London Diary – A weekend in Lisbon

Feb 11, 2016

We took our first trip to Europe from London! It was a last minute decision; I booked on Thursday a flight and hotel package from lastminute.com, and we were gone the next day to Lisbon for a long weekend. Why Lisbon? Because we had never been there, and Lisbon was the city out of the list of interest that had warmer temperature and sunshine on the forecast.

Lisbon is immensely impressive. Situated north of mighty Tagus River, it is very pretty with its colorful, handsome buildings, which were built mostly after the 1755 earthquake that wreaked havoc to the city. Lisbon is also home to a number of imposing landmarks, including some UNESCO sites.

Our hotel being at Marque de Pombal, the city gave off a grand first impression. Marque de Pombal is a vast roundabout surrounded by many midrise buildings and dominated in the center by a spacious square and a tremendous, imposing monument to first Marquis of Pombal, who was to Portuguese people a great leader that led the country through the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in 1755. Continuing southward from the roundabout is the impressive, broad boulevard Avenue Liberade. It has tree lined, statue adorned, and decorated cobble sidewalk on both sides that are as wide as the motorway.

Throughout the weekend, I noticed most of the pedestrian walkways are decorated cobbles. It seems a rather labor intensive way of making and maintaining the streets so I asked our guide, Lidia, about that later. To her, it couldn’t be more natural; that is just the way it is done there. The area is rich in limestone and basalt. Slates are laid down and tools are used to “chop, chop, chop” them down into cobbles, using limestone as the pavement and basalt for embellishment.

Top Lisbon attractions are conveniently located in Alfama and Belem areas of the city.

Alfama is Lisbon’s historic old town. Hilly with narrow cobble streets, it is home to Cathedral Se and St George’s Castle among others. It is easy to walk up to the cathedral. For the castle, bus 737 is one option, the other is to take a Tuk Tuk, a golf cart like taxi that you find plenty of outside the cathedral. Although it gets very bumpy on the cobble streets, it is a good option for a tour of 30 minute (€35) or one hour (€40) that takes you to multiple points on the hill, including some of the many lovely lookouts (Miradouros). Conquistador near the entrance to the castle is a nice place to eat.

Our Tuk Tuk driver cum tour guide told us she was from Barcelona and had lived in Lisbon for ten years. Having seen Flemenco in Seville Spain, admired and enjoyed it very much, I asked about the difference between Flamenco and Portuguese Fado. She was quite animated in giving her answer, “Fado is very sad, Flamenco is happy”.

At the bottom of the hill is the stunning Rua Augusta Arch, Lisbon’s own Arch of Triumph, overlooking Commerce Square on the river’s bank, where you have an open view of Tagus river, Almada (the city south of Tagus), Christ the King (a statue on Almada that looks the same as the one in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil) and 25 de Abril Bridge that was built by the American Company that built Golden Gate and looks like Golden Gate. Between Commerce Square and Rossio Square near the end of Avenue Liberade is a nice and vibrant area with restaurants and shops.

Belem is a beautiful waterfront area further west, home to the stunning Jeronimos Monastery, Monument to Age of Discovery, Belem Tower, beautiful garden of parterres and water fountain, and museums. There are many option for getting to Belem, bus, tram, trolley, a few Tuk Tuk and taxis. While in the neighborhood, try a few pastries at Café Pasteis de Belem, which I luckily learnt of from the young woman sitting next to me on the flight. The café specializes in a variety of pastries and is especially famous for Pateis de Belem, a delicious sweet pastry with crunchy tart and crème brulee like filling. Pateis de Belem originates from Café Pasteis de Belem but it is so popular that it is available now at almost every bakery in the city.

The most memorable for me however was the visit to Sintra, a picturesque small town 18 miles west of Lisbon, and its stunningly beautiful coast on the Atlantic. We took a train from Rossio Train Station in Lisbon to get to Sintra. Once there, we booked at the station a private tour with Green Walk tourcompany. With our driver and guide Lidia, who was patient, friendly and a wealth of information, we saw some of beautiful sites.

The tour first headed out to the coast before returning to Sintra. We stopped at Apple Beach (Parai das Macas), Azenhas do Mar, which is a breathtakingly gorgeous village built on top of a cliff overlooking its little beach, Parai Grande (Big Beach), Cabo da Roca, which is a cape jutting into Atlantic ocean and the most westerly point of the continent, and Peninha, a Chapel atop a rocky hill with a stunning surrounding beyond Cascais & Sintra National Park. Driving through Cascais & Sintra National Park towards Sintra, the phenomenon of Boulder Field awaited, fields and fields of limestone boulders popping out left and right all the way through.

Sintra is a picturesque town spread across the hillside. Five minute from the train station is the town center and Sintra National Palace. Stroll through the narrow streets in town center, you might stumble across some view point, or a wine shop named after Lord Byron who visited the town, or Piriquita, a café and pastry shop.

Our guide recommended Piriquita to us. We waited in line, which moved fast, and tried the traditional pastry, which has sweet tasty creamy filling in a crepe like wrap but crunchy on top, and was absolutely delicious! A few minutes later, we ran into another one of the same shop, with a line spilled out to the street.

At the end of the day, Pena Palace is the crown jewel of Sintra. Perched on top of the highest locale in Sintra, overlooking the Moorish Fortress and stunning valleys around, and fantastically colorful, it is like nothing I had seen before. But wait, I had seen it before, in a fairytale! That was the perfect end to a day in Sintra.

A few post scripts. State run museums in Lisbon close on Mondays. Transportation is much less expensive than London, all metro rides are €1.25 each, regardless the distance. Train ride from Rossio Train Station to Sintra, a 20 mile and 40 minute ride, costs as little as €4, round trip. Lisbon’s transport card is paper and costs €0.50, London’s plastic Oyster card costs £5.

But I was happy to be back to London, London seems so much more vibrant. By the end of the weekend in Lisbon, I had noticed a sign of neglect throughout the city, especially the area outside of Alfama and Belem, trash, graffiti, rusty windows, faded paint, chipped and dirty walls. Whatever difficulty the city is experiencing, I hope it’ll rise to the challenge, come out bigger and better. After all, it had done it before. Best wishes to Lisbon and its kind people.

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