Iberian Impressions

Travels with Peter Wu

The year 2018 would always be special.  It was my first full year of retirement. 

My focus in life shifted from work to travel, and my wife Freda and I made the change with gusto. We did our homework making sure there were no lapses in our daily accommodations, travel arrangements and activities.

After exploring Italy in May, our next destination was the Iberia Peninsula: Portugal and Spain.

I had certain expectations based on my impressions of Macau: Casino Lisboa, Magellan, and C Ronaldo for Portugal; flamingo dancers, bull fights, Columbus, Madrid, and Barcelona (after the 1992 Olympics) for Spain.

Well, nothing is quite what it seems or what you believe it to be.

Part 1: Portugal

If you search for Portugal on Wikipedia, it is described as “a developed country with a high-income advanced economy.” Well, we also found it a relaxing and friendly country. From Lisbon Portela Airport, our taxi arrived at our hotel in less than 15 minutes with no traffic to tackle.

Praca dom Pedro IV serves as Lisbon’s city centre square. Love the purple-flowered trees.


Lisbon was the starting point of our 19-day tour of six Portuguese cities. From Day 1 to the last, the sights and sounds that we experienced were a combination of familiarities and surprises. 

What reshaped my impressions the most were the people we encountered.  “Better to walk a thousand miles than to read ten thousand books” still holds true in this Internet Age.

The main thoroughfare in the Portuguese capital was lined with buildings that were either really old or dated.

Street scene in Lisbon

Our hotel was 20 minutes’ walk to the city centre square but trying to get a quick bite on a Saturday early afternoon was not so easy.  The few cafes we walked by were either closed or unattended.  Finally, we found a bakery that had an eat-in area.

Our first meal in Lisbon

The chicken salad was fresh. While picking on the last few morsels on the plate, I glanced up at the overhead menu behind the counter. The pictures pretty much explained that if ordered as a combo, I could have had a bowl of soup for just an extra 2 euros.

I signalled that to the server (with a smile, of course). She looked at me and up at the menu board, and proceeded to serve me a bowl of soup at no charge. That was totally unexpected.  She made a Portuguese ambassador out of me!

Walking towards the heart of the city, we were struck again by the quietness of the capital.  Travel guides don’t have much to say about Lisbon but the Lisboans aim to showcase the former glory of Portugal and they do have the bragging right to do so.

An open bazaar with Castelo de S. Jorge on top of the hill.
Torre de Belem, a castle that has attracted a line-up of tourists.

It was when we walked from Torre de Belem, a tiny squared castle on Rio Tejo, to the Monument to the Discoveries that we got a better understanding of Portugal’s glorious past.

A local tour guide gave us a history talk while we were standing on a sizable mosaic of a world map showing all the territories once controlled or occupied by Portugal.

Standing on the tiled world map in front of the monument to Portuguese explorers.

The Portuguese were the first to establish a global empire during the Age of Discovery in early 15th century, when European explorers sailed all over the world in search of new lands and trade opportunities.

The well-known figures on the Monument consist of household names such as Vasco da Gama (he discovered the sea route to India), Pedro Cabral (discovered Brazil), Ferdinand Magellan (first to circumnavigate the globe) and Bartolomeu Dias (first to cross over the Cape of Good Hope). 

The most tangible legacy of the Age of Discovery was that this tiny country of 10 million people became a global power that endured for 400 years. By the way, I had to admit I didn’t know the Portuguese were granted a permanent settlement in Macau as early as the 16th century.

Next, we came upon the gems of Lisbon.

Crystal yuyi on intricately carved base at the Gulbenkian Museum.

First up, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum which is named after the Armenian-British billionaire who bequested funds for the founding of the museum in Lisbon to showcase his private art collections. It’s a must-see even for visitors who normally have no interest in museums.

Two thumbs up!

Personally, I think it is the best, bar none. It’s not just that the collections at the Gulbenkian are exquisite and mostly in mint condition but how accessible everything is as well. 

Silver mustard barrel
Dragonfly brooch
Chinese vase at the Gulbenkian Museum
A 12-panel screen in mint condition.

Unlike at The Louvre where you’d be viewing what looks like a postage-stamp-sized Mona Lisa behind Plexiglas from 20 feet away, here you can leisurely zig-zag through each room and spend as much time in front of each art item as you want. 

Oh, yes, there is no need to book online. On the Sunday we were there, entry was free and there was no queue.


Part of Greater Lisbon, Sintra is called the Portuguese Riviera for good reasons.  There was so much to see! We had only a day and a half there so it was really tough to choose among the many palaces, estates, and nature vista points.

Sintra Palace looked plain and the interior gave the impression that the royalties lived quite humbly.

Sintra Palace … really?
The view from the more imposing Pena Palace
Grandest part of the palace.

Just seven minutes’ walk down the street was the much more stately Quinta da Regaleira, a castle-mansion that at one time belonged to a Brazil-born millionaire.

Quinta la Regaleira.
Full of intrigues
Fun and functional use of the natural setting.
The sculptures are symbolic riddles

The main attraction of Sintra, however, is undoubtedly the impressive Pena Palace which is perched whimsically on a steep hill. I never knew such a colourful palace existed! 

Walking up to the entrance of Pena Palace.

It seemed to be held up on the slope by the romantic-looking Pena Park, which we unforunately had no time to explore.

Can’t wait to get back to Pena Park.

The interior decorations and artwork displayed at Pena Palace are more of an expression of personal tastes than anything that was “fit for the kings and queens.”

The artwork on the wall indicates this room is not for receiving dignitaries.
Moorish influence in the decor.
Oriental art work can be found in almost every room.

Aside from the palaces, we also went to Cape Roca, the western-most point in Continental Europe. To one side of the monument marking the spot, we counted 10 tour buses with visitors from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. All Asian tourists. Go figure!

Peter Wu and wife Freda at Cape Roca.

The highlight of the evening before we left for Porto was that I saw this homeless guy in his mid-30s outside a furniture store. Visible inside through the shop window was a living-room display, with the floor lamp turned on right up against the window.  The gentleman, his head rested on his backpack abutting the window under the lamp, slipped gently into his sleeping bag. He then put on his reading glasses and flipped open a paperback.  It was priceless.


Port wine got its name from City of Porto, about a three-hour drive north of Lisbon.

In addition to many kinds of port wine for us to taste, Porto is a beautiful and vibrant city nestled invitingly on bank of Douro River, with the Gaia waterfront on the southside making the scenery complete.

Porto by Duoro River.

The colourful boats on the Duoro River, with wine barrels lining their decks, are advertisements for the many brands of Port wine made in this city.

Waterfront Gaia, where port wines are shipped out to customers around the world.
Murals give life to this multi-storey staircase. Hey, who’s that guy in the corner?
Savoring a glass of white port extra dry. We finished a bottle before we went to Spain.

The mass transit in Porto is fantastic. We left our car in the garage of our B & B the whole time here and took the subway and buses everywhere. 

Riding the rail over the bridge: a view to remember.

At Clerigos Station, opposite Lisboa Square, there is the world’s most beautiful book store, Livraria Lello. 

Livraria Lello, the bookstore.

Imagine flying thousands of miles to line up and to pay to get in a book store!  Thank goodness I’m not a gambler (“book” sounds like “lose” in Chinese)!

Waited 10 minutes for the moment when Freda was the only one on the staircase.

In this digital age of virtual reality, one has to wonder where is the market to support printed books written in Portuguese on such a wide variety of subject matters. Then it dawned on me: the Age of Discovery resulted in an estimated 250 million Portuguese speakers in the world – not just the 10 million in Portugal.


Driving from Porto to Algarve on tolled freeway A1 was a breeze. Paying for a fill-up at a gas station, I was greeted by a friendly young girl who was perhaps a university student working a summer job.

 She looked at me and said in fluent English: “Say something in your own language and I can guess which country you are from.”

“Nee How,” I said.

“You are Chinese,” she said.

Turns out she watched a lot of online soap operas from China, Korea, and Japan. I don’t think that she learned her English by watching Dowton Abbey, though.

Algarve is the ruggedly beautiful region along the southern coast of Portugal.

While researching the area, I used Rick Steve’s Travel Europe as a guide exclusively. The DVD was produced in 2014 on Rick’s visit to Algarve in 2004. The Algarve that Rick wrote about back then was mostly sleepy fishing villages where few travellers came through.

The area has changed dramatically in recent years. We drove into a sprawling “village” of 300,000-plus residents (figure provided by our hostess), not the 30,000 mentioned as in the 2011 census.  The population had grown 10 folds in seven years!  A short walk from our B & B, there was even a Chinese restaurant.

Of the three tourist destinations named in Rick’s book, we chose the middle one, Lagos, as our home base. Our plan was to drive west to Sagres and east to Faro, relaxing for a couple of days of sun, beaches and fishing villages.

Our B&B. All the houses looked new.

As it turned out, none of our Algarve adventures was what we had planned in our playbook. During our stay on the windy coast, we never ventured into a village, never saw fishermen mending nets, and never watched local people dancing on the beach. 


Our hostess casually mentioned that we should go to the beach nearby before we drove off to Sagres. I don’t think she knew the scenery at the “beach” they own is on par with the famous Blue Grotto of Capri Island in Italy.

Our stroll to the neighborhood beach turned out to be a fantastic boat ride along Farol da Ponta da Piedade.

Walking down to the beach, not knowing what’s down there.
We see the water below …
Boat ride with no line, and the fare is dirt cheap.
Emerald Grotto, eh?

I took a video as our boat explored the grotto in the cliff. Click the Play symbol below to watch it.


To the west, Sagres is the southern-most tip of Portugal, constantly whipped by gusts from the Atlantic Ocean. The ominous fog rolled in and out at will. 

The coves with rugged cliff formations all around go on for miles. This is where Portuguese mariners got their last look of their motherland before venturing into the vast unknown beyond the Atlantic.

Sagres Fortress. The circle is said to be part of a nautical teaching tool.

Inside Sagres Fortress, we read this hauntingly beautiful poem about the mariner’s life on the high seas:

Oh ocean preceding us, your fears
Had coral and beaches and forests to them.
Were the night and fog unveiled,
The past’s storms and mystery,
The afar would blossom, and the Starlit South
Shine resplendent on the ship of initiation

Austere line of the distant coast –
Upon the ship’s approach, the slope of the land rises
In trees with nothing Far about them;
Closer by, the earth opens up in sounds and colours:
And upon landing there are birds and flowers
Where from afar there was only an abstract line.

The dream is to see the invisible forms
Of imprecise distances, and, with sensitive
Movements of hope and will,
To seek out in the cold line of the horizon
The tree, the beach, the flower, the bird, the fountain –
The much-deserved caresses of Truth.

Fernando Pessoa
Fog rolls in from the Atlantic.
Sagres Lighthouse: bad hair day every day here.
Between Sagres Lighthouse and Fortress, a late lunch at this restaurant by the beach.

Remember Faro to the east?  We spent so much time in Lagos and Sacres that we ran out of time to experience the “village” of Faro. All we knew was that it’s a surfers’ paradise. 

Faro also has a very modern and bustling airport to boot.

Faro Airport. Return the rented car and hop on the bus to Seville, Spain.

Editor’s note: Part 2: Spain is in the works.