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Café Pastéis de Belém is often credited as the place where the famous pastel de nata (egg tart) was first commercially produced outside of its original home inside the Jeronimos Monastery a few steps away. The creamy pastry came to be known as pasteis de Belem, after the name of the suburb and that of the famous bakery. This quintessential Portugese dessert attained global prominence in the 1990s in Asia after its inclusion in the standard dessert menu of popular western fast-food chain such as Kentucky Fried Chicken. Nowadays, many in Asia have come to equate the egg tart with certain bakeries in Macau, a former Portugese colony which had contributed a great deal to the popularity of Belem egg tarts in Asia.


The Casa Pasteis de Belem is now a major tourist attraction in its own right. Customers, both local and from elsewhere in Portugal and abroad, sometimes have to queue for hours in order to get their hands on freshly baked egg tarts, still steamingly hot, directly from the oven.


Egg tarts apart, the bakery itself is a place worth visiting. Beautiful blue tiles adorn the walls of the cafe and the spacious dining hall. Decorative motifs, figures depicting famous historical personalities and places all add a touch of congenial elegance to the whole place.


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Cascais is a popular seaside resort just an hour away from Lisbon by train. The town is most famous for its grand casino, sandy beaches and elegant yacht marinas. On weekends, the tree-lined streets of this quaint little town are full of expensive sportcars and sedans, while tourists from all over Europe stroll around the town centre and enjoy their day out in the sun.


The presence of long swathes of soft white sandy beaches, crystal clear water and sunny blue sky all help to consolidate the position of Cascais as the leading resort of Portugal. Just take a quick walk around the town centre and it is immediately evident to anyone that this is a place for the well-heeded and the famous. Stylish shops and boutiques adorn the sides of the seaside boulevards, while posh hotels, cafes and restaurants all cluster around the centre of the old town doing brisk business.


The town centre has a distinctively Portugese feel, with mozaic-pattern on all streets, small double-story churches with belfry, and an open town square directly facing the beach and the sea. 

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My first visit to Lisbon was more than a decade ago, when this city of more than a million inhabitants was still a largely under-developed town on the outermost fringe of Europe, consisting of numerous suburban slums and an extremely rundown city centre. At that time I thought Lisbon is easily the most dilapildated and impoverished European city I have ever seen. In fact, Lisbon in the 1980s and 90s was probably closer in terms of its standards of living to the sprawling multi-million metropoles in the developing countries in Latin America and Asia than its counterparts in western Europe. In those time, no matter where you went in the city centre, there were so many deserted houses and apartments with broken windows, sealed doors, graffiti all over place, dirty streets littered with rubbish and empty plastic bottles, that you thought you were somewhere in the middle of some impoverished third-world countries.



But things have changed for the better since then. Lisbon now is a bustling city wth a well-organized metro system, efficient public transport, lively city centre, with many former slums cleaned up and rundown buildings in downtown areas sanitized and renovated. The whole city now looks and smells much better, and this spirit of rejuvenating growth could be felt all over the place. Lisbon is no longer a decaying city slowly crumbling down in the sunset, but a lively metropole with lots of tradition, history and heritage sufficient to attract a growing crowd of admirers from all over the world.


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Praia de Almoxarife is just a short drive away from Horta. There are also 2-3 buses per day from Horta to Almoxarife (except for the weekends). It is a well-equipped beach, with showers, toilets, life guards, a small library on the beach and several restaurants nearby. To our surprise, the beach of Almoxarife is a certified blue-flag beach!! (There are several blue-flag beaches on the island of Faial, by the way)


The view of the pretty little town of Almoxarife and its blue-flagged black sand beach from the top of the drive down the hill towards the ocean.

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There are not too many guidebooks about the Azores. Of the few that are still in print, some of them offer somewhat misleading information concerning the availability of beaches suitable for families with children. One of them stated that the Azores are not suitable for swimming due to the lack of sandy beaches.

Which, in my opinion, is not quite a correct statement. If your concept of sandy beaches comes directly from postcard impressions of long, white soft sandy beaches of the Caribbeans, then beaches of the Azores are not for you. There are plenty of secluded coves and sandy beaches here in the Azores, but they are not of soft, white sand, but coarse, black volcanic sand beaches.

Yet these black volcanic sand beaches have a unique beauty of their own:


Faja is a very secluded beach located at the western tip of Faial. There are no public transports to this beach, so you need a car or a taxi to get there.


Powerful waves lashed against black volcanic rocks and stone walls.

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Horta is named after Joss van Hurtere, a Flemish nobleman who founded a small settlement on Faial and which later came to be known after the transliteration of his name. The town is actually much prettier than I thought, and its surroundings and public infrastructure certainly are kept in a much better state than many of the towns on Mainland Portugal.The town is set amidst picturesque settings: with green hills in the background, blue oceans and the impressive sight of the volcano of Pico rising high up above the horizon into the clouds.


The promenade of Horta's marina.


The viewof Horta's promenade from the sea.

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To be honest, Madalena on the island of Pico gives one the feeling that it is just a point of transit; most people simply consider it a place of arrival/departure. As a result, the whole town has a somewhat 'irrelevant' feel to it. Apart from the  harbour (to catch a ferry to other Azorean islands), a few cafes and shops in the town's main streets, there is almost nothing which calls for serious attention.


The old harbour of Madalena. Basically there is nothing much to do in this town, except for getting off and on the ferries. There are a few cafes where you can spend your time looking at the sea while waiting for the ferries, but that's it actually. It is a bit boring a place to visit, even for a short day-trip. You certainly need a car if you want to explore the beauty of the Pico island.


Passengers waiting on the pier of Madalena's harbour to board the ferry to Horta,

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It is very easy to cross over from Faial to Pico by ferry. Daily services by Transmacor (http://www.transmacro.pt ) depart from Horta to the habrour town of Madalena (on the island of Pico). As of August 2009, there are 6 sailings per day by conventional ferry. One way ticket costs 3.40 euro; children under the age of four can travel for free.


In addition, on certain days there are also a high speed catamaran that sails between Horta - Madalena (Pico Island) - Sao Roque (Pico Island) - Velas (Sao Jorge island). One way ticket between Horta and Madalena with the catamaran is 4.10 euro.

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I love cafes. It is not just a lifestyle: it is a ritual. Everywhere  I go, I will try out the cafes in town and find one that I prefer most. In Portugal, you will easily find plenty of decent bars and cafes that serve excellent gelao (coffee with milk) at reasonable prices, but this one, Cafe Internacional right across the road from Horta,'s Marina stands outfrom most other cafes in Horta because of its art deco/Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) interiors.


The main counter of Cafe Internacional. The location of this cafe is ideal, right across the road from Horta's Marina and a stone throw away from the Tourist Information Office, the Pousada de Santa Cruz hotel as well as Cafe Sport Peter.

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Every island of the Azores has a name: Faial is known as the 'Blue Island' thanks to the overwhelming presence of hydrangea  all over the island. Due to the relative absence of efficient public transport systems, it is advisable that you rent a car if you want to visit the various parts of the island in depth. It takes less than 3 hours to drive around the entire island.


Rental car companies congregate around two streets in the centre of Horta: the Rua Vasco da Gama, and Rua Conselheiro Medeiros. It is advisable to enquire around for prices and availability, as prices and the class of cars available at short notice differ hugely between different car rental companies.

We rented our car from Auto Turistica Faialense Rent-a-Car. They are very friendly and offer efficient service. The only thing you need to watch out for if you want to rent a car in Horta is, try to make a reservation as soon as possible because in the summer months, often you will need to wait 3-4 days before a car of your choice is available. Otherwise you might have to pay much more for a bigger car if you want something immediately. In addition, it seems most of the rental car companies in Horta do not offer rental terms with unlimited mileage. Instead you are required to pay for a fixed minimum daily charge, plus additional kilometer charges.

Driving around Faial is a joy because of the beautiful, lush green scenery and the abundance of nature everywhere you go. Roads are in good condition, although sign posts are somewhat inadequate. Make sure you have a copy of latest road map with you while venturing inland on Faial.


The Caldera in the middle of the island is a beautiful crater landscape, 2km wide and almost 0.5km deep. The crater used to be a huge crater lake, but it was said that the water in the crater lake disappeared overnight during the undersea volcanic eruption of 1957/58. A small path for hiking surrounds the entire perimeter of the crater; the hike will take about 2.5 hours.

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Horta is a quaint little town with a world famous marina. The marin is world famous because it is an important provision stop for Trans-Atlantic yachts. In the 1930s, Horta was an important signal stop for trans-Atlantic telex cables; it also served as an intermediate stop for flights to and from the US/Europe.


Cafe Sport Peter is known amongst seafarers and yacht sportsmen all over the world as 'the watering hole' in the middle of the Atlantic. For decades, yachtsmen reprovisioning at Horta's harbour on the way to/from Europe would stop at Peter's place, have a drink or a meal, and exchange news about sailing conditions or the journey ahead. The Cafe also serves as a 'post office' for yachtsmen: you can have your mails sent to Cafe Sport Peter and pick them up when you arrived at Horta.

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The Azores are a group of  volcanic islands located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about 2.5 hours - 3 hours by flight from Lisbon. Since their colonization by the Portugese seafarers in the 15th century, the Azores have been part of the Portugese Empire and a strategic transit point on the Trans-Atlantic sea and air route. Today, the Azores are an autonomous region within the Portugese Republic, and part of the European Union. 

Horta, the biggest town on the island of Faial, is served by TAP Portugal and SATA (the regonal airlines of the Azores) via Lisbon or Ponta Delgada (on the island of Sao Miguel). The airport at Horta has a relatively short landing strip, which means the thrust reversers were immediately put into action as soon as the SATA Airbus 320-200 touched down on the runway.


The airport of Horta is located in the village of Castelo Branco, about 10km outside of Horta town centre. There is a inter-village bus service that stops at a bus stop on the main road, right outisde the entrance to the airport.

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When we checked out at Melia Tryp Castelo Blanco, the friendly receptionist (Portugal has lots of friendly receptionists. In fact I must say all receptionists I have met at all the Melia's we have stayed at in Spain and Portugal are all very friendly and helpful) recommended we cross the border at Segura as the drive is a very pictureque one. We followed his advice and were indeed very impressed by the beautiful countryside full of wild flowers, red poppies and old stones.


It was spring time and the whole countryside was full of such purple-bluish flowers.


This is my favourite wild flower: wild poppies that bloom in the spring all over the lush hills in southern Europe. As these flowers do not have saps, they are not used to produce opium or related drugs.

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When we checked out at Melia Palacio de Lousa, the friendly lady at the hotel reception gave me precise instructions and a handful of copies of detailed road maps, to help us find our way to Castelo Branco (our next stop) without getting lost somewhere on the way again. We followed her advice closely and found ourselves passing through some very pleasant countrysides.


A village cafe in the middle of Portugal's countryside. They serve very good espresso and the owner, an old man in his 60s, actually knows where Taiwan is ('Formosa' is the name he uses). In fact, many older Portugese know about Formosa and the troubled history between the Nationalists and the Chinese Communists.


All along the way there are countless olive grooves and orchards. In contrast to Spain, olive grooves and orchard fields all have a rugged, even 'wild' feeling.

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Our next destination after Porto is Lousa. As we spent far too much time in the morning sampling Port wine and enjoying lunch on the bank of Rio Douro, we did not leave Porto until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The drive to Lousa is another mini-adventure: we again lost our way while trying to find the road from Coimbra to Lousa. We saw one sign post which stated 'Lousa' as soon as we got off the highway at Coimbra, but fail to see any further sign posts after that. Not knowing which way to go, and there are at least 10 roundabouts in Coimbra (all without signs pointing out which direction is the way to Lousa), we ended up driving around Coimbra in circles. After one hour we became really fed up with such aimless search,  especially as it was already late and we really did not want to drive into the surrounding hills in complete darkness. Fortunately some passerbys told us the right direction and after a few wrong turns, finally found the road that is supposed to take us all the way to Lousa.


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Porto has been on my agenda for many years because of the world renown Port wine. Port wine, a kind of fortified red wines aged in wooden barrels or in bottles, became popular with the English during the beginning of the 18th century. In order to prevent the wines from becoming spoilt whilst on the way from Porto to England, the wines were fortified to prolong its shelf-life for the journey.  


The wooden boat seen above, known as 'Rabelos' in Portugese, is traditionally used to transport barrels of Port wine down the Rio Douro for storage and aging in the caves of Vila Nova de Gaia.

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Portugal is a strange country. It has some of the most friendly people in Europe, lots of history, serene sceneries, impressive buildings, stunningly good wines (not just the sweet Port wines, but excellent white wines too). Yet the whole country feels so 'dislocated' to the rest of western and southern Europe. It has been part of the EU since the 1980s, yet its level of development and standards of public infrastructure lie several decades behind the rest of Europe (with the exception of Romania and Bulgaria of course, but that's another story). To be honest, when we were in Portugal, we did not feel as though we were in an EU country at all. To a large extent, Portugal feels more like a developing country than a first world developed country.


The Historical City Centre of Porto, A UNESCO inscribed World Heritage Site, seen from across the Rio Douro

As soon as drove across the bridge over Rio Mino that marks the border between northern Portugal and Spain's Galicia province, you began to see rundown buildings, fields overgrown with weeds, roads with potholes, inadequately-signposted streets that make first-time visitors lose their way, etc. This does not diminish the beauty and attraction of northern Portugal, but it does highlight the gap between Portugal and her neighbours. The flair of northern Portugal is strikingly similar to certain parts of Maputo (Capital of Mozambique), also part of the former Portugese colonial empire. (In fact, many towns and cities of the former Portugese empire look very much alike both in terms of appearance and the degree of dilapidation suffered by the colonial buildings - it just seems the Portugese had imparted something of a laissez-faire attitude to all its overseas territories, and such an outlook on life and everything has persisted till this today.


(Many buildings and houses in Porto have walls decorated with beautiful blue painted tiles depicting scenes of stories from the Holy Bible.)

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