Portugal's crisis could mean bargains for tourists

By Harold Heckle

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 12 2011 10:01 a.m. MDT

This April 10, 2011 photo shows tourists as they take pictures by the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, on the bank of the Tagus river in Lisbon, Portugal. The monument was built to celebrate the Portuguese people who took part in the 15th and 16th centuries' Age of Exploration. Portugal is immersed in debt, barely has a functioning government and is widely expected to receive a Greek-style bailout by June. But travelers willing to jump aboard this economic rollercoaster could find bargains in a country small enough to tour in a week's time.

Armando Franca, Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal, one of the eurozone's poorest nations, is immersed in debt, barely has a functioning government and is widely expected to receive a Greek-style bailout by June. But travelers willing to jump aboard this economic roller coaster could find bargains in a country small enough to tour in a week's time.

While periodic strikes have disrupted train and subway transportation over the last year as Portugal's financial problems deepened, the work stoppages have always been announced with plenty of advance notice on when they will start and end. And almost no one is expecting strikes during August because the Portuguese themselves will be on vacation.

One week in Portugal is plenty to sample Lisbon's historic wonders, then travel by train to Porto, another Atlantic Ocean port city, and squeeze in a visit to a winery. Within that period you could do sun and sea at the beaches in southern Algarve province.

Arranging it all is fairly easy online because most websites have English sections, and the Portuguese themselves usually speak decent English — unlike many of their neighbors in Spain. It's part of the legacy from Portugal's historic links with Britain going back centuries, and the fact that all movies and TV programs originally made in English are subtitled and not dubbed.

"Portugal has long been the ideal destination for the U.S. travelers," said British travel writer Simon Calder. "It's the wild western fringe of Europe, with a scattering of Atlantic islands, a fascinating history and superb landscapes. The cuisine is world-class, the climate benign, the welcome warm. And it's the ideal location for any American seeking a European bargain this summer."

Palatial comfort is readily available in a chain of historic buildings called pousadas — country houses and castles converted to luxury hotels where online booking features offers for as little as $108 (75 euros) a night with a 15 percent discount for those 55 or older. Regular hotels charge less.

For hearty Portuguese meals featuring dishes such as feijoada (bean stew) and cabrito (goat), basic local restaurants called tascas offer up the best lunch bargain across the nation. The menus always feature traditional Portuguese food with plenty of fresh fish out of the Atlantic as well as dried, salted cod (bacalhau) — a Portuguese staple.

Menus posted outside the tascas featuring meals of the day are in Portuguese, but there will usually be a waiter or fellow diner who can help out with a translation. If not, get adventurous and just pick a few choices. Lunch starting at about 1 p.m. goes for about $10 (7 euros) for two courses plus dessert, includes a glass of wine, a beer or bottled water.

Lisbon itself is an architectural jewel, with ancient St. George's castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge) and a medieval fortified cathedral overlooking the magnificent estuary of the Tagus, one of Europe's mightiest rivers. Christian soldiers took the castle from its long-standing North African Arab occupiers in the 12th century.

The cathedral is a rare survivor of one of the deadliest earthquakes in history — a massive 1755 temblor and subsequent fire that wrecked the city. As in Japan, a vast tsunami rushed back to engulf the riverside buildings, killing tens of thousands of people and obliterating much of what was then one of Europe's wealthiest cities.

During a recent tour of the castle, Briton Laura Millward, 30, said as far as she's concerned, Portugal and Lisbon deserve to be better known, given their cultural attractions and great food. "Compared to places like Italy, it's not really expensive at all. Even the tourist places aren't that pricey," she said.

The rebuilt lower quarter of the city, Baixa Pombalina, has an untypical but easy to navigate grid pattern of streets, with decent hotels starting at about $54 a night (38 euros) a night, making it an ideal base to explore the capital of a country the Romans once referred to as Lusitania.

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