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Portugal: Friends Explore Lisbon and Beyond

Two women from Texas are heading to Lisbon for a Portuguese-style birthday celebration with fado music, dancing, and a surprise dessert.

Any suggestions for what to see in these towns? Sintra, a summer retreat of the Portuguese kings from the 12th to the 19th centuries, is famous for its palaces and mansions. The most lavish is the Palácio da Pena, a pastel confection of soaring battlements and turrets that looks like a Disney castle. Check out the private chambers, left as they were when queen Dona Maria II and Dom Ferdinand II held court in the late 19th century: There are still palm fronds hanging over the queen's bed from her last Palm Sunday in Lisbon (Estrada de Serra de Sintra, 011-351/219-105-340, $11).

The ancient city of Évora, founded by the Romans, sits in the cork-oak plantations and olive groves of the central Alentejo plains. It was the seat of the royal family in the Middle Ages and has a string of imposing buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, when Portugal was one of the most powerful countries in the world. The top attraction is the Templo de Diana, one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in the Iberian Peninsula (Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, free). And don't miss São Francisco Church—its chapel walls and ceilings are decorated with geometric patterns made from human bones (Largo 1 de Maio, 011-351/266-704-521, $2.75).

Évora is famous in Portugal for its red wines and hearty fare. While you're there, try the ensopado de borrego, lamb stew, and the bolo rançoso, a rich and sticky cake.

In Coimbra, medieval streets lined with town houses and cafés wind from the Mondego River up a steep hill that's crowned with the University of Coimbra. Peek in at the school's famous Biblioteca Joanina, whose gilded reading room is home to one of the largest collections of historic books in the world (Largo da Porta Férrea, 011-351/239-859-900, bibliotecajoanina.uc.pt, $8.25). And make a coffee stop at the gorgeous Café Santa Cruz, in a former chapel with arched art nouveau windows and a vaulted medieval interior (Praça 8 de Maio, 011-351/239-833-617). Coimbra is also famous for its fado, and there is nowhere more romantic to hear it than àCapella, a tiny theater in a half-ruined Gothic chapel at the crest of the hill (Capela de Nossa Senhora da Victória, Rua Corpo de Deus, Largo da Victória, 011-351/239-833-985).

Our friends can't wait for their gifts. What can we bring home that says Portugal? It is almost impossible to walk around Lisbon and not succumb to a few of the gorgeous azulejos, the ceramic tiles that blanket monasteries, churches, and residences. Aleluia Cerâmicas has a great selection of hand-painted reproductions and contemporary designs (Largo do Intendente 25, 011-351/218-852-408).

You also can't go wrong with a few bottles of wine. Look for Douro, a full-bodied, complex red with notes of cherry. And Cálem ports are always a safe bet. The best are the vintage ports, which are only produced in exceptional years, such as 1983 or 2000. You can also find white ports, which are sweet and tangy—and difficult to find outside of Portugal. Two liquor stores in downtown Lisbon—Napoleão (Rua dos Fanqueiros 70, 011-351/218-861-108, napoleao.co.pt) and Manuel Tavares (Rua da Betesga 1, 011-351/213-424-209)—stock a broad selection.

Music buffs on your list will love the way Portugal's contemporary artists combine traditional genres like fado, Brazilian bossa nova, and Celtic folk with modern electronica and rock. A few names to get you started: Sara Tavares, a second-generation Cape Verdean; instrumentalist Rodrigo Leão; and Madredeus, a band whose sweet, melancholy melodies are the subject of Wim Wenders's 1994 film Lisbon Story—the perfect movie for you and Donna to watch together when you get home.

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