Portugese Pastries, Pickpockets and Plonk...
27.08.2010 - 31.10.2010 35 °C
We were really excited about visiting Lisbon, having never set foot in Portugal before and having heard so many wonderful things about it.
We were staying in a self catering studio room right in the hub of Lisbon, and just steps from Praça dos Restauradores metro station. We arrived early morning but could not check in until the afternoon so had five hours to kill before we could do so. We dropped out bags in the hotel's luggage store and then headed out to explore the city.
The hop on-hop off bus left from right outside so, after a quick cold drink at a neighbouring cafe, we jumped onboard and enjoyed a comfortable drive through the city, making a mental note of the sights we would add to the list of things to take a closer look at in the coming days. Our first stop came soon after getting on the bus, when we saw the amazing views from the Parque Eduardo VII and resident Gelati seller. With the heat of the day descending upon us it was a perfect place to stop.
After our pitstop we continued our trip around the main tourist sights of the city, before returning to check-in at the hotel. The room was very nice and we were pleased to have a view of the square from our window, and a fantastic view of the city from the pool on the roof.
The following day we headed by tram to Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (The Jerónimos Monastery) in the district of Belem, which has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Sight since 1983. It is an amazing building, and a great area to explore, but unfortunately the sheer number of tour groups, we saw going inside, robbed us of the motivation to check out the interior which is, by all accounts, absolutely spectacular.
We were lucky enough to have the Elevador da Glória (Funicular) a stones throw from our base, and this made the 265 metre climb to Barrio Alton (High Quarter) much more pleasant, and achievable, in the heat of the day. The temperature averaged 36 degrees. Upon reaching the top we stopped at the bar to drink some local beer in the shade, enjoy the cool breeze and take in the spectacular views across the city to the river behind.
One of the highlights of any visit to Lisbon is, without any doubt, a stop at the bakery Pasteis de Belem where, in 1837, the baking of these tasty pastries, which bear it's name, began. Needless to say, we had been talking about a visit here since before we left London, and still talk about our visit even now, mouths watering with the memory alone. We sat and ordered 3 each, which quickly arrived - still warm from the ovens, along with some strong coffees to balance out the sweetness of the pastries. It was only after we had actully tasted these amazing snacks that we truly understood why people were queuing outside and, once inside, buying boxes and boxes, from the counter at the front, to take away with them.
Another bit of tasty goodness worth indulging in can be enjoyed with a brief stop at The Ginjinha of the Praça de São Domingos (Lisbon) - which was the first establishment in the city to commercialize the drink that gives the establishment its name. Ginjinha (or AKA Ginja) is a potent liqueur made from infusing Ginja (Sour Cherries) with alcohol sugar and other stuff. This bar is so easy to miss, as it is tiny, there is only enough room to go in to order. Once you have your small shot of Ginja, with a cherry at the bottom, you have to walk out into the square in front to drink it. There is no room inside! We enjoyed the drink, and went back for a few bottles the next day to bring back to London with us.
We rose really early one morning and climbed, in the dark, up to the high quarter. We watched the sun slowly rise, shooting fingers of sunlight across the walls of Castillo de Sau Jorge. The city was still and silent and looked beautiful bathed in the morning light. In the afternoon on the following day, we headed to Baixa and jumped on one of the rackety cable trams bound for the castle. The trams are wooden and essentially uncomfortable, but they are authentic and completely appropriate for the long, jerky, journey up and down steep alleys, through 18th century architecture. At times they hurtle downhill at such a pace that it seems impossible that the brakes will prevail. However, the tram drivers, much like local taxi drivers, know every inch of track and drive with great expertise,... if little margin for error. We saw an amazing sunset atop the Castillo de Sau Jorge de Lisboa (Castle of Sao Jorge or, roughly translated "George's place"). It sits up high on a hill overlooking the city of Lisbon, and provided the best views of the city, during our stay. It was particularly lovely and romantic being there to share the sunset. We can highly recommend that anyone visiting Lisbon visit the castle in time for the sunset as we did.
Portugal is famous for is Fado - a haunting, mournful style of music which has traditionally included lyrics about life on the sea or life spent in poverty. We did not pay to see any professional Fado, as it was quite expensive and a bit touristy, but we were lucky enough to hear a blind, seemingly homeless, man singing Fado in an underroad walkway near Belem. We sat for ages listening to him and even took some video, tipping him for busking such an amazing voice.
We have never been anywhere with such a high concentration of active pickpockets. We stopped and shouted at several pickpockets who were going for the bags and pockets of people around us whilst we sat of an evening, having a drink or something to eat. This was especially prevalent around Rossio Metro and the cafes which surround Praça de D. Pedro IV. We were lucky to avoid falling victim this time, but were shocked to see so many people coming so close to having their holidays ruined by a thief!
We made a rookie error on our last day in Lisbon, by deciding to make the train journey out to Sintra. Sintra is a town approximatey 50 minutes by train away from Lisbon, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site due to its 19th century 'Romantic' architecture. We walked from the train station up the hill and into the old town for a closer look. We used the last of our cash on breakfast at a cafe beside Sintra Palace before deciding it best we find an ATM. We needed about €10 in order to get the bus around the various sights we were keen to see. We found three ATM's... none of which was working, even the one in the tourism office (the staff there informed us that it was out of money). Hmm. Interesting predicament, given that there was no way of buying tickets for the bus with a card and that the next nearest ATM was some distance away, up a rather large mountain/huge hill.
After sitting on the curb for a bit and trying to think about how much time we had, we debated whether we should risk the walk up, bearing in mind the time we had before needing to be back at the airport in Lisbon. We set out on foot... up aforementioned 'mountain' in the mid thirty degree heat. After a short time walking, and the tense silence which accompanied it, we agreed that when we reached the top we would be really proud of ourselves for having acheived such a climb (we also agreed that Adam and Megs probably would have done the walk as first option and would not have even considered the bus, so - more determined, we headed on.
It took some time to reach the small town where the ATM was, and success! We soon had cash. Thankfully, there was a small cafe so we recovered with some icecreams and a tall frosty drink before heading for our number one destination on the list - the walk up, past the Church of Santa Maria, to the Moorish Castle. After about 1.5 hours walking, we got to the top and sat in the shade of the gate, playing with a stray kitten. We recovered before realising we did not have enough time to go in and explore the castle AND catch our return flight to London. We walked briskly and caught the bus back to Sintra rail station, then on to Lisbon, before flying back to London.
Key lessons learnt:
1. DONT head out of town on the day you are due to fly
2. ALWAYS get cash when you have loads of options... BEFORE catching train out of town
3. Sometimes the walk can be nicer than you expect it to be, and a reward in itself... with some amazing views you dont get on the bus
Highly recommend Lisbon as a city break, and definitely plan to go back.... For more pictures - visit our Portugal Gallery here