We had two days at our disposal in central Lisbon and topped it with a full day excursion to Sintra. Neither should be enjoyed in less time, preferably more. On the other hand we left with a feeling of having seen much and visited marvellous places.
This is the second chapter from an eight day road trip in Portugal in the summer of 2013.
The first chapter revealed the plan I and the lady made before going, offering an overview of places of interest to us (mainly cultural sites and fine scenery). The planning document includes a number of websites and videos helping us prepare for the vacation. I would believe our plan would be of inspiration to others. It worked.
The next two chapters will be about our journey inland from Lisbon and north to Portugal’s second city, Porto, as well as a drive through the famous Douro Valley.
Day 1, Lisbon – Baixa and Alfama
We had booked a hotel at the outskirts of downtown Lisbon. The Hotel Lutecia has the appearance of a business hotel, with a professional staff, and an alright room and breakfast. The guests were tourists like us. It was situated only a few blocks from the Roma metro station, providing a 10 minute ride right into the historical old town of Lisbon. The taxi from the airport (3.5 km) cost us 8 euros.
We bought a 72-hour Lisboa Card (39 euros) at the airport offering us free transportation and access to a number of museums in Lisbon and also in other towns in central Portugal, places we would be visiting roughly within the 72-hour timeframe.
Arriving on Tuesday we had planned on rushing off to the bi-weekly famed Feira da Ladra market, known in English as the “Thieves’ Market”. Our experience is that markets just about anywhere are superb ways to get a sense of what life in a country is about. Arriving a bit too late in the day we realised we had to drop it. Instead we opened one of our guidebooks and found a walking tour, which we more or less tried to follow this first half day.
The Baixa are, Praça do Dom Pedro IV
Our first stop was at the Praça do Dom Pedro IV, one of four major squares in downtown Lisbon, in the Baixa area. (The other three are the nearby squares of Figueira and Restauradores, and Comércio down by the river.) Exiting a metro station for the first time sets your senses on alert: Where are we, in what direction are we heading and so on. Well, we had a quick look at the Dom Pedro and walked over to the Figueira only a block away. Here we had a great view up to the Castle of São Jorge (St. George). The old Moorish castle, and its surrounding park, is the dominating feature almost everywhere you go in the old town of Lisbon.
We asked our way and after a walk through some fascinating side streets we found the Praça Restauradores, the actual starting point of the walking tour described in our guidebook. We had by now already noticed that this central part of Lisbon was filled with the ultimate sign of Portuguese architecture: The glazed tile walls. Azulejos might be considered the Portuguese contribution to the world’s building decorations. There are certainly tiles in other countries as well but I have not seen anywhere the number of exterior walls completely covered with this kind of mosaic. On modest buildings, the pattern is repetitive in the sense that all tiles are alike. On others, and in particular in castles, monasteries and parks, the patterns depict different motifs.
Secondly, we did not fail to notice how the pedestrian streets and pavements are paved: There is a use of black and white coloured cobble stones that are quite unique to the Portuguese culture. The patterns have at times a close to psychedelic appearance. My first impression of them was in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (A picture is included in the next chapter.)
The Restauradores is the largest of these large praças (squares). Here too the traffic around the square was quite noisy. It had the ubiquitous statue in the middle. At the one end the tree-lined wide Avenida da Liberdade starts it straight run slightly uphill. We did not fancy having a look at this shopping street so we looked slightly left and noticed a fascinating sight.
The Glória funicular runs steep uphill, into the Bairro Alto district. We planned on visiting the Alto in the evening, for this is where Lisbon’s nightlife is centred. Despite this, we could not resist the temptation to enter the funicular, flashing our Lisboa Card (and “saving” 3.6 euro for the ride one way), and find a place to stand up front.
Lisbon is a port city, and was the base for the great Portuguese explorations of the seven seas in the 15th and early 16th centuries. The city is actually not situated on the sea, but on the very wide river Tejo (Tagusin English). In any case, the old parts of the city were built on the banks of the Tejo and on the adjacent hillsides. The lower and higher parts are joined by a network of staircases, hairpin streets, and four elevators including the very special Santa Justa elevator and the Glória funicular.
It was a rather bumby ride uphill, but utterly fascinating. The equipment dates back a hundred years and more, and so do the old trams that squeak the streets in the city centre. We survived the ride and ended up on a wonderful viewpoint called the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. It is a shaded park with trees, a fountain, street performers and vendors, tourists – and a fabulous view of the city down below.
Standing on the edge of the High town (Bairro Alto) we faced the São Jorge Hill across the Baixa district with its straight lined streets. A nice, cooling breeze made the hot day rather pleasant and the photo ops were a-plenty.
We took the funicular back down and found available seats this time. It doesn’t take more than about five minutes anyway. Having become reasonably familiar with the praças we easily found our way down to the Figeiroa and the street called Rua de Augusta. This pedestrian street, being one of the straight ones of theBaixa, leads directly down to the Praça do Comércio, the largest square in Portugal. In one of the side streets we caught a glimpse of the Elevador de Santa Justa – a remarkable sight. We would be returning the next evening.
We entered the Comércio square through a large triumphal arch and found a huge square. The buildings lining it were pompous, kind of Portuguese I suppose, and quite a number of people had gathered at the riverside. For no particular reason, it seemed.
There was no need to hesitate so we backed into the streets and found our way into the Alfama district tucked in between the river and the São Jorge hill. The walking tour in our guide book had a quite detailed description of which streets to discover on the way up to the São Jorge Hill, and on the way down. Our maps were either not good enough, or we failed to read them properly. In any case we decided to skip the São Jorge (apparently in contrast to most tourists who were either heading up, or coming down from the castle).
We did not skip the Alfama district however. Most tourists seem to be taking the tram no 28 partly uphill and then walk the last bit to the castle. We took the tram for a roundtrip after having visited the Madalena church, then the cathedral of Lisbon (called Sé) and finally the wonderful miradouro in the Jardim Júlio de Castilho next to the white church of Santa Luzia. From here we proceeded down into the Alfama streets where only locals go. We met very few tourists here.
For a first time visitor the architecture in Lisbon’s centre looks very much the same. It has the feel of a 19th century European capital. As a matter of fact it is true. Lisbon was destroyed in a 1755 earthquake and had to be almost completely rebuilt. The only part of the capital that survived was Alfama. We were unable to pinpoint the exact buildings dating from that time. Most are probably more recent, but they are all on the cheaper side in terms of value. Alfama has a rather scruffy appearance, with poor, cheap real estate, therefore photogenic to us.
To be honest, that goes for the rest of Lisbon’s historic centre as well. Portugal has since its days of glory five hundred years ago been one of the poorest countries in Western Europe, and it still is despite massive EU funding over the last 25 years. (As we would notice on our road trip to the north of the country, Portugal seems to have stopped completely in its tracks. There is seemingly nothing going on road wise, hardly any private cars and no trucks.)
Fado music and bacalhau
Our first day in Lisbon was coming to a close but we did feel like listening to some fado music. In the evening we found a restaurant in the Alfama neighbourhood and were treated with the Portuguese most famous dish, the bacalhau. The dried and salted cod, usually imported from our country, Norway, comes with potatoes and onions. At least. There are many varieties. It was very tasty, as it would be on numerous occasions in Portugal. I might add that Portuguese menus are unlike most other menus world-wide; at least half the dishes are fish. (We had grilled sardines for lunch, another typical dish.)
This evening we were entertained by two guitar players and three vocalists. The mournful way of singing was fascinating, and we found it equally fascinating that the three singers had so different intonation. Fado is a highly emotional, personal feeling.
Day 2, Lisbon – The riverside and Bairro Alto
Yesterday was very intense, and so was actually day two. I will however try to limit my writing a bit. Yesterday was spent in the predominantly 19th century parts of old Lisbon, in the neighbourhoods of Baixa and Alfama. This day we went back another few hundred years to the sights along the Tagus/Tejo river. A ride with the metro and two local buses brought us to the Torre de Belém.
This 30m high fortification is placed on what is now the river bank but was built in the early 16th century on a small island. It used to be equipped with cannons protecting the city but its historical importance goes beyond that. The tower was built in the Manueline style so typical of Portuguese architecture from that time.
This video is from the three sights: Torre de Belém, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
“Hieronymites and Tower of Belém” is no. 263 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Portugal’s Age of Discovery, the country’s days of glory, sent many sailors off on voyages that would be both dangerous and rewarding. The Belém would be the starting point for many of them and the last sight of their homeland. This video offers a quick introduction to the tower and to the beautiful Jeronimos Monastery as well as the “Monument to the Discoveries”
Monument to the Discoveries
Portugal’s Age of Discovery, the country’s days of glory, sent many sailors off on voyages that would be both dangerous and rewarding. To name but a few: Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Fernando Magellan. This tower would be the starting point for many of them and the last sight of their homeland. The Belém Tower serves as a symbol of the country, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We crossed the moat, went inside and up the steps to the top. The stonework is lavish and impressive. There was a great view of the river and the bank. Further up the river we could see the next point of interest to us, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, literally “Monument to the Discoveries”
This monument was inaugurated in 1960 in an effort to boost the country’s morale at a time the Salazar dictatorship regime was beginning to feel uncomfortable. It has an expression of pride and celebration, commemorating the famous explorers. Henry the Navigator leads the crowd, pointing the way out to sea. We took the elevator to the top, 52 metres up, and had a superb view of the pavement below. The compass rose and the world map is actually a gift from South Africa. The exhibition in the basement is also quite interesting.
The Torre de Belém is a world heritage site in a combination with our next stop, the Hieronymites Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, or Jerónimos Monastery). In my opinion the tower has mostly a symbolic justification for being on the prestigious UNESCO list. The former monastery is on the other hand a very beautiful place. The stonework is insanely intricate and beautiful.
It was built in 1502 by King Manuel I, the man behind the style. Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer here before leaving for India. Vasco would later return in a coffin but found his final resting place here anyway. Still, this was a monastery given to the Order of Saint Jerome (Hieronymites). They stayed here for more than 300 years, until 1833 when all religious orders in Portugal were dissolved following a governmental decree.
An evening in the Bairro Alto
We spent the evening in Bairro Alto, the “high town” neighbourhood of Lisbon and took the Santa Justa lift to get there. It is an amazing thing to do. We were not the only ones to do that, nor aiming at the most famous part of Lisbon. The streets were teeming with life: tourists and locals, pavement restaurant tables, indoor restaurants, bars and so on. We had a fantastic meal at a place I can’t remember the name of and walked the streets back to the metro station only to find out we were too late. Service was suspended around midnight. We found a taxi.
Another video from Lisbon
This is a video introduction to squares, districts, food and transportation in Lisbon.
Day 3, Sintra
What is this and how to get there?
Sintra is a small town to the west of Lisbon, not more than a 40 minute train ride away. The trains leave the Rossio station in the city centre every 15 minutes or so. We used our Lisboa cards here as well. Hence it has become a popular destination for day-trippers from Lisbon. The reason we all go are two-fold: The palaces and the hills.
There are many palaces scattered around in the Sintra area, and one will have a hard time reaching them all. Most tourists will do the same we did: Start at the National Palace in the town centre, take a bus (no 434) uphill to the Moorish castle and then board the same bus further uphill to the fantastic Pena Palace. The bus brings you right back to the station.
We lunched in the town, a very picturesque town of course. Come to think of it, we had a plain olive appetizer. In Portugal they would normally place a whole range of appetizers on your table, like cold sardines, and fresh and matured cheese. You pay for what you eat.
Some would prefer to walk between the palaces, but it is very hilly and the summer temperatures are high. On the other hand the scenery is stunning: Green, green forests wherever you go. The parks offer several good hiking trails for those who have time to spend.
The Moors built their fortress on a couple of hills in the 8th and 9th centuries. If you climb to the top you will have a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside, of the town centre down below and of the free-fantasy palace called Pena on the highest hill of them all.
A World Heritage
The cultural landscape of Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The justification for it is briefly explained like this:
“In the 19th century Sintra became the first centre of European Romantic architecture. Ferdinand II turned a ruined monastery into a castle where this new sensitivity was displayed in the use of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance elements and in the creation of a park blending local and exotic species of trees. Other fine dwellings, built along the same lines in the surrounding serra , created a unique combination of parks and gardens which influenced the development of landscape architecture throughout Europe.”
Ferdinand’s masterpiece was the palace of Pena. It is pure fantasy. There are so many details, so many extravagant sculptures and towers, and so richly decorated interior that one cannot resist thinking that this must have been the work of a madman. Gaudi comes to mind.
My video from Sintra
The video is from this trip to Sintra and the illustration is from the Pena Palace.
The Cultural Landscape of Sintra” is no. 723 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. There are many palaces scattered around in the Sintra area, and one will have a hard time reaching them all. Most tourists will do the same we did: Start at the National Palace in the town centre, take a bus (no 434) uphill to the Moorish castle and then board the same bus further uphill to the fantastic Pena Palace.
You have just read chapter two in my series from Portugal. Coming up next is the road trip inland and north in the country.
This series consists of these chapters.
(1) The Plan
(2) Lisbon and Sintra
(3) Évora, Óbidos, Alcobaça, Batalha and Coimbra
(4) Porto and the Douro Valley
This is (roughly) how we ended up travelling. The return from the Douro to Lisbon is not included here.