Portugal – the unsung corner of Europe. We had little idea about what to expect here, except that we knew the pastries would be very good. And they were! Initially, we were expecting Portugal to be similar to Spain but perhaps a bit quieter. However, as one writer described Iberia, “Portugal and Spain are like two people in a room with their back to each other”. This is an apt description of the differences that we noticed between the two countries.
The first view we had of Portugal was around 7am at Abrantes station on the way from Madrid to Lisbon. It was true, everything is covered in tiles in Portugal including the outside walls of the train stations. Beautiful patterned tiles covered the station house and the platform walls. All walking surfaces were also tiled. Now I understood why the Portuguese fellow who tiled our kitchen wanted to tile the entire apartment. Beyond the station, the other main difference with the middle of Spain was how green and lush the landscape is in Portugal.
We changed trains in Lisbon and headed 2 hours north to Coimbra, half way to the northern border. Coimbra is noted for having one of the oldest Universities in Europe (founded in the 1200s). It is very active and still regarded highly in Portugal. The campus is on the hill overlooking the town and river below. Coimbra has a very similar setting to Florence, but is much smaller and much greener. We visited the old halls, chapel and library. The library with frescoed ceiling has over 40000 volumes some dating back a few hundred years. We also visited the old part of town below the university with its labyrinth of streets, snaking up and down the hills.
Another thing that struck us in Portugal was that there are more overweight people here than any other place I have been on this trip. This seems worse in the rural areas than in Lisbon, but is very noticeable. A visit to a restaurant for lunch in Coimbra shed a bit of light on the reasons behind this obesity problem – the portions were huge! We subsequently discovered that many restaurants offer half portions, but the restaurant we visited did not indicate this anywhere on the menu. The food was very good, just too much of it. Combined with the ubiquitous pastry shops that are on every corner, it is easy to see why it is difficult to maintain a slim figure here.
After spending the night in Coimbra we headed south to Fatima. Fatima is world famous for the apparitions of the Virgin Mary that appeared initially to some children one night in the 1910s. The children’s story of the apparition was initially discounted by all, but they were vindicated when the apparitions appeared 6 more times on the 13th of every subsequent month. These occurrences transformed Fatima from a sleepy farming village to a major Christian pilgrimage site, and all the souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants that go along with supporting the needs of the flock. There is now a basilica on the site with a paved square that can accommodate a few hundred thousand people. This square looked larger than the one in front of St. Peter’s in Rome.
We continued south to Lisbon which we made our base for the next 5 days. Lisbon had to be the most laid back non-tropical city that I had ever been to – no one seemed to be in a hurry here! We stayed in the old downtown section near the waterfront. This area is dominated by large squares and pedestrian malls with lots of shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes. Most of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid 1700s, so most of the buildings in this area are 100 to 200 years old, complete with all of the intricate design of those times. This was definitely a strollers paradise, which combined with the warm weather made for great people watching.
However, Lisbon is more than old buildings and squares, and boasts the largest mall in the Iberian Peninsula with over 400 stores, 10 cinemas and all the amenities that you would expect to find in a North American shopping center. We decided to take a break from the past and live in the present for a day by spending a few hours doing some “cultural anthropological studies” of the local population’s shopping habits. Another bonus was that all Hollywood movies are shown in English with subtitles in Portuguese, so we took advantage of this to watch A Beautiful Mind (highly recommended).
We headed back to the 18th century visiting the Belem district in Western Lisbon. This was the home port of Vasco De Gama and more importantly the home of Pasteis de Belem, the shop that created the Pasteis de Nata cream tarts in 1837, one of the finest exports to come out of Portugal. Belem is also home to the Coach Museum which has the largest collection of horse drawn carriages used by royalty and nobility in Europe. Some of the coaches had incredibly intricate relief sculptures on their frames, more suitable to a stationary object than one that would be abused by the elements outdoors. Click here for more information on this museum. Another highlight in Belem that we visited was the San Jeronimos monastery which features some of the best examples of Manueline architecture in Portugal (concrete rope like style used to make the support beams, done in the reign of King Manuel). This building was built in the 16th century and was one of the few to survive the earthquake.
The following day we visited Sintra, 18km northwest of Lisbon and home to the National Palace, Pena Palace and Moorish Castle Ruins.
Sintra was the summer home of the Portuguese Royalty as it is on a hill near the ocean and a few degrees cooler than Lisbon. Our first stop was the National Palace near the train station and the heart of Sintra. This palace set the tone for what was to come later that day at Pena Palace – elaborate tile work on the walls and frescoed ceilings reminiscent of those in Italy. A short bus ride of the hill brought us to the remains of a Moorish Castle built in the 10th century and restored in the 19th century. These ruins offered a glimpse of the type of castle used by the Moors to defend their cities, and today offer an outstanding view of the Atlantic and Sintra below. Pena Palace, a 15-minute walk further up the hill, was the crown jewel of Sintra. This palace built in the 1840s had even more intricate tiled walls and renaissance style artwork , combined with trompe l’ouel finished ceilings. This involves painting a 3D pattern onto the ceiling which gives the impression that there is elaborate crown moulding around the perimeter of the ceiling. Very impressive technique that had me fooled initially. More information on Sintra can be found here.
One of the most pleasant aspects about travelling in Portugal was how helpful and friendly the people were. On two occasions people went out of their way to make sure we got on the right bus and got off at the right stop. One day we got on the city bus to go to the tile museum of Lisbon. We had a rough idea where it was and decided to get off when we saw the street. However, a man tried to tell us that we should wait to get off at the next stop as he figured the museum was the place we were trying to go to. We decided to get off anyway, but the driver yelled to us to get back on, so we did, and he dropped us at the next stop right in front of the museum!
As mentioned above, Portugal is famous for its tile work, and so it is only fitting that there is a tile museum in Lisbon devoted to the history of this incredible art form. The museum explained the methods by which the tiles were made and displayed many of large mosaics that were recovered from buildings damaged in the earthquake. This is a highly recommended stop if you are at all interested in decorative tiles.
No trip to Portugal would be complete without visiting the Port Wine Institute in Lisbon. This was a great wine-tasting bar where you could sip Port in plush seats, smoke a Cohiba cigar and watch the world go by. We tried about 6 types of Port and ended up buying a bottle as a souvenir. I had never been a big fan of Port, but the Porto Barros (Imperial Ruby) was really smooth, and so I had no choice but to buy a bottle! I could have bought plenty as they don’t have too much tax on liquor in Europe but the weight quickly adds up!
We then headed across downtown and up the other side of the small hill overlooking Lisbon to the San Jorge Castle. This offers spectacular sunset views of the city and is a great way to finish off the day. The five days in Lisbon went fast, and on the Saturday Marg was on her way back to Canada after her three week Iberian vacation and Peter took the night train to the Hendaye in South Western France near Spain and then another train to Paris, where the journey continues.