Judy Bailey visits Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and one of the most historic cities in Europe, where she follows in the footsteps of childhood heroes, discovers the best custard tarts and is enchanted by ornate, centuries-old architecture.
Judy Bailey’s Portuguese adventure
As a child I was captivated by the feats of the great explorers, by the bravery of those who ventured off across the seas into the unknown. The valiant exploits of Columbus, Magellan and Vasco Da Gama were the stuff of dreams for a little girl growing up in the confines of suburban Lower Hutt in the 1950s.
And so it was with a real sense of awe that I stood beside Vasco da Gama’s tomb in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.
It was da Gama who, in 1498, discovered the route to India, allowing Portugal to control the Indian Ocean and the exotic and lucrative spice trade.
He lies in a marble tomb in the beautiful Mosteiro dos Jerónimos on the banks of the Tagus River in the suburb of Belém, just steps away from the spot where he moored his caravel on his return from India.
That’s the thing about Lisbon. Its history envelops you. Reminders of its glorious seafaring past are there at every turn. You can tread the very flagstones your heroes trod all those years ago.
The monastery was commissioned by King Manuel I in the late 1400s to celebrate the Age of Discovery, and it’s bedecked with nautical symbols – ropes, anchors, navigational instruments and even coral designs and seaweed. It’s a stunning example of what’s become known as Manueline architecture.
If, like me, you have a craving for sweet treats, there’s another very good reason for visiting Belém. The suburb is the home of the best pastries in Portugal.
It is said that the monks of Jerónimos had a secret recipe for custard tarts,
pastéis de nata, which had the lightest pastry and the creamiest custard. A liberal uprising in the 1830s closed the monastery and the monks were expelled, but not before they’d managed to pass on their recipe to a store nearby. Pastéis de Belém faithfully recreates them to this day… put the diet on hold – they are mouthwateringly delicious.
It’s a balmy 26 degrees when we visit Lisbon and we take refuge from the heat of the day with a stroll down the leafy Avenida da Liberdade. It’s home to some of the city’s most fashionable designer stores but it’s the flea market that captivates us. Set up under the trees, it’s a microcosm of Portuguese life. There are tiny silver boxes, china, jewellery, toys, fur coats and, joy of joys for my motorhead husband, a concourse of vintage cars.
We follow the avenue down to the harbour and the magnificent Praça do Comércio, once the site of the king’s palace, which was destroyed in the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 and rebuilt. Its vast colonnades on three sides of the square shelter numerous restaurants and cafés. We stop at one of them to enjoy an ice-cold beer and a plate of sardines escabeche – sardines with onion, tomato and vinegar – which is perfect with the beer and a staple on most café menus.
The busy streets here in the old town are a maze of narrow cobblestoned lanes lined with centuries-old buildings adorned with Portugal’s famous blue and white painted tiles, or azulejos. The tiles had a practical as well as a decorative purpose. Apparently they protected the building against the damp and the heat, not to mention the noise.
Lisbon is one of Europe’s oldest capitals, predating London and Rome. Settled by the Phoenicians in 1200BC, it has been invaded numerous times since. The Moors overran it in 711 and ruled there for the next four centuries, and the ruins of the
Moorish Castelo de São Jorge still dominate the ancient hillside precinct of Alfama. We stand in the shade of the cork trees in the castle grounds, serenaded in the golden late-afternoon light by a flock of canaries.
In the evening the old town comes alive with the passionate, mournful sounds of Fado. Fado is essentially traditional Portuguese soul music. It drifts out of the cafés and bars, enticing you in. Its singers are theatrical, full of drama and angst.
The songs are wild, speaking of pain, love and betrayal. You need to hear it!
We drive north from Lisbon along the “Marginal”, a coastal highway that links the capital with the hilltop town of Sintra. The rocky cliff-tops and golden sandy coves are dotted with 17th-century fortresses built to protect the entrance to the Targus River and Lisbon.
Sintra is a popular day trip from Lisbon and by the middle of the day can be overrun with tourists. Best advice is to stay a night or two so you can avoid the crowds and wander its magical streets in peace.
We stay at Lawrence’s Hotel – built in 1764, it claims to be one of the oldest hotels in the world. British poet Lord Byron stayed here and in fact Sintra features in part of his epic poem Childe Harold. “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and glen,” he wrote. He was right. Sintra is indeed an Eden. The lush green hillsides fold in on one another. Fairytale palaces and gardens dot the landscape and the ruins of a
Moorish castle stand guard over the town below.
The Portuguese royals came here to the hills to escape the heat of summer. Their palace is right in the centre of town. It’s furnished and well worth a visit. The Palácio Nacional dates back to the 14th century and sports some exquisite painted ceilings, among them one of chattering magpies. The story goes that the king was caught by his queen sweet-talking one of her ladiesin-waiting. She was understandably furious at this betrayal. The ladies gossiped about his indiscretion and on hearing he’d been talked about, the angry king had a bunch of twittering magpies painted on the ceiling as a warning to the ladies not to gossip. At least he didn’t chop their heads off!
One of the most intriguing of Sintra’s many charms, though, is Quinta da Regaleira. It was once the summer home of an eccentric millionaire businessman, Carvalho Monteiro. Monteiro was interested in the occult and fascinated by alchemy, masonry and the Knights Templar. There are many nods to that in the house. He employed the set designer from La Scala opera, Luigi Manini, to help create his dream house and garden. It is certainly theatrical.
The sumptuous grounds are criss-crossed by a series of tunnels and grottoes, some of which you wouldn’t want to explore on your own, as they’re downright spooky. Especially the “Initiation” wells. Never actually used for water gathering, they were instead apparently part of secret initiation ceremonies for Tarot.
We enter from above and weave our way gingerly down the circular stone staircase in the dark. There is no water at the bottom, just a beautifully tiled inscription. Getting out is another matter. We creep through a dark tunnel and are suddenly face-to-face with a large waterfall. The brave use the stepping stones to exit. Fearing a drenching, I opt for another tunnel.
In the steep cobbled backstreets of Sintra we stumble across a tiny hole-inthe-wall wine bar. It’s lunchtime, but the Portuguese drink port at all hours of the day so we decide to sample the Fonseca Tawny Port at four euro ($6.30) a glass. It’s mellow and particularly delicious paired with a soft, oozy Queijo Serra da Estrela, a cheese made from sheep’s milk. That, and sardine pâté. They reckon sardines are part of Portuguese DNA. The pâté is seriously good.
There’s one last stop to make before we leave this charming spot. It’s incongruous in this ancient hilltop town but, to this former newshound, like catnip. Sintra’s NewsMuseum is fascinating – three floors dedicated to the gathering of news. All displays are interactive and iPad skills definitely come in handy. You can even record your own “stand up”… not quite as easy as it looks!
We are sorry to leave this sunny, relaxed old lady of Europe. Hopefully it won’t be long until we return.
LEFT FROM TOP: The tomb of Vasco da Gama. The custard tarts (pastéis de nata), once created by monks and now a specialty of Pastéis de Belém café in Lisbon.
TOP, FROM LEFT: Lawrence’s Hotel, Sintra. The magpie ceiling in Palácio Nacional. LEFT: The theatrical garden and one of the wells at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra.