Category Archives: Portugal

Stories Faces Places in Portugal

Portugal: Tipping Abroad Resolved

Because I have an extensive business background, my curiosity on “how’s business” surfaces no matter where I go. On a recent visit to Portugal, that proved itself once again.   A local dinner place in this historic country was the setting. Making friends wherever we go is the norm. This place was no exception. Language barriers never stop us.

euroAs we sat there in food heaven ecstasy, the last few remaining morsels of dinner gently cascaded over our palates.  We engaged with a few young Portuguese business people, entrepreneurs conversing, sharing differences between America and Portugal. My question on tipping waiters and waitresses got the discussion started.

In America  wait staff makes a minimal wage.  Receiving tips for their service to patrons is the trade-off, the risk, if you will.  American wait staff risks the steady “salaried” paycheck in hopes for better rewards determined by the quality of their service, the generosity of human kind, and sometimes the cheap ignorance of haters, mean-spirited people. The wait staff hopes that the risk of no salary is outpaced by the reward, a large tip.

The American restaurant incentive system provides multifaceted goals. One is that servers should be motivated to offer excellent service in hopes of excellent tips. For the most part, I think that works. In addition, the benefits work both ways, a win-win, if you will. The system allows for more wait staff to be hired, as the wage structure offers the ownership more flexibility, less risk in a very risky business, giving the ownership more assets to hire more accomplished cooks providing better food quality.  The benefit is faster service for patrons and more money for wait staff.

In Portugal the wait staff is paid a good salary. It is the same salary as the cook, the manager, the hostess, and all who work in the restaurant. Their minimum wage is very high. So no tipping is the norm.  If you wish to tip, make sure you are satisfied, and the food, service, and in general the entire experience are off the charts. Should those qualifications be met, then the tip would not translate to a percentage, but merely as a rounded-up to the nearest whole factor of five.

Know this, the tip is then placed into a pot, jar, pool for every worker in the restaurant to split, as all are equal in salary and equal in tip receipt.

Know this, as the American tipping system is designed to promote higher quality service, the Portuguese system as well as most other European countries, produces some issues Americans have trouble accepting.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from Americans traveling abroad is the slow service when dinning. In my opinion,  it’s not the people. It is the system. When the establishment ownership must pay a high guaranteed minimum wage to each  waitperson, then the number of  wait people working must shrink. So while America might see a wait staff/patron ratio such as one to four, Portugal will see one wait staff per every twenty tables. The result is slower service no matter how hard the wait staffer works. One can’t be in twenty places at one time.

It is my hope that sharing these understandings might bring some acceptance of the differences in cultures, for it is the people who matter and not the broken system. Enjoy the people.

Podcast: Lisbon: But the Fado was Free.

Lisbon, Portugal is a fun place to visit.  In this podcast, we share how we almost got taken for a “ride” in a taxi and how you can avoid trouble.  We share our  hunt for that perfect Fado experience, finding it buried deep within an old sailor’s den. We close with  a few other things to do around Lisbon.

If you haven’t read the blogs on this subject, here are the links to follow.

Castle St. George

“But the Fado was Free”

“Stumble Around Lisbon”

“Off The Grid in Portugal”

Bar do Gincho
Bar do Gincho




Dinner Time Lisbon

Take a Short Train Ride Out of Lisbon




Stumbling Around Lisbon

You can always stumble into something in Lisbon if you are open to the experience.  On the other hand, if you always proceed with a plan for the day, you can close off any impromptu involvements that might be tossed in your path.  While it is important to plan some things, it is also essential to just stumble around, wander, explore, and open yourself up to whatever experience presents itself.  Most call this taking time to smell the roses.  To me, it is more than the static activity of smelling something external to one self.  I am talking about being the rose.  When one is the rose,  contentment in just being is accessed.  By experiencing anything and everything the day has to offer and being intimately a part of the experience, good or not so good, the rose can be profoundly affected by it, in a good way.  Sounds like heady stuff, someone once told me.  The key to being that rose is to be that rose, content to take it all in, whatever “it all” means.  It requires patience, something with which I fail more often than I would like.  But it is something that provides great new understandings in those rare occasions “it” is accomplished.

The Avenida da Libredade, an important street in Lisbon, is filled with numerous hotels, most upper end.  Don’t shy away, you may uncover a bargain with some good searching.  Either way, this would be the area to attempt a few nights stay.  The Avenue is wide, long and has a nice park-like median.  Possessing a pedestrian area with gardens for walking, it can be the perfect place to start and be that rose.  The public park was once walled in.  But, sometime in the 1800’s, the wall came down.  Along with the redesign, fountains and statues were added. There is a World War I statue in memory of the fallen.  The Avenue reminds one of what might be seen in Paris’s boulevards, complete with all the designer shops.  For a listing of all the shops visit our friends at Portugal Confidential.

One afternoon, we stumbled upon a parade of some sorts.  A passing marching band seemed kind of impromptu.  So we just went with it, jumped in, and became the crowd.  We couldn’t find any  English-speaking people with knowledge of what we were viewing, so we acted as the rose, just taking it all in.

Wander into a bakery for some early morning coffee and pastries.  The friendliness is, again, incredible as long as the rose is in bloom.  Broken English and no Portuguese can be the order.  Kindness flowered out of the baker.  Soon an English lesson and Portuguese lesson ensued.  Once other customers entered the scene, the lesson was over.  No problem at all, the rose is just there to take in whatever comes its way.  Not to mention, there is an air of courtesy that prevails, as the rose is not the only rose in the garden.

The tourist information center designated by the “blue I” sign is in the square, near the statue and the funicular.  You will find that you are within walking distance to nearly everything.

Take in Igrega S. Domingos at the south end of the square.  If you find the Palacio da Independencia, Igrega S. Domingos will be next to it.  Founded in 1241, the church was rebuilt in 1755 after an earthquake just about leveled it.  Fascinatingly, the structure was rebuilt around all the fire scarred remains caused by the earthquake’s near destruction.  There is a peculiar magnificence inside.  Just stay a while, imagine and contemplate the scene.

From the square, while standing near the monument, you will spot the funicular.  Take it for a ride up the hill to the Bairro Alto district.  For more info on that district read our article Dinner Time in Lisbon.  If you prefer to walk to the Bairro Alto,  the uphill walk can be strenuous.   As an alternative, you can also walk to the Bairro Alto by wandering south towards the water then turning east into the Chiado district, the theatre district.  Heading east, your next stop will place you in the Bairro Alto district.  But do not beeline to it.  Wander through the other areas.  It can be magnificent.

The Baixa district is loaded with small shoppes and farmers markets that offer a great stroll.  Take in some fresh produce, cheeses, or whatever falls in front of you.  From DSCN0733there you can see the Castelo S. Jorge, a Moorish castle strategically placed with a commanding view of the city and the Tagus River.  In 1255 the Crusades took over the Castle and Alfonse III used it as his center.  One Hundred years later Ferdinand I walled in the fortification.  The Castle welcomed Vasco De Gamma on his return from opening up trade routes to India.  Around the 1600’s the castle fell into disrepair and an earthquake created more damage, leaving the castle to become a prison. The view from the top can be breathtaking.  Today it is not a working castle. It is open for

From the castle find your way over to the Alfama District and experience the “Free Fado” as in our article But The Fado was Free.  Fado is nice for the evening.  The area is full of history and comes alive at the end of the day.  It can be gritty, but do not shy away, the history here is outstanding.  Just imagine drunken sailors wandering the streets after many months at sea and lonely maidens swooning for their man’s affection.

Your exploration may turn up different experiences, and hopefully it will.  Just start walking and be the rose.

Dinner Time in Lisbon

Ok, so there we where, on the way back to the Sofitel in Lisbon after touring numerous places in this City.  It was time for a rest.  But before the afternoon rest, we need to stop at the store and pick up a bottle of wine for our early evening, err, late afternoon, err, dusk, cheese, wine and crackers.  Wow, that was a flashback.  I feel like I’m running the old Steve Martin comedy routine, “No never at dusk”.  Anyway, it is a great way to rewind the day’s activities, reminisce and converse about the experiences.

After the rest and the warm up for dinner, the exploration continued.  This time our goal was to find that ‘off the main trail’ place for dinner.  A location where English was the second language, maybe.  Out the entrance of the Sofitel, we went.  Which way left or right?  How about right this time.  Wander we did.  We wandered some more.  We wandered right into a neat section of town not high on the tourist grid.  How did we know we had left the tourist trail? First clue presents itself with the lack of people menu reading out side the main door to the restaurants.  Second clue eliminates English menus posted on the front doors to the restaurants.  Third clue is the recognition of the first two clues.

The area known as the Bairro Alto District was “Old Portugal” looking, if you can picture cobblestone streets, buildings in close proximity, short entrance doors and small windows.  If you have ever been to Boston’s historic district located down by the Union Oyster House, the oldest restaurant in the US, then you have somewhat of an idea of the picture I am attempting to paint here.  However, the area covered in Lisbon is comparably immense.  In the years this area was constructed, horses were the mode of land transportation.  So the roads are, well, you know.

Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world.  It was ruled in the fifth century by what history calls Germanic Tribes, not German, but a name referring to less civilized and physically harden bodies.  To me, a description like that translates to marauders, bandits, and the likes of thugs causing murder and mayhem.  My kind of place.  The moors, conquerors from Algeria and Morocco regions, took over in the eighth century.  The crusades took over in the 1000’s. Baldwin of Boulogne, King of Jerusalem in the first crusade then European kings like Louis the VII of France, Pope Eugene III may have been involved in that crusade.  With the Crusades came the European and Catholic influence in Portugal’s history.  Which it is very rich in.

Portugal RestaurantAh, there it is, just what we’ve been looking for.  No English menu on the front door, quaint atmosphere with inside and outside seating, and packed to the rump steak with seemingly satisfied customers.  It is not a big place, inside maybe enough for thirty seats, and outside maybe fifteen in the street.

“I’ll have the steak”.  Glass of wine?  Sure.  Typically, the camera was not present at the crowded time, so the pictures were taken early morning, our bad.

A debris field we did create.  The atmosphere was cozy, and being the only English-speaking people in this restaurant, privacy was not a problem.  At least that is the story we are sticking too.  If I thought people were evil I could convince myself into believing that maybe everyone spoke English instead of no one, and we just unveiled our deepest dark nothings to the city of Lisboa.  But that would be absurd, neurotic and in need of a shrink, to which I hope that is not the case, being in need of a shrink.  Anyway, you can tell if anyone is bluffing with the language or not.  The story of The Ride posted here provides an example of such bluffing and how to recognize it.  But for now, nothing to worry.  Most of these people are genuine, and only interested in creating their own experience.

The stroll back to the Sofitel was relaxing, safe, and needed for digestions of such a pleasantly gastro affair.  So when in Lisboa, just start wandering, you too will come across a fantastic place to create you own memorable experience. For another idea, check out our story in Portugal, But the Fado is Free

Off-Grid in Portugal

If you ever find yourself in Lisbon, by chance. Well, nothing really ever happens in this world by chance, does it?  Anyway, good questions to ask and ponder as you travel the world. A great day trip out of Lisbon is a short train ride, maybe thirty or so minutes to Cascais, Portugal. It is about 19 miles west of Lisbon on the Atlantic. There is a quaint “Old Town” section to  shop and stroll through town. Cascais  was the site of the 2011 America’s Cup World Series. It is also home to about 35,000 people, and numerous other sailing events.

Grab a cab when you are ready to move on to one of the neatest rides going.  Ask the driver to take you to Bar do Guincho, and ask him to take you along the coast. The ride is magnificent as you view small cliffs plunging into the Atlantic. You wind around turns and vistas that just relax and offer feelings of the magnificence of this world.  It’s about a twenty-minute ride, but well worth the journey. If you are budget oriented, ask the fare going in. But don’t let that kill this experience for you.

At the end of the trip, the driver will turn down this dirt road. You’ll wonder what is going on? You may even think that you’ve made the wrong decision as he will let you out in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. The driver will then point you in a direction. Start walking, do not worry about the translation.  Walk down a dirt path. You’ll question the trip again. But then, you will come out, after only a few feet, to Bar do Guincho, ahh!!bguincho1_gr

The Burgers are great. The view is awesome, and the experience is priceless.  Have a beer or two and a burger, or whatever your palate craves. When you are ready to move on, which will be a while because this place is very cool and enjoyable, walk out to the beach, turn left and walk straight along the beach to the hotel you see. It’s not a long walk, but very enjoyable.  You will be walking from one end of this cove like beach to the other, right along the Atlantic. When you get to that hotel, you can call a cab to take you back to Cascais.

As a final note, if it is raining forget it. If it is sunny, then take this blunt hint as the fun it was meant to be. The title of this article is “OFF-GRID”. That means off grid. You are getting in with the locals. That means getting into their world. That means their world not yours. That means they do not have to speak English. That means they don’t. That means have patience and fun trying to communicate. Enjoy the experience, they will help you as much as possible. You help them too. That means do not get intimidated when others are waiting behind you. Just keep doing your best. That means keep the ordering simple, it’s the experience you are after. That means they can not translate everything on the menu for you. That means go for a new experience and enjoy. So what does this all mean? If you are looking for a safe, great way to really experience something different and awesomely rewarding, do it.