A Travellerspoint blog

Portugal

Lisbon

It’s a shame I visited Lisbon immediately after Porto. I’m enjoying my memories of the city more retrospectively than when I was actually there. I think I naturally fell into the trap of comparing the two cities and I consequently became underwhelmed by Lisbon’s scenery as it failed to match how amazing Porto’s was. That was an unfair valuation however as Lisbon is still an attractive and interesting city, with its own character and differences to its northern rival. Nevertheless, I still had an excellent time in Lisbon and would once more recommend this city for any European itinerary (although not as passionately as for Porto!).

Lisbon is of course the capital of Portugal and its largest city with some 3 million occupants. It traces its roots further back than almost every other major city in the world, as it was originally settled by the Phoenicians (I forget the date, but well before Classical Greek civilisation anyway), which certainly surprised me! It was conquered and occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Moors before being entwined into the modern Portuguese state. Unfortunately though, the city suffered the worst earthquake in recorded European history in 1755, which decimated almost the entire old city and thus obliterated much architectural evidence of the previous societies present there. The only vestiges of the past in the central part of Lisbon are the skeletal remains of the former cathedral, which I stupidly forgot to see. The government at the time responded rapidly and designed a revolutionary new plan for Lisbon, becoming the forerunner to the modern city. To replace the compact district with its disorganised tangle of narrow lanes, typical of older European cities, they established a grid layout featuring wide roads, buildings with uniform height and divided the area into sections which would specialise in specific goods or services. The grid was built on the flattest area of central Lisbon and begins with a series of squares at the base of a gradual ascent and terminates at the largest square in Europe, which is located river side.

Lisbon is strewn along a wide river near its mouth to the Atlantic and almost appears as though its located on a bay. The river is so large that it requires a suspension bridge, harrowingly similar in appearance to the Golden Gate Bridge, in order to cross. The central area of the old town of Lisbon is the aforementioned grid, which has become the city’s primary shopping and restaurant district, and on either side of the grid are steep hills overlooking the river. My hostel was located in a district on one of these hills, the Alfama. The layout of this area contrasts with the grid substantially as it maintains the narrow and winding street plans and features a diversity of building typologies (in comparison to the uniformity of the grid). One of the most attractive sights in Lisbon is seeing the old trams scaling the slopes of the Alfama along the narrow streets; so narrow in fact that the trams occasionally travel over the pedestrian paths. St. George’s Castle (I can’t remember the Portuguese name) is located above the Alfama and provides excellent views of Lisbon and the river. Most of the buildings in Lisbon are either white or light shades of cream or brown, with much less tile-clad facades than in the North of the country. The terracotta roofing omnipresent in the Iberian Peninsula is universally used for all the buildings in the town also, as thankfully there is a lack of modern structures in this part of the city. Consequently, the view of Lisbon is essentially a vivid trifecta of red (roofing), blue (river and sky) and white (buildings). I spent my first two days in Lisbon exploring this area and also visiting an excellent interactive-media museum which described the city and the country’s history.

Further along the river from the central part of Lisbon is Belem, an area featuring several distinguishing buildings that celebrate Portugal’s Age of Discovery and are famous for purportedly the world’s best custard tarts. Two of its most celebrated buildings are World Heritage-listed, the Jeronimos Monastery and the Belem Tower. Both of these structures were built at the height of Portuguese cultural prowess and wealth, and consequently exhibit exuberant Manueline architectural style. This is essentially related to European Baroque, with particular incorporation of natural motifs. The monastery featured a church that was nice yet uninspiring and a magnificent cloister that was easily the largest I have seen. Personally I found the architecture that was adopted to be unusual and intriguing, as the structure is unusually light in colour for a Catholic edifice, natural elements are incorporated liberally throughout the design and symmetry is not actually achieved (as each column and arch is different decoratively). The Belem Tower was constructed as part of a defence network to protect the Portuguese capital from naval attack along the river. The stone fort is around four storeys high and is built just off the shore. The building is the iconic symbol of Lisbon, but is hardly worth the fee for entry into the structure. Unfortunately I had a rather poor experience with Belem’s supposedly amazing tarts. After queuing for 15 minutes to pay and get my coupon for two tarts, I handed one of the staff behind the tart counter my coupons and waited patiently for my tarts. Dozens of other customers were subsequently served as I mentioned to some other staff that they owed me two tarts, with no luck. The only person permitted to deliver the tarts is the person you give the tarts to. Finally I managed to alert her of the heinous situation and she gave me the tarts and the accompanying cinnamon and sugar. I then lost the cinnamon and sugar and found a clump of hairs in one of my tarts.

On my final day in Portugal, I went to the World-Heritage listed town of Sintra, which is just an hour by train from Lisbon. I idiotically planned my daytrip to Sintra to coincide with the only day of rain and overcast conditions. Consequently, my day in Sintra was wet, cold and miserable, which was a terrible shame as the town is spectacularly situated on a mountain overlooking the river and within a landscape similar to the Dandenong Ranges. Sintra’s main attractions are the 19th century palaces, which feature architecturally dramatic buildings and whimsical gardens.

Time to assault the culinary front. The national obsession in Portugal seems to be the consumption of fish, particularly of the white variety. I heard a statistic bandied around that apparently the Portuguese people are the world’s biggest consumers of fish (if we ignore sharks, bears, pelicans, penguins etc). In order to achieve “cultural immersion” in Portugal, I was thus obligated to adopt their dietary preferences and sample the local harvests from the sea. I enjoyed a smoky mix grill of delicious fresh seafood, including two unidentified types of fish, octopus, cuttlefish (I think) and squid. I also had (possibly) the national dish; Bacalau (salted cod), cooked probably in milk and served shredded together with scrambled egg and fried potato strips, an exotic but enjoyable meal. I also chomped away on cheap cod patties as I had done in Porto.

So long for now,

Liam

PS I’m on the edge of the mighty Sahara Desert.

Posted by Liamps 12:39 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Porto

My next destination in Europe was Portugal, the small country located in the Southwest corner of Europe that came to discover the world and establish the first global empire. I don’t think Portugal has been a country high on Australians’ lists to visit in Europe (generally) which is a shame because its two biggest cities are really intriguing to explore and they are much cheaper than other places in Western Europe. I think Portugal suffers from the lack of iconic buildings or scenes.

I had some limited knowledge of the Portuguese’s role in colonial history, but I had no appreciation of how advanced the society was or the countless achievements of the Portuguese explorers. While the Spanish and the British may have established more powerful and prestigious empires, it was the Portuguese who provided the founding steps to globalisation. Portugal discovered and colonised the Azores in the mid-Atlantic in the early 15th century, which began an era that is much celebrated by the Portuguese, “The Age of Discovery”. Portugal was the first European power to round the West African coast and prove that the world does not terminate there (which was commonly believed). Many scholars now contend that by the end of the 15th century, Portugal was aware that the world is round and had calculated an almost accurate estimation of the planets dimensions; which is why Columbus was first rejected by the Portuguese court because they knew that India is thousands of kilometres further than what Columbus had claimed. Portuguese explorers became the first to round the Cape of Good Hope and thus establish a trade route to India. They discovered Brazil, founded trading outposts on Zanzibar, Africa, the Persian Gulf, Goa, Malaysia and even China (Macau) and reached Japan. All this was achieved while the rest of Europe was occupied by the Catholic-Protestant divide and subsequent wars. Eventually other European powers obviously became jealous of the wealth the Portuguese were generating from their monopoly on trade with the Eastern world and thus began the nation’s four century descent into irrelevance. For a while there though, that infinitesimal strip bordering the Atlantic probably consisted of the most advanced society on the planet.

I first visited the stunning city of Porto, aptly named by the Romans as it was a strategic port in their empire. The fact the Porto isn’t the capital of any nation or autonomous region and that it isn’t an economic centre really excited me, I liked the idea of being in a big and interesting city that has no global importance. An unexpected benefit from that lack of status was the absence of package tourists and it consequently felt like the most authentic city in Europe that I’ve been to. Porto quickly became one of my favourite destinations of the trip and I was fortunate enough to enjoy four days of glorious blue skies and (relatively) warm weather.

I was completely gobsmacked when I heard the Portuguese language for the first time in Porto as I had no idea that it sounds just like Russian or Serbian! I always assumed that the language would be similar to Spanish. Even though the writing is similar to Spanish, the pronunciation is completely different as they seem to apply a deep Slavic accent when they speak!

I would probably rank the view of Porto along the Douro River as the most spectacular cityscape that I’ve ever seen, surpassing Sydney Harbour and Hong Kong. The old city of Porto is situated on the Douro River, just upstream of where the river empties into the Atlantic. The city is built on hills that generally descend down toward the waterfront, with a dramatically steep final descent. The river can’t properly be seen until you reach the waterfront as Porto is densely packed with old buildings that are at least three storeys high. When the waterfront is reached, the mesmerising scene suddenly reveals itself. The wide and blue Douro River is lined by buildings clad in a variety of colourful tiles. On one side of the river, buildings of different sizes and styles are tightly clumped together on a hill and all feature the ubiquitous terracotta roofs. Large signs for the city’s famous port wine labels that are located above huge brick cellars overlook the river from the opposite bank. Numerous boats off charismatic design ply the waters and giant seagulls roam the shore and sky. Most captivating though, is the huge iron bridge that is similar in appearance to Sydney’s, only additional thoroughfare above the arch. On both sides of the river, the slopes descend dramatically to form a valley and consequently there are five more monumental bridges located furher upstream and downstream from the main area. This extraordinary scene, along with the combination of perfect weather, made my visitation worthy of another WOW! factor moment.

Porto doesn’t feature many specific attractions; the main appeal is just to wander around its old town, waterfront and beaches. Consequently, you don’t feel compelled and almost stressed to “tick-off” sites as in other cities and yet the city is still interesting enough to prevent boredom, so I happily spent a relaxed three days just exploring Porto. I obviously ventured along the waterfront, across the iron bridge and enjoyed a cruise of the Douro to appreciate the river scene from all angles. I also spent many hours ambling through the gritty old town where many buildings are showing signs of decay and thus exude plenty of character. Porto is brimming with cool little churches that are covered in blue and white tiles on the facades and feature theatrical Baroque interiors. I went to a bookstore with a quirky art nouveau interior and was apparently a location where JK Rowling wrote some of Harry Potter as she used the architecture as inspiration. One of the city’s large churches located the peak of a hill featured a tall tower that offers panoramic views of Porto. This was definitely worth the climb as the views were amazing, although I can see why people may become squeamish at the top because there are open gaps at feet level that a child could easily fit through. I also walked to the mouth of the river and further to the city beaches, although these areas were not quite so interesting in the winter time.

I think I owe McDonalds an apology for all the denigrating abuse I have aimed at the restaurants over the years. They are an integral part of our society for the simple reason of kindly providing the world with a network of free public toilets. Of course, they may occasionally point out that toilets are for customers only, however the never specify when one must be a customer. Since most of us have been unfortunate victims of McDonalds’ trap of luring people in against their own will to purchase and consume their insipid products multiple times, that makes us all “regular customers” and rightful users of the lavatories anywhere, anytime in the world. Knowing that you can rely on McDonalds’ presence in every city in the West is such a comforting thought, especially in Europe where they seem to be militantly opposed to public bathrooms. Day 17 in Europe was a colossal occasion because I spotted public bathrooms on the continent for the first time (contrary to popular belief, Western civilisation did not originate in Europe, it still hasn’t arrived); only to incorrectly assume that “Senhoras” must mean men’s in Portuguese and “Homens” women’s. “Men’s” and “women’s” have now been added to the list of must-know words in foreign languages.

I enjoyed some fantastic food in Porto and payed much cheaper prices for food than in my previous destinations in Europe. The surely undisputable highlight of Portuguese cuisine is their pastries. There were patisseries and bakeries on every block in Porto, selling the same delicious and often custard filled pastries. On the savoury side, most places also sold minced cod fritters (which were yum) and slices of an oven-baked “log” (for want of a better word) of dense bread with ham, chorizo, cheese and sauce. All these items barely contacted the 1 euro threshold! Porto’s signature dish is the artery-clogging Francesinha special (see photos), which is a grilled sandwich with fried bacon, chorizo and thin steak as the filling, melted cheese and a fried egg on top and served with a lashing of port-wine based spicy sauce. It was so delicious I had to have it twice. I had two excellent restaurant meals in Porto. The first was unfortunately an expensive tourist trap, although the food was still good. I ate this damper-like bread that was stuffed with strips of sausage (decent), sliced grilled spicy sausage (excellent), feta (yay), port wine (nay) and Bacalhau (salted cod, the Portuguese’s staple protein) which was served in a hotpot with a breadcrumb crust, boiled potatoes and some vegetables (nice, but too oily and salty). The second restaurant I went to was a tavern frequented by locals and I had a much healthier and cheaper meal of vegetable soup and a rice dish with duck which is apparently the Portuguese equivalent to the Sunday roast (and quite nice).

On my final day in Porto, I went to the nearby World-Heritage listed medieval town of Guimaraes, which is promoted as the cradle of the Portuguese nation. Guimaraes is quite a small town and can be easily appreciated in an afternoon. The quaint and small old town is composed of a series of narrow lanes and tiny squares and is filled with buildings that feature tiled facades, which seems to be a quintessential Portuguese architectural motif. The main attraction is the 10th century Guimaraes Castle that overlooks the town and the adjacent 15th century palace that was the seat of the Dukes of Braganza (who would form the last royal dynasty in Portugal). Both of these were nowhere near as big as I was expecting, although it was cool to see a medieval castle in real life and some of the rooms of the palace (especially the dining room) looked just like the sets for medieval-themed productions.

Since I have an unhealthy obsession with lists and statistics, I’ve decided to introduce a ranking system for the cities that I visit in Europe, so here is the first addition!

1. Barcelona
2. Porto
3. Amsterdam
4. Madrid
5. Brussels

Note: there is a big gap between 3 and 4!

I really enjoyed my time in Porto and strongly recommend the city to visit!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 12:25 Archived in Portugal Comments (4)

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