The Amex Centurion Lounge in Miami- a worthwhile detour!

The Amex Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport
The Amex Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport

I booked a flight from New York City to the Bahamas. I could have booked a direct flight, but I purposely scheduled a five hour stopover in Miami so that I could experience the new Amex Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport. For years, Amex had been dependent upon their partner airlines for lounge access, but after Continental Airlines(now United) terminated access for Amex cardholders, Amex started building their own Amex branded lounges. There are currently Amex Centurion airport lounges in New York (Laguardia), Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, with more to come!

I landed in Miami and quickly entered the lounge. Lounge access is free for Amex Centurion and Platinum Card holders along with 2 guests or their spouse and children under 18 years old. Other Amex card holders can access the lounge (space permitting) by paying $50. The lounge is modern, spacious and comfortable, with ample seating.

The main seating area
The main seating area

In addition to the main seating area, there are 2 or 3 smaller seating areas, one of which is my favorite, since it is more quiet and private.

One of the great things about the lounge is the gourmet food and drink selection. The menu is prepared by the famous Miami based chef, Michelle Bernstein, an expert in Latino inspired dishes. There is also a full bar with free premium alcohol and signature cocktails. I chose the chimuchurri grilled chicken and roasted squash.

Chimuchurri Grilled Chicken with squash
Chimuchurri Grilled Chicken with squash

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They also had a delicious looking polenta dish.

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I did however try the delicious salad.

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Watermelon, greek salad, arugula, feta and cucumbers-the sweet, tart and salty flavor contrasts was just amazing.

All this eating made me thirsty so I always kept the bar in sight!

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Dessert was a hard cchoice-Michy’s bread pudding or those warm, gooey macadamia nut cookies-so I did the only fair thing-I had both!

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And dessert was followed by a cappuccino.

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The lounge was a great place for watching the planes take off due to the large floor to ceiling windows.

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The high point of the lounge, however, was its Exhale Spa, which offers complimentary 15 minute neck and back massages and manicures. It is by appointment and the ability to book one (or more) appointments depends on what time you get to the lounge and how long you will be there. Upon entering the lounge at 1:00pm the lounge was rather empty, so I had a back and neck massage at 1:30pm. When I finished the massage at 1:45pm, I immediately booked the men’s manicure for 2:30pm. Both the massage and manicure were great and relaxing!

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So true!
So true!

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Manicure station
Manicure station

Amex did a great thing by building their own airport lounges. Besides the obvious branding benefits, they can no longer be held captive by partner airlines. I spent a great afternoon at the Amex Centurion Lounge in Miami- great food, great drinks and great spa treatments. So when you are flying close to Miami, this lounge makes a worthwhile detour!

 

Lord I was born a Rambla man!

La Boqueria market on La Rambla, Barcelona
La Boqueria market on La Rambla, Barcelona

Every big city has its touristy shopping street. New York has Fifth Avenue. Miami Beach has Collins Avenue. Rio de Janeiro has Avenida Atlantica. Barcelona has La Rambla. La Rambla stretches for about one and a half kilometers. It has a main pedestrian area in the middle flanked on each end by a narrow car lane, which are in turn bordered by narrow sidewalks.

La Rambla central pedestrian area
La Rambla central pedestrian area

La Rambla has many cafes, restaurants and kiosks selling all types of food, drinks and souvenirs. Barcelona’s main public market, La Boqueria, is also on la Rambla. La Boqueria has been on la Rambla since the 13th century and in its current location since the 19th century. But one thing has not changed-the quality of foodstuff available in la Boqueria. Try to quickly walk through the front of the market which is a dizzying array of stalls selling fruit on sticks and fruit juices (known in Barcelona as “zumos”). As you walk further through la Boqueria, you will get to the stalls selling dried fruit and nuts, cheese, meat, fresh fish and seafood.

Jamon Iberico and sausages
Jamon Iberico and chorizo
Dried fruit and nuts
Dried fruit and nuts
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Fudge and nuts
Delicious cherries
Delicious cherries
Juicy melons and watermelon
Juicy melons and watermelon
Fresh peppers and spices
Fresh peppers, garlic and spices

Among the stalls are small cafes where you can try the “plato” (special of the day), eat a ham (jamon iberico) and cheese sandwich or drink a delicious espresso. Many of the locals have their favorite stalls, so make a friend and get insider info on where to get the best of everything at la Boqueria! Aside from the delicious food, la Boqueria is a cultural and historic landmark in Barcelona and is a “must see” and a walk on la Rambla is a “must do.”

And on the day I visited la Boqueria and walked on la Rambla, I had an additional “must do” experience- on the way home, we stopped at Montjuic. Montjuic (literally mountain of the Jews) is a mountain right on the outskirts of Barcelona where one gets a different perspective and view of this great city!

View of Barcelona from Montjuic (you can even see la Sagrada Familia)
View of Barcelona from Montjuic (you can even see la Sagrada Familia on the left!)
View of Barcelona's port from Montjuic
View of Barcelona’s port from Montjuic

 

 

A Most Beautiful Madonna

The Black Madonna aka "La Moreneta"
The Black Madonna aka “La Moreneta”

About 45 minutes outside of Barcelona lies the Montserrat Mountain. On top of this mountain you can find the Benedictine monastery and a Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Montserrat, one of the patron saints of Catalonia. In the front of the church, a shrine was built on an elevated platform behind the altar. The statue of the Black Madonna aka “La Moreneta” is venerated at this shrine.

But getting to the shrine is half the fun. You can either drive or take the cable car from the base of the mountain (my recommendation) to reach the shrine. The ride on the cable car up the mountain is an exciting, yet short (10 minute) ride.

The cable car terminal at the base of the mountain
The cable car terminal at the base of the mountain
The Santa Maria de Montserrat church, shrine and monastery are on top of the mountain
The Santa Maria de Montserrat church, shrine and monastery are on top of the mountain
Almost there
We start our ascent up the mountain
Almost there
Almost there!

After a couple of jerky movements and getting really close to the rocks, our exciting ride ends. When we disembark the cable car, we are greeted by what looks like a quaint, little town. In reality it is a monastery, church and shrine. There is a fairly large cafeteria, gift shop and tourist information center also.

The monastery and church
The monastery and church
Entering the plaza in front of the church
Entering the plaza in front of the church
One of the resident monks
One of the resident monks
A beautiful window to the world outside the plaza
A beautiful window to the world outside the plaza
A crusader guards the plaza since the 11th century
A crusader guards the plaza since the 11th century
In the entry way before the atrium there are many statues, sculptures, monuments and beautifully carved and elaborately decorated doors
In the entry way before the atrium there are many statues, sculptures, monuments and beautifully carved and elaborately decorated doors

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Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus aka Jesuits
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus aka Jesuits

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After leaving the entry way, one enters the atrium.

Atrium
Atrium

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From the atrium you can see the  church’s facade.

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The church inside is quaint and beautifully decorated

The Church
The church
The altar
The altar

Behind the altar is a covered stairway to reach the shrine of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat.

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There is a beautiful, frescoed ceiling in the room before entering the shrine.

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After walking up a few more stairs you reach the main attraction, the statue of the Black Madonna aka “La Moreneta”.

La Moreneta
La Moreneta

Each visitor can stand before the Madonna and say a prayer or simply look at the beautiful statue. After leaving the shrine, one enters an open area with sections of candles where you can make an offering if you wish.

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There are many prayers and inscriptions in the Catalan language on wall tiles.

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The Catalan language is the language of Barcelona as well as the Balearic Islands (Ibiza), the micro state of Andorra, parts of France, Sardinia and even mainland Italy. It has many similarities to Italian, French, and Portuguese and seems much closer to Latin than any of the other romance languages.

After exiting the area with the candles, the view of the plaza and surrounding area is equally as nice as when you enter.

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After exiting the plaza, you can marvel again at the view of and from the mountain.

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The original hermitage built by monks on the mountain
The original shrine built by monks on the mountain
A cross on top of the mountain
A cross on top of the mountain
The "finger of God"
The “finger of God”
A long way down!
A long way down!

Since we came up the mountain in the cable car, we decided to drive back down to get a different perspective.

Passing St. Benedict's convent on the way down the mountain
Passing St. Benedict’s convent on the way down the mountain

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The day trip to Montserrat was one of the highlights of my trip to Barcelona (and this is a great compliment if you know this city!) And without a doubt, La Moreneta was much more beautiful and awe inspiring than any earthly Madonna!

Gaudí was not gaudy…..he was a genius!

Interior of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia
Interior of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia

Antoni Gaudí was a Spanish architect from Catalonia, whose work was the epitome of the Modernist style. Having been referred to as the “Dante of architecture”, he was undoubtedly one of the top architects of the 19th and 20th centuries. For those lucky enough to be in Barcelona, many of his works are located there, seven of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. I didn’t have much time so I decided to visit 2 of his works, The Sagrada Familia Church and the Casa Batlló. One religious work and another non-religious one, but the essence of Gaudí clearly shone through in both.

The Sagrada Familia Church is Gaudí’s signature work; one which he started in 1882 and worked on throughout his whole life. The Church has still not been finished but with government and private forces working together  (for once) the schedule of 2027 for completion may come a lot sooner. Look at the pictures and notice the similarities of trees and the forest:

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Casa Batlló is a house Gaudí built for the Batlló family, the head of which was one of Gaudí’s chief patrons. The house is a whimsical, colorful maze of everything but straight lines. There was both a nautical as well as anatomical theme, hence the nickname “house of bones”:

Casa Batlló
Casa Batlló

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De Falamos a Hablamos ….a Barcelona Vamos!!!

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From Lisbon, I took a short flight to Madrid and then connected to an even shorter one hour flight to Barcelona. It is here in Barcelona that I will make my home for the next week or two. Barcelona is a great city. I call it a “small, big city” because it has everything you want (even more) yet it is only about 55 square kilometers (about the size of Washington D.C.) Yet there are about 1.7M people within the city limits-hence “small, big city”. It is very cosmopolitan, with people and foods from all around the world. It is also unique in that there are beaches inside the city (in how many big cities can you find that?) Finally, the climate is near perfect as Barcelona is nestled between the Mediterranean Sea in front of it and the mountains behind it.

The first question-where to stay? Many want to stay on or very near to the world famous shopping street “Las Ramblas”. I prefer not to be swept up in a tidal wave of tourists every time I exit the hotel, so I opted for the Hilton Diagonal Mar hotel, close to the action (10 minutes by taxi), yet not in the action. This is sort of akin to going to Miami Beach and staying in South Beach or staying in Bal Harbour and getting quickly to South Beach whenever you wished to go there.

Hilton Diagonal Mar, Barcelona
Hilton Diagonal Mar, Barcelona

The Hilton Diagonal Mar is a beautiful hotel. It is about a one block walk to the beach. It has a really nice executive club lounge with a beautiful outdoor terrace on the 15th floor and a rooftop pool and restsurant on the 3rd floor.

Hilton Executive Club Lounge outdoor terrace
Hilton Executive Club Lounge outdoor terrace

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View of Barcelona from the Executive Club Lounge
View of Barcelona from the Executive Club Lounge
View of the beach from the Executive Club Lounge
View of the beach from the Executive Club Lounge

The Executive Club Lounge is a nice refuge from the busy hotel. They serve breakfast between 7am and 10am, snacks between 11am and 6pm and then open bar and hors d’oeuvres between 6pm and 8pm. As an added benefit for Hilton Diamond members, I can eat breakfast in the downstairs restaurant if I want (mas Jamón Serrano Pata Negra, por favor)

Keep the jamón serrano and chorizo coming please!
Keep the jamón serrano and chorizo coming please!
Barcelona breakfast of champions (desayuno de campeones)
Barcelona breakfast of champions (desayuno de campeones)

Speaking of the pool area, it takes up nearly the whole second floor area of the hotel (besides a 24 hour gym). And apart from the hotel guests’ use of the pool, the Hilton partners with Puro Beach Club to open the pool to outsiders and throws weekend pool parties  (like the Nikki Beach club concept which also does this in  chic areas around the world.)

View of the pool from the Executive Club Lounge
View of the pool from the Executive Club Lounge
Getting ready for the Puro Beach pool party sponsored by Moet et Chandon
Getting ready for the Puro Beach pool party sponsored by Moet et Chandon

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And just in case you forgot something at home (adaptor, bathing suit, flip flops, favorite Dunkin Donuts coffee, slice of pizza) directly across the street from the hotel is the Diagonal Mar Mall, the largest in Barcelona.

Diagonal Mar Mall
Diagonal Mar Mall

For all these reasons, the Hilton Diagonal Mar is a great place to hang your hat when in Barcelona!

 

O little town of…….Belém

Torre de Belém

    Torre de Belém

Lisbon is divided into frequesias or civil parishes. Belém is one of these freguesias. Only about 10 minutes outside of the Lisbon city center, Belém contains a great amount of important historical sites within very close walking distance of one another. One of these is the Torre de Belém. Translated as Bethlehem Tower, it was once an important part of the defense of the port of Belém against enemy invaders. Across the road from the Torre de Belém is O Mosteiro do Jerónimos (St. Jerome’s Monastery).  The monastery/church is a Unesco World Heritage site. It was built by King Manuel I of Portugal in the early 16th century with money from all of Portugal’s colonies in the New World.

St. Jerome's Monastery
St. Jerome’s Monastery

A short walk from the Torre de Belém is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos  (Discovery Monument). This was built to celebrate the history of the Portuguese as explorers.

Discovery Monument
Discovery Monument

On the same site as the Discovery Monument is a beautiful tiled world map in the center of the plaza.

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Looking at the map it is incredible that Portugal was (and still is) a very small country, yet it once controlled a large part of the world (Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tomé and Principe, Guinea Bissau, Goa, Macau, Morocco, Oman,Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Zanzibar, Ceylon, Malaccas etc.)

Finally, there is the Gago Coutinho Biplane Seaplane monument.

Gago Coutinho Biplane Seaplane monument
Gago Coutinho Biplane Seaplane monument

This monument celebrates the first trans south atlantic crossing in 1922 by the Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Cabral. They started in Lisbon, Portugal and finished in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although this was 3 years after the first non-stop transatlantic crossing (Newfoundland, Canada to Dublin, Ireland) by 2 British aviators, it was still important as having pioneered the use of artificial horizon.

Belém is full of Lisbon’s historical sites, all of which are extremely close to each other and is only a short hop from Lisbon’s city center. For this reason it can easily be done in a half day.

Cascais, Portugal…a Day by the Sea

Cabo da Roca, Cascais, Portugal
Cabo da Roca, Cascais, Portugal

City (check). Mountains (check). Was I forgetting something? Ah yes, the sea! With that mind, I set out to visit Cascais, a lovely town by the ocean. Only a 45 minute drive from Lisbon, Cascais is a very easy day trip. As I left Lisbon and got nearer Cascais, I could sense the salty smell of the sea in the air as the landscape opened up to a wide expanse of beach and water.

 

Guincho beach, Cascais
Guincho beach, Cascais

The first thing I did in Cascais was go up the mountain you see in the background to see Cabo da Roca, continental Europe’s westernmost point. The view is incredible!

Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca

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A monument marks the spot...
A monument marks the spot…
...of Europe's westernmost point!
…of Europe’s westernmost point!

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Boy did all that climbing get me hungry (or was it the salty air?). Whatever! Back down the mountain I went to eat lunch. And where there is sea….there is seafood! And I found the perfect restaurant next to the ocean on Guincho Beach-As Furnas do Guincho.

As Furnas do Guincho restaurant
As Furnas do Guincho restaurant

Not only does this restaurant have incredibly delicious seafood (and meat also!) but you can hear and watch the waves crashing the shore right from your table!

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And the food, you ask? Oh, the food! Arroz de marisco?

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Sure, I’d love some of that!

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Gambas served over white rice with fresh mushroons and champignon sauce? Uh, I’d like some of that too.

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After a fantastic meal, I set off to explore some more. I drove along the beach until I came to Boca da Inferno (Hell’s Mouth-great names they have here in Portugal by the way!) Boca da Inferno is a chasm in the seaside cliffs where the sea enters and crashes against the caves.

Boca da Inferno
Boca da Inferno

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Did I ever tell you that it is a sin to not eat dessert in Portugal? Off I went! And who would ever think that the best ice cream in Cascais, Portugal is made by… an Italian?

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One long line and 3 delicious scoops later, I was very happy!

Blackberry/Raspberry, Moka and Almond Turron
Blackberry/Raspberry, Moka and Almond Turron

I left the Cascais town center and took the road along the beach back to Lisbon. Along the way, I passed many seaside towns with beautiful beaches!

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Town of Estoril
Town of Estoril

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The town of Carcavelos
The town of Carcavelos

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A day trip to Sintra and the Palacio da Pena

Palacio da Pena
Palacio da Pena

After exploring the lovely, historic city of Lisbon for a few days, it was time to get out of the city. A quick 45 minute trip by train, car or bus is the small town of Sintra. Sintra is small and quiet (when the hordes of tourists are not there) and is located among forests and mountains, giving it a cool breeze (and with it lots of Portuguese escaping the summer heat of Lisbon). It is most famous for its landmark, the “Palacio da Pena” (the Palace of Sorrows). This castle, sits atop one of the Sintra Mountains and is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal (thus the hordes of tourists). Originally built as a chapel to Our Lady of Sorrow in the 15th century (because an apparition of the Virgin Mary is alleged to have occurred here) and later as a monastery, it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century and later rebuilt by King Ferdinand II and his wife, Queen Maria II in the 19th century and used as a summer palace. It is multi-colored and a mix of architectural styles from the Gothic to Renaissance, Romantic and even incorporates elements of Islamic architecture. The Palacio da Pena is one of the “must see” things in Portugal. Enjoy the pictures!

The Municipal Building of Sintra in the valley before going up the mountain to the Palacio da Pena
The Municipal Building of Sintra in the valley before going up the mountain to the Palacio da Pena
One of the palace's entrances incorporating Islamic architectural elements
One of the palace’s entrances incorporating Islamic architectural elements

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The view from the Palacio da Pena
The view from the Palacio da Pena
The Palace has many colirful, beautifully designed entrances.
The Palace has many colorful, beautifully designed entrances.
The altar in the palace's chapel
The altar in the palace’s chapel
Beautiful stained glass windows in the palace's chapel
Beautiful stained glass windows in the palace’s chapel
Another view from the palace
Another view from the palace

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Where to eat in Portugal? (Hint: anywhere)

Bife na pedra (Beef cooked on a stone)
Bife na pedra (Beef cooked on a stone)

Many European countries have great food (Italy, France and Spain, we are all familiar with). That said, in Portugal you will probably never have a bad meal-the food is that good. Freshly caught fish, well seasoned meats, fresh fish and vegetables, homemade bread, delicious desserts and great coffee-this is Portugal’s food scene and it can be found anywhere, from the elegant 5* restaurant to the small cafe on the corner. Portuguese people are serious about their food and take great pride in it.

I had one such experience at a restaurant called Cave Real (Royal Cave).

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Situated in the Saldanha district of Lisbon, the small family run restaurant has an entrance five steps below street level and it looks like you are going down into a cave.

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That is, until you enter and see the cozy dining room.

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The owner himself  will take your order. He will start you off with some fresh cheese, olives and bread.

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He will offer you different wines before, during and after dinner and the restaurant has an ample supply (and these were just the bottles next to my table!)

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One of the specialties of the house is Bife na Pedra (Beef cooked on a stone). First, a stone slab is heated in the oven at several hundred degrees and then brought to your table with a nice uncooked steak on it. The steak has garlic, salt and pepper for seasoning and other seasonings are placed on the side to use if you wish. You will then cook the steak on the stone.

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Next, you will brown the steak on both sides.

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You will then cut the steak and finish cooking it on the inside to your liking.

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For the meat eater-absolutely mouth watering!

Another special is Arroz rico a Garoupa (Portugues seafood rice) in this case made with fresh grouper. It is served in an iron pot with shrimp and rice cooked with the fish. It is almost like a risotto and is also delicious.

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The typical fried potatoes and spinach are served on the side.

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The meal was excellent! I did not eat dessert at Cave Real because one of the restaurant workers at my hotel said they were serving the famous pasteis de nata (Portuguese egg tart) in the executive lounge in the evening.  This was too hard to pass up and was definitely worth it.

Pasteis de nata
Pasteis de nata

 

 

Tram #28- One of the best ways to get a quick tour of Lisbon!

Tram #28
Tram #28

Just to get my feet wet in a new city, I like to get a quick view of the different areas, so I know where I would like to spend some time. Luckily, Lisbon is a smaller city and even better they have Tram #28, a streetcar which passes through most of the main sections of the city (Alfama, Baixa, Bairro Alto, to name a few). So I decided to take a ride. But first I needed my Portuguese breakfast of champions to give me energy for my trip- and a delicious breakfast it was!

The "pequeno almoço" is not so pequeno!
The “pequeno almoço” is not so pequeno!

I picked up Tram #28 at Martim Muñiz square, a short 5 Euro cab ride away. There was about a 45 minute wait for a tram (there are a few) and at less than 6 Euros for a round trip,  the price was more than right.

I got a nice window seat, which is necessary if you want to take photos (and you will!)

The interior of Tram # 28
The interior of Tram # 28

The tram only sits about 13 (thus the wait). You can stand, but mostly the locals do this-after all, they have to get to work and school, not to sightsee.

I would recommend Tram #28 to anyone who wants to get a quick view of Portugal. It is about a 40 minute ride each way, cheap and you will see most of the important sights. And you can hop off, when you get to an area you want to explore further (I did not).

Enjoy the pictures! Not bad for having taken them from my window seat on the tram (just goes to show you how beautiful of  a city is Lisbon!)

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