a city break to lisbon & sintra
Where: Lisbon and Sintra. Portugal, Western Europe.
When: March-April 2013
What: Santa Justa elevator, Azulejoes, Saint Jorge Castle, Iconic Number 28 Tram, Belem Tower, Pena Palace at Sintra, Sintra National Palace, The Discovery Monument, Rossio Square, Jeronimos Monk Monastery, Portuguese Railway, Pasteis de Nata and Ginjinha, Regaleira Palace, Sintra City Hall.
How: International Flight, Portuguese Railways.
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Shocking hotel experience, experiencing the delights of the airline food on TAP Portugal - inedible; Torrential rain greeting us on our first day.
Portugal is one of those countries that I was not too fussed about visiting. Think Portugal think Algarve, think Britishers abroad and think beaches. Yawn. As mentioned several times elsewhere on this site, this is not my ideal travel experience. For me, the Portugal problem is that you kind of know what you are going to get before you even arrive - there is far less mystery and surprise involved in a trip to Portugal than to some other places. This isn't Portugal's fault - this is solely down to my preference for more off the beaten track destinations which, along with their untrodden paths, have a greater degree of mystique and allure about them. I enjoy the element of surprise, the type of trip where you have little idea about what you'll come across and what you'll see. Cut to my previous trips like Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Russia and you'll get where I'm coming from. There are far weirder and more wonderful countries where I would rather spend my hard-won time and money. Principally the only draw for me was that I had not been to Portugal before. And that was it.
So, with slight trepidation in my heart I stepped into Portugal with a friend for a five day, four night stay in the Portuguese capital Lisbon with a well-trodden day trip westward to Sintra thrown in for good measure. In doing so I stepped into my 44th country. Of course, on arrival, it is clear to even the most cynical of travellers that Lisbon, and therefore wider Portugal, has more than enough to keep you occupied. You realise there is a reason why so many people travel here - and so often. Portugal is perfectly formed, a feast of culture and colour and a perfectly easy place to be in. Perhaps the latter is the reason why it is so popular with holidaymakers rather than with travellers (there is a distinct difference between these two groups, I would argue). Initially thinking five days and four nights was way too much, we only just managed to fit everything in with a distinctly frantic foray around Lisbon's sights on the final day fuelled only by coffee, Portuguese pattiseries and excitement...
the portuguese capital
On the surface Lisbon looks like so many other cities in Europe with a long history: red tiled roofs, cobbled streets, church spires, historic architecture. What is immediately noticeable, and something I've not seen before (certainly not in such abundance), are the decorative tiles which adorn the frontages of seemingly every building in the capital. These intricately designed tiles, or 'Azulejoes', are rather marvellous, being, as some are, up to five hundred years old. These tiles are Moorish in origin - Arabic settlers from northern Africa. This fact goes some way to explaining the Moroccan-like designs so prevalent in Portugal. A trip to the Saint Jorge castle which imposes itself prominently on the Lisbon skyline, perched on a large hill overlooking the city, is one of the many well-trodden Lisbon tourist traps. The hill affords you wonderful 360 views of the city. The castle's importance itself is rather lost on me - I'm not a great fan of the things as they all seem to look alike to me. Driving rain on our first full day meant that taking in this view, which had distinct similarities to those I'd seen in Latvia, Croatia and Lithuania, was troublesome. Splashes of rain on the lens, a heavy, grey sky and wind tugging at my arms resulted in marginally underwhelming photographs of a vista which, I'm sure, looks rather gorgeous on a good day. Travelling around Lisbon is easy using the Metro trains - but is fraught with problems in the rain. A note of caution here - your daily Metro travel card, at €6.50, regularly fails in damp and cold conditions. We had to re-purchase several during the trip. Not a very good system and in the end, seemingly, not a cheap one either.
No trip to Lisbon would be complete without taking a journey on the delightful Number 28 yellow tram - a traditional tram with wooden interior, sash windows and manually operated levers and controls. However, don't be fooled: these cute little things bumbling through the city can be, when you're inside, more accurately compared to a rollercoaster ride, violently jolting and jerking around sharp corners and up unbelievably steep cobbled streets. A full circuit takes around forty five minutes - a fun and easy way to navigate the city's labyrinthine streets and key sights - especially in the rain. The yellow tram is Lisbon's equivalent of the red bus in London: iconic, memorable, endearing. Whenever we got lost, the Number 28 tram always seemed to be just around the corner to scoop us up and whisk us away out of the rain. Luckily our final day in Lisbon was gifted with bright sunshine and blue skies: the Lisbon we experienced on our first day seemed a world away. As the forecast improved we made a plan to head out early to make sure we avoided any afternoon clouds and 'did Lisbon' - in some cases we retook photographs for a second time - grey skies do not a great photograph make! Our first port of call on the tourist trail was the Santa Justa lift, a wrought iron elevator from 1902 built by an apprentice who worked on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This association explains its uncanny resemblance to the tower. Its long legs lead to an observatory at the top - like a box on stilts. Its walkway connects the two city districts of Rossio and Baixa-Chiado. For a swipe of our Metro card and a €1.50 top-up we caught the Lisbon skyline in all its sunny and blue sky morning glory - an absolute relief as my skyline shots from rainy day one taken at the castle did not do Lisbon justice.
A few more swipes of the Metro card whisked us to the area of the city known as Belem (translates as 'Bethlehem'), home to the fairytale Belem tower which points majestically out to sea , a rather stunning monk monastery, the contemporary art Berardo gallery, and the giant 52m high Padrao dos Descobrimentos statue also known as the Discovery Monument featuring Portugal's greatest from its age of exploration and restoration. Its ship shape and sea-ward leaning figures are quite powerful - especially when viewed with the red Ponte de 25 Avril Bridge in the background - a smaller rendering of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge. The Discovery sculpture has a viewing platform on top from which you can take in the Belem vista and see the monastery, tower and dinky moored boats from a high vantage point - that is, however, providing you are prepared to walk the 267 steps tucked away inside the statue itself to get there (which we did). Our final day in Lisbon was also the one where we dipped our culinary toe into Portuguese tastes by trying a shot of Ginjinha (23% proof) and the gorgeous Pasteis de Nata (a special take on the custard tart). Both very Moorish (pun intended). Our culinary hop, skip and jump through Portuguese tastes ended musically with a very brief sampling of Fado in the famous and rabbit warren-like Alfama district of the capital.
The heart of the city: the view of downtown Lisbon's Rossio Square (more formally known as Placa Don Pedro) as seen from the viewing platform of the Santa Justa elevator. At the end of the square you can see Lisbon's National Theatre and the tall monument in the centre is that of King Don Pedro.
A characterful tree foregrounds a building with a distinctive tiled fascia.
The Jeronimos Monk Monastery in the Belem area of the capital. Rather impressive and worthy of a trip to Belem in itself.
the unesco fairytale town
Sintra lies less than an hour's train journey from Lisbon and is a real gem - a place any one should seriously consider if they are staying in the capital and have a day or so to spare. It is part of the Grande Lisboa (Greater Lisbon) region and is a popular destination for day trippers. Indeed, Sintra has its own station in Lisbon (Rossio) where all the trains, without exception, terminate at Sintra. It makes for a quick getaway but not a very interesting departure board. Sintra's palaces, castles, gardens and winding streets earned it the accolade of World Heritage Status from UNESCO in 1995. Sintra has a very unique-looking National Palace with its two cone-like turrets and an absolutely stunning Palace of Pena - perched on top of a hill of what seemed to us to be a very long and tortuous journey upward. Only attempt this trek on foot if you're reasonably fit, when it's not too hot, and if you're not in a rush - otherwise take a taxi four kilometres to the top for a few Euros. I was shattered by the time we reached Pena - on our ascent we chanced it as hitch-hikers for a while in a desperate bid to catch a lift up to the top. In the process we ended up accidentally flagging down a Portuguese police car thinking it was a taxi. Brief dirty looks; drive off; oops. Sometimes it pays to read the guide book just to check how far things really are!
Pena Palace has got to be one of the most unique buildings I have ever seen - a real kitsch fusion of colours, textures and architectural styles. Fairy-tale turrets rub shoulders with Islamic golden cupolas and minarets, stone gargoyle-like creations (notably Triton - a half-man half-fish creature which hangs menacingly over a main gateway) sit alongside Moorish patterned tiles, and pastel pink and lemon walls jostle with three dimensional spiked and bobbled stonework. The palace is not austere and grandiose like so many others, but playful and child-like making it one of the finest examples of Portuguese Romanticism the country has. It's a real feast for your lens and was one of the true highlights of my Portugal trip. The panoramic view from the palace's terrace overlooking Sintra, and beyond, is charming in its rural simplicity - rolling hills, blue skies and little red roofs sit in perfect synergy. The danger of Pena is that photographs online really do not do the palace justice and therefore you may miss it off your bucket list. It's a cliche but you do really have to see it up close to get the full effect: if I had a palace this is what I would want it to look like. The Gothic Regaleira Palace was also rather impressive and worth the walk it took to see it. Our day in Sintra was interspersed with delightful conversations with tourists and locals - and a visit from a very friendly tabby cat on one of our coffee stops (see the little cat here). The cinnamon flavoured 'Sapa' cakes we tasted there, a Sintra renowned creation, were as unusual as they were tasty. We also stopped off at the Piriquita cafe for one of its famous cakes - a must do recommended by Lonely Planet when in the town. The Portuguese certainly do cakes and patisseries amazingly well. Sintra was a bit of a turning point in the trip - after such an inauspicious and very drenched first day and a half in Lisbon, Sintra restored our travelling spirit and put a spring in our step for the final day of sightseeing back in the capital.
The charming view of the National Palace of Sintra with its two cone-like turrets.
A Pena Palace battlement looks out towards an inspiring view of Sintra's blue skies and rolling hills.
travel tips, links & resources
- Sintra lies less than an hour's train journey from Lisbon and departs from the Rossio station ever twenty minutes. The journey is inexpensive and short and therefore well worth a day trip to see the fairytale Pena Palace.
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