At the beginning of April, I took a 9-day trip to Portugal with my dear and long-time friend Katherine. It was originally her idea; it was never on my radar and I wasn’t jonesing to go, so she kinda had to persuade me. The first big wonder: WHY DID I NOT KNOW how marvelous Portugal is?
Lisbon art and architecture
We flew to Lisbon and spent the first few days walking around what is a veritable outdoor museum. Every corner, every plaza, every structure was picture-worthy, which is why this post is more photo album than musings!
I was immediately taken by the intricate tile work, a moorish influence that gives the city its unique charm. Not only are many of the buildings covered in decorative mosaics, but most of the sidewalks and pavement have patterned cobblestones. You are surrounded by art and literally walking ON art.
Wandering around the Chiado, Alfama, and Rossio districts, we saw cable cars, cathedrals and churches, monumental statues (mostly of kings and conquerers usually on horses), playful fountains, random street art, and the highly decorative Rossio train station.
Because it is a hilly city, there are stairs, funiculars, and an elaborate wrought-iron seven-story elevator (Elevador de Santa Justa) to help people get to higher ground.
We sampled the ubiquitous codfish (bacalhau) and cherry liquor (ginjinha) on a walking tour and other culinary delights at a street fair. Oddly, cod fish is not native to Portugal waters, has to be imported, and is still the most prevalent offering.
We strolled past (but didn’t enter) nightclubs that featured the melancholy Fado music. Luckily, we happened upon a TUNA, university students performing classical Portuguese music on the street, looking a bit Harry-Potter-ish.
Cruising the Rio Tejo
Our first night, we enjoyed a sunset cruise on a “luxury sailboat” along the Rio Tejo (Tagus River). It is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, making the city a vibrant port since the Roman times and Portugal’s launching point in the 14th-century age of exploration and conquest. Fittingly, its maritime success is memorialized at a prominent point along the river bank in the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries).
The walk from our hotel to the pier was another visual treat with artistic graffiti decorating many of the warehouses.
Sailing along, we passed under the Ponte 25 de Abril (April 25 Bridge), one of the longest suspension bridges in Europe. We had cloudy skies (but no rain), lots of wine, amiable guides, and the city in panorama.
The magic of Sintra
We booked a full-day guided tour that took us by van to this UNESCO World Heritage site 18 miles NW of Lisbon. Situated in forested hills, it has its own micro-climate that supports over 1000 species of plants and provided the royalty and wealthy an escape from the summer heat. All we read about it — “a page torn from a fairy tale”, “a storybook setting”, “stunning” , “whimsical” — was true. I wish we could have stayed longer. If you have the opportunity…just GO!
Our visit included these three palaces and a mansion, all as marvelous inside as out:
- Palácio Nacional da Pena, built on the site of a ruined monastery with a vividly painted exterior, it is considered the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal and has been restored to its 1910 splendor.
- Palácio Nacional de Sintra, the original palace with iconic twin conical chimneys was favored by the early Portuguese rulers. This royal residence was once home to Prince Henry the Navigator and is one of the few medieval palaces in the world that remains almost intact.
- Monserrate Palace, a fanciful Moorish-Gothic-Indian structure with extensive, exotic gardens, it was the 19th-century romantic folly of English millionaire Sir Francis Cook.
- Quinta da Regaleira, a neo-gothic mansion rife with mystical symbolism and surreal gardens, which contain a Knights of Templar initiation well.
We did not get to tour the ancient ruins of a Moorish castle, Castelo dos Mouros, that once guarded the area from it high perch. Maybe next time?
But wait, there’s more…
After three days in Lisbon, we rented a little car and my brave friend drove us down the coast to explore the seaside towns, scenic cliffs, and renown maritime caves before returning to Lisbon and then home.