, and the show was beautiful, each skilled performer sang without amplification and, yet it was still crystal clear. I wish I understood Portuguese, I bet there was mention of the 1755 earthquake in one of those songs.
Departing Lisbon to Paris we arrived at the beautiful Grand Hotel du Palais Royal. We were upgraded to a Junior Suite and the staff are the best you’ll find anywhere. The welcome makes you feel like a VIP, they know not to lose you at the first moment of truth. One of the hotel managers magically appeared from behind a curtain to escort us to our room where they went through all the features and services. No attitude, just first class, professional care. If location is important to you, then you can’t find a better one. Classic, quiet, civilized and understated chic while just two blocks in from the Rue de Ravoli and adjacent to the Palais Royal.
Tours: We arranged for a full-day tour to Reims (Champagne region). It’s an easy 45 min train ride from Paris, Gard d’Este to Reims where we met our tour guide / driver. He was the perfect guide for us who kept the pace and conversation moving without getting bogged down with too much history and facts, but enough to keep us engaged and to test our knowledge. First stop, a small champagne producer. What a treat to meet the wife and husband team who have been producing champagne for generations. We were given a tour into their caves and the bottling room with all the details of the process. Then, we were treated with a tasting of the final product in their home. Fantastic! We got to meet the real people with life stories. These folks were not suits, they were dressed in their working clothes and did not use a iPad to present their product. After a visit to Dom Perignon’s tomb and lunch in Epernay we were off to a big-name producer, Veuve Clicquot. Like all the big champagne houses, the staff are dressed in uniforms, carry iPads and have well prepared presentations. While the tours are professional, they are somewhat characterless like the many bottles resting quietly in the caves. The caves in fact are the most interesting part of the tour. Originally created from chalk mines, the discovery for storing wine came later. The shape of the caves reminds me of an underground pyramid connected by large tunnels with chalk walls covered in a wet velvet. At the end of the tour, we had some time in Reims to visit the cathedral, it just so happened they were presenting a laser light show choreographed to music onto the front façade of the cathedral. It was a spectacle that the French are so good at. What a treat, these are some of the benefits of traveling off season. You get to see things that are designed for the locals to enjoy and it was free. Granted, the week before Christmas might have been better, as there were lots of locals off enjoying the holidays between Christmas and New Year’s.
Culinary: I’m going to skip to the piece de resistance, we had booked a table at the Jules Verne for lunch on New Year’s Eve. What a treat, from the walk from our hotel to the Eiffel Tower to the grand meal, service and view. If there is one place to go during your lifetime for a memorable meal, then this is it. The whole experience is magical. From the ascension to the second etage, to the welcome, to the place settings and finally to the glorious food and wine. Our reservation was at 12:30 pm we left around 4:00 pm and we enjoyed every moment, including a step outside to the windswept balcony. After a leisurely stroll back to our hotel along the River Seine, we needed a nap before New Year’s Eve dinner. Yes, you heard right, more food and wine. Since we had an early pick-up in the morning to the airport, we opted for a simple pre-fix dinner at a nearby restaurant Les Fines Gueules.
While in Paris we had several other meals besides those on New Year’ Eve. Below are some with comments.
Brasserie Vagenende – This lively, colorful brasserie was perfect. Packed with both locals and tourists, we made new friends on either side of our table. Food was delicious too, I had the sole Meunier and my husband had rack of lamb, just what you expect from a brasserie and a good value too.
Allard – I had high hopes for a true authentic Parisian dining experience. You would too after reading up on its history and evolution. However, what a disappointment. While the room was charming, the seating uncomfortable. The banquet seats barely cover your bum and you must sit straight up. Yet, this was the least of the problems. The food, was the biggest disappointment. We both had the duck as it is their signature dish. It was so dry and over cooked, we had to order more wine to swallow it. I’m not French and I think the French tend to under cook their fowl. So, they must be catering to foreigners, this explains why there wasn’t a single French person in the place, other than the servers. Even the signature desert, a rum savarin cake was dry and as thinner than a piece of toast. The only thing that was fat was the check. My advice, stay away.