Travel:

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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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