Lisbon – December 2014
As a history buff, I have always been fascinated by small nation states that have maximized its resources to extend its reach beyond its borders and establish a global empire. The Spanish Empire from the mid to late 1700s, which encompassed over 7.5 million square miles, comes to mind. Relatively half the size of Spain, the United Kingdom established the British Empire from the early 1500s through the latter half of the 20th century, spanning over 13 million square miles at one point…but even smaller still is Portugal. At just over a third the size of the UK, Portugal was able to establish what is considered the first global empire and the longest-lasting empire in history, with the 4 million square mile Portuguese Empire covering multiple continents and lasting from the early 1400s until 2002, when East Timor was granted its sovereignty. How the heck were they able to do that? So when it came time to plan a trip in early December, my wife and I sought out an itinerary that would cover Spain and Portugal…relatively warm locales compared to the rest of Europe in early to mid-December. We visited Barcelona and Madrid, Spain’s seat of power, so it just made sense to head out to Lisboa or Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, for our Portuguese excursion.
Prior to our trip, we enlisted the help of a “Portuguese speaker” to arm us with some basic Portuguese to endear us to locals. Our daughter took Portuguese in college and she even went to Brazil on a college trip…but she really wasn’t much help to us…making a likely excuse that the Portuguese they speak in Brazil is not quite the same as the Portuguese they speak in Portugal. What? Oi muito prazer! I suppose the English the Brits speak somewhat differs from what Americans speak (sometimes, Europeans I have spoken to remark that Americans speak American and not English…whatever)…but they still understand each other for the most part. Unless it’s Cockney…then all bets are off.
OVERVIEW: Lisbon is located along the Tagus River (which snakes its way down from Spain, and we saw it when we visited Toledo, Spain), the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, and the Atlantic Ocean. A hilly city considered the westernmost major city in continental Europe, its old world charm attracts tourists making it the 7th most-visited city in Southern Europe, after Istanbul, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens and Milan.
As one of the oldest cities in the world (and of course the hub of an empire during the Age of Discovery in the 15th through 17th centuries), Lisbon has an interesting history from the Roman Era, to the Middle Ages when Lisbon fell to Muslim forces who were mainly Berbers and Arabs from North Africa and Middle East, through the Crusades in the mid-12th century and the eventual recapture of Lisbon under Christian rule, through conflicts with Castile, Age of Discovery, and the Golden Era of the 16th century, to a conquest by Napoleon…Lisbon has been through a lot of history. Lisbon has also suffered through some major earthquakes, none more devastating than the 1755 earthquake. The November 1755 earthquake killed more than 20% of the city’s population and destroyed about 85% of the city’s structures. This earthquake became the impetus for the city to be rebuilt following a modern design which stands to this day.
On October 5, 1910, the Portuguese Republic was established as a result of a coup d’état that deposed the ruling monarchy, forcing the last king of Portugal, King Manuel II, to go into exile in Galicia, Spain and eventually to London.
LOGISTICS: We flew on EasyJet from Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD) into Lisbon Portela Airport (LIS). It was a quick hour and 20 minute flight, accounting for the time difference between the two cities, with Lisbon an hour behind Madrid. One can travel more economically via trains that connect the two cities, but our tight schedule and aversion to long travel times made train travel out of the question. For our return flight to Venice, we took a TAP Portugal flight (interestingly enough, our flight was booked through the Alitalia website thinking we could get our Delta SkyMiles credit…but no) as they seem to be one of a couple of airlines providing direct flights between the two destinations (Iberia Airlines being the other, although more limited in number of flights).
For transport from the Lisbon airport to the city center, we opted for a private transfer with Holiday Taxis booked though EasyJet for £30 round trip. We were picked up at the airport in a nice Mercedes Benz but dropped off at the airport in a Ford station wagon…you win some and you lose some. Other options for airport transfer are the special airport buses run by Aerobus servicing the airport and the city center for €3.50 per person one way. There are also regular buses one can take from the airport to the city…however the Transportes de Lisboa site isn’t too user friendly if you are interested in checking time tables. You can also take the metro from the airport to the city, with a transfer at the financial district, with a one-way ticket for €1.90 or the daily pass (which allows you to use the metro, bus, trams and trains) for €6. For more in depth information and to figure out what ticket is appropriate, consult the Carris website. Taxis are also available for about €15 – €20 from the airport to the city center.
Being a hilly city, trams and funiculars were everywhere. We took the historic Tram 28 up to Castelo Sao Jorge and walked down to the Alfama district. Tram 28 traverses one of the steepest tracks in the world, built back in the 1930s. I don’t think you can claim you’ve been in Lisbon unless you get on one of the older trams, specifically Tram 28. Although at €2.85 per person one-way, tram tickets weren’t exactly cheap.
We stayed in Hotel Santa Justa Lisboa in the Baxia district of Lisbon. The hotel was in an ideal location, amid all the restaurants, shops and night life. It is within walking distance to all attractions (except for Belem, considered a suburb, where we took a train) and a convenient hub to enjoy the city from. Located at the base of a hill, one can walk up from Baixa/Rossio to Chiado district or take one of the funiculars servicing both districts…or another option would be to get on the Santa Justa Lift for €5 per person.
We enjoyed Lisbon and its surrounding areas but I think we enjoyed our small group day trips even better, which were booked with Inside Lisbon through Viator with no more than 6 or 7 to a group, making for a more enjoyable and intimate tour. We explored Sintra, Cape Roca, Cascais Fatima, Batalha, Nazare, and Obidos. If you can, request a tour with Luis or Andre, or both. They were both knowledgeable, professional, engaging, and spoke English very well.
Belém Tower or the Tower of St. Vincent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. Located in the town of Belem, considered a suburb of Lisbon, the tower was commissioned by King John II in early 16th century to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.
The Cristo Rei statue, rising prominently on the southern end of Ponte de 25 Abril (or April 25th Bridge – commemorating the Carnation Revolution which toppled the Estado Novo regime on April 25, 1974) spanning the Tagus River, was inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), after the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon visited that monument.
The triumphal arch at Praça do Comércio (aka Terreiro do Paço) was built in 1875. This arch, usually called the Arco da Rua Augusta, was designed by Veríssimo da Costa. It has a clock and statues of the Glory, Ingenuity and Valour (by the French sculptor Calmels) and those of Viriatus, Nuno Álvares Pereira, Vasco da Gama and, of course, the Marquis of Pombal (the architect of modern Lisbon). This was the site of the assassination of Carlos I, the penultimate King of Portugal, in 1908. A couple of years later, the Portuguese monarchy was overthrown.
Rua Augusta is the pedestrian only road between Praça do Comercio and Praça Dom Pedro IV in Rossio. This street and others parallel to it in Baxia, were buzzing with excitement from the live performers to the trendy cafes and restaurants spilling out on to the streets.
The Alfama district is the oldest part of Lisbon. Because its foundation is dense bedrock, it survived the 1755 earthquake, and a walk through this old-fashioned residential neighborhood is now a step back in time. It is a village within a city still made up of narrow streets, tiny squares, churches, and whitewashed houses with tile panels and wrought-iron balconies adorned with pots of flowers, drying laundry, and caged birds.
Fatima. Fatima is one of the most important Catholic shrines in the world dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Fatima’s Sanctuary welcomes millions of pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. Fatima’s fame is due to the apparitions of Our Lady of the Rosary to three shepherd children: Lucia dos Santos and her two younger cousins, Francisco and Jacinta whose remains are interred inside the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima. The Chapel of Apparitions, in the middle of this vast complex, is believed to be the location where the Lady of the Rosary appeared before the three kids back in 1917.
In 1982, Pope John Paul II came on a pilgrimage to Fatima in thanksgiving for his survival from an attempted assassination one year before in St. Peter´s Square and, on his knees, consecrated the Church, all peoples and nations, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The High Cross by the Paul VI Pastoral Center, commemorates the closing of the Holy Year in 1951.
A statue of Nuno Álvares Pereira stands prominently next to the monastery. He lived a very interesting life worthy of a Hollywood movie. He was a Portuguese general of great success who, at age 22, had a decisive role in the 1383-1385 crisis that assured Portugal’s independence from Castile. He later became a mystic, was beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1918 and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Not only does Nazare produce record breaking waves rivaling those witnessed by Astronaut Dr. Laura Miller on “Miller’s planet” in the movie “Interstellar” (what a thought-provoking movie…or maybe I was just tired during a long flight and couldn’t think straight) prior to her eventual demise, I sampled what was arguably the best seafood dish I have ever tasted in my life, in A Tasquinha Restaurant. Their Arroz de Marisco, teeming with the freshest crabs, mussels, clams, and shrimp, was simply sublime…served in huge portions good enough for two people. Man, that was some yummy dish! I still dream about it and it has been a few months. It took a while to prepare, but it was so worth it. I just don’t know how that dish could’ve been improved.
Sintra. The Pena National Palace is a Romanticist palace in Sintra. The palace stands on the top of a hill above the town of Sintra, and on a clear day it can be easily seen from Lisbon and much of its metropolitan area. It is a national monument and constitutes one of the major expressions of 19th-century Romanticism in the world. It has a profusion of styles much in accordance with the exotic tastes of the Romanticism period. The intentional mixture of eclectic styles include the Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
After deciding to disregard a barricade and trudging through some muddy paths, we made it to the Queen’s Throne with marvelous views of Pena Palace.The seat was cut in the rocks where its been said Queen Mary of Portugal used to like to sit to admire the view.
The palace’s history started in the Middle Ages when a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena was built on the top of the hill above Sintra. According to tradition, construction occurred after an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In 1838, King Ferdinand II set out to transform the remains of the monastery into a palace that would serve as a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family.
Prior to heading up to Pena Palace, our guide stopped by Fabrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa in Sintra…this place has been making the pastry cake, queijadas sa Sapa, made with fresh cheese since 1756.
Sintra National Palace is considered the best preserved medieval Royal Palace in Portugal, being inhabited more or less continuously from at least the early 15th century to the late 19th century. It is a significant tourist attraction and is vital part of the cultural landscape of Sintra, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although we were on a guided tour of Sintra, one can easily get to Sintra via direct train from Lisbon to Sintra. There are buses that can then take one from Sintra up to Pena Palace. More intrepid souls can walk up to Pena Palace from town, although the road heading up to Pena Palace is steep, winding, and quite narrow. I would advice against hiking up along the road.
We also went to the walled medieval town of Obidos and Cape Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe. A picturesque, charming town, Obidos gained the attention and patronage of various Portuguese queens, earning the nickname Vila das Rainhas or town of the Queens.
Cascais is a cosmopolitan suburb of the Portuguese capital and one of the richest municipalities in Portugal. The former fishing village gained fame as a resort for Portugal’s royal family in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Nowadays, it is a popular vacation spot for both Portuguese and foreign tourists. Casino Estoril is located here, reportedly the largest casino in all of Europe and the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. While at Cascais, we missed out on tasting famed ice cream from Sabatini…but luckily, they had a booth set up at Praca de Comercio and we tried a cup…quite yummy even on a cold night.
Fatima was spiritual, Nazare was “rad” with the world record for big wave surfing set there by American Garrett McNamara, Batalha was intriguing especially with the story of Nuno Alvares Pereira, Cascais was upscale with its beachside locale, Obidos’ medieval walled setting made it a quaint little village to visit, Sintra was opulent with relics from the monarchy’s summer palace and lavish lifestyle..and Lisbon was the perfect place to explore all of them.
– We found Lisbon to have an eclectic mixture of the old and the new, with some old neighborhoods looking run down yet retaining its charm. We didn’t explore much of the newer part of the city, and just saw most of it on our way to explore areas outside Lisbon. We’ve asked locals, and they may be a bit biased, but they confirmed our belief that it’s better to visit Lisbon and its surrounding areas than Porto. As it was, we only spent part of one afternoon and nights to explore Lisbon, with a majority of our time spent exploring the other attractions outside the city. In retrospect, I think it would have been better had we devoted at least one full day to explore Lisbon.
– Roosters are part of Portuguese lore…with the popular story, relayed by our guide Luis, of a Castilian being saved from execution when his prediction that the roasted chicken served on the local official’s dining table would come alive by daybreak, to pronounce his innocence from accusations of a crime, came true. Maybe this is where the legend of Miracle Mike came from!
– We don’t speak Portuguese and know very little Spanish and some Italian…good thing most of the locals spoke English (or Ingles) and we didn’t have any issues communicating and getting our point across during our brief 3-day visit.
– Lisboêtas love all things sweet…a perfect place for my wife and I to visit. Incidentally, Mel in Portuguese means honey (i.e. bee’s honey)…so apropos.
– Dried and salted cod (or bacalhau) is a staple of Portuguese cuisine and our guide informed us this is what they normally serve and eat for Christmas dinners. I don’t think I would be racing to a Portuguese celebration of Christmas any time soon.
– There was a long line of tourists at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, original maker of Pasteis de Belem, opened in 1837, and it was one of the places we went to on our first day in Portugal. Quite yummy. So popular are they that the shop sells an average 20,000 of these tiny custard parcels a day and up to 50,000 at Christmas time.
– The Ponte 25 de Abril (aka 25th of April Bridge), built in 1966, is often compared to the Golden Gate Bridge but it was built by the American Bridge Company which constructed the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Until 1974, the bridge was named Salazar Bridge. The name “25 de Abril” commemorates the Carnation Revolution, a military coup in 1974 that ended an authoritarian regime in Portugal.
– Ginjinha or simply Ginja, is a Portuguese liqueur made by infusing ginja berries, (sour cherry) with alcohol and adding sugar together with other ingredients. My wife tried Ginja in Sintra, and again in Obidos, served in small, edible chocolate cups. The production of homemade Ginja is a tradition that comes from early times in the region. Enjoying a glass of Ginja in taverns is a strong Portuguese habit that became more sophisticated.