|Terreiro do Paco, Lisbon|
At Customs the border officer was impressed with my new passport, showing off the hologram to her colleague. I whisked through and out to the airport bus, which drops you in town in under half an hour for €3.50. It was only the briefest of walks from the bus stop in Rossio square to my place of residence for the next three nights, the Lisbon Lounge Hostel, which is located in the heart of Lisbon's downtown Baixa district.
Baixa - pronounced 'Bye-sha' - lies on the flat terrain between two proud hills, and is the site most strongly identified with the reconstruction of Lisbon following the calamitous earthquake of 1755. A highly organised grid network of streets named after traditional professions was laid out, and the ruins replaced with a beautiful array of 18th century buildings linked with grand straight avenues. The Lisbon Lounge Hostel is notable for regularly featuring in lists of Europe's top hostels. It's in a great location and is very nicely kitted out, with numerous living areas to escape the crowds and plenty of comfy beanbags from which to admire the lively pop-art murals decorating the common areas. And there was free internet and wi-fi, which I endeavoured to avoid during prime sight-seeing daylight hours!
|Lisbon Lounge Hostel mural|
On my patrol I had a peculiar little encounter. A woman asked me the time, and turned out to be a South African traveller in apparent distress. Spinning a tale of lost bags and no money that seemed convincing enough, she was fretting about getting her luggage from Air France at the airport. Naturally I was a little wary, but I decided on balance that her story could be true and that I could afford to take the chance that she was genuinely in need. I offered her the princely sum of €5 to get her out to the airport. She said she'd drop the money off at the hostel over the weekend, but naturally this didn't happen. I hate to think I'm a soft touch, but I think on balance it was a small enough sum to warrant giving her the benefit of the doubt. I know that if I was in trouble in a strange city I'd welcome the assistance of a fellow traveller.
|R. Augusta, Baixa|
After taking breakfast in the hostel kitchen, I set out for a busy day of sightseeing in Lisbon. The day started out grey, with a silty layer of cloud obscuring the sun, but by 9.30am the sun had burned off the mist and the rest of the day was bathed in warm light under perfect blue skies. My mission for the day was to check out the cluster of historic sites around the riverside district of Belem, some six kilometres downriver from the centre of Lisbon. As it was a nice day I decided to walk, to check out the sights en route My first stop, which was just down the road from the hostel, was the broad expanses of the Praca do Comercio, surrounded on three sides by the former palace of the Portuguese royal family and on the fourth by the Rio Tejo. A grand triumphal arch acts as the gateway to Baixa and the focal point of the square.
|Praca do Comercio|
|The Ascension, c.1515|
Another highlight was the splendidly detailed triptych The Temptations of St Anthony (c.1500) by the superbly imaginative Dutch fantasist Hieronymus Bosch, in which a grotesque revelry of sinners and misshapen alien nightmare creatures swirls around Anthony, testing his faith to the utmost. As with many of Bosch's works, it's the bizarre creations from the artist's psyche that really stand out, like the scythe-beaked bird on iceskates bearing a letter in its pointed beak, or the terrifying torso-less figure that sits expiring from the wound delivered by a cruel sword embedded in its featureless face.
Continuing my journey, and rapidly shedding layers as the temperature climbed, I walked under the towering Ponte 25 de Abril, the bridge that was originally named for Portugal's dictator Salazar, but was later renamed for the date on which he was deposed. Soon I reached Belem itself. From here in 1497 Vasco da Gama departed for his historic expedition to find the sea route to India, and following his successful return from the east Belem became the site of a superb monastery designed to show off the magnificence of Portugal in its heyday. Construction of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos began in 1502 and took 50 years to complete. Its status today as one of Portugal's finest buildings is thanks to its unlikely survival of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed so many other buildings. Now it stands like a gleaming ivory palace beside the Rio Tejo, a testament to wealth once found and now mostly lost.
|Mosteiro dos Jeronimos|
Fairey III-D open-cockpit seaplane named 'Santa Cruz', which completed the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922. But due to breakdowns the journey actually took 79 days and the Santa Cruz was actually the third aircraft to attempt the journey, so it was hardly an unalloyed triumph.
|Seaplane 'Santa Cruz'|
My next stop was the national archaeological museum. No photos were permitted inside, but it turned out that this was no major impediment because the collections weren't particularly riveting - a selection of Roman-era pottery fragments and gravestones, plus a few Egyptian antiquities.
|Da Gama's tomb|
A short walk along the river front later, I admired the splendid castellated Torre de Belem, a tower built in 1515-20 to defend the mouth of the river. Modern city dwellers can now admire the tower from encircling riverside stairs and the adjacent park, just as sailors returning from South America or the Orient once admired it from the sea.
|Torre de Belem|
My last stop in Belem was the splendid Museu dos Coches, which is perhaps Europe's finest collection of historic coaches from the 16th to the 19th century. The oldest one in the collection belonged to King Felipe III of Spain, who used it when he visited Portugal in 1619, at which time the Spanish crown also ruled Portugal. There's also the sombre sight of the bullet holes in the door of a black landau that was carrying the King, Queen and the two princely heirs to the throne on 1 February 1908, when two assassins fired a fusillade of bullets into the carriage. The King was killed instantly and the crown prince died shortly afterwards. Ultimately this brought about the demise of the Portuguese monarchy - a republic was declared in 1910 after months of instability, and the last king (the second son, who became Manuel II) went into suburban exile in Twickenham in London.
|Museu dos Coches|
|Rembrant's Portrait of an Old Man|
|Lalique's Dragonfly Woman|
|Rui Chafes, Durante o Sono|
I rode the metro to its final stop at Santa Apolonia station on the waterfront, where I emerged into the sunshine and spent another hour visiting the nearby military museum. No photos allowed inside, but I enjoyed the old-fashionedness of its collections, which focused on Portugal's role in World War I and also on the remnants of the nation's military heritage of the previous five centuries. Plenty of cannons, breastplates, cavalry sabres and arquebuses to admire. In the basement there was also the mammoth cart used to haul the enormous stones used to construct the city's triumphal arch in the 18th century; its rear wheels are at least ten feet high and it's as long as a city bus.
Then I climbed the hill through the oldest part of Lisbon - Alfama, the site of the city's pre-Christian Moorish settlement. Lisbon's tiny old trams lumber and screech up the steep streets but I preferred to walk as it was such a nice day. First stop was the city's old cathedral, the - which was founded on the site of the city's old mosque in 1150, shortly after the Christian reconquest.
|View from the battlements of the Castelo|
The only other notable incident of the day occurred when I was walking back down to the centre of town. I was photographing an apartment building silhouetted against the dusk sky when a girl of about eight years of age, who appeared to be out walking with her grandmother, sternly advised me 'no foto!' Using sign language I pointed out that I was photographing the building, not her and her grandmother. They didn't appear to live in the building in question, as they kept on walking away from town, and I headed in the opposite direction. As I descended the concrete stairs back to sea level the little sod threw a can in my direction. Such friendliness! I don't know what brought that on, but perhaps tourist photographers are a pain in the busy summer months. I can assure you that everyone else I encountered during my stay in Lisbon was much more welcoming. Hell, even the drug dealers.
My last day in Lisbon involved a field trip to the outskirts of town, to the mountain retreat of Sintra, 45 minutes to the northwest by train. Famed for its beautiful royal palaces, Sintra is a world heritage site, and February was a perfect time to visit. In summertime it must be rammed solid with visitors, but when I arrived shortly before 10 o'clock there were few others around. My Rough Guide quoted the words of Lord Byron, who was deeply impressed with Sintra when he stayed here in 1809:
[Sintra is] perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial. Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the town and the Tagus ... it unites in itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands with the verdure of the south of France.
Byron had a bit more time at his disposal; as for me, there was just time to visit the three key sites of Sintra: the Palacio Nacional in the town itself, and the Palacio da Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish castle whose crenellated walls grace the mountaintop of Santa Eufemia overlooking the town.
The Palacio Nacional's prominent and unusual twin conical whitewashed chimneys are visible through the whole town, and draw many thousands of visitors every year. (It turns out they also make a great echo chamber, because they're hollow and you can stand underneath them, clapping away to your heart's content until people look at you funny). The 15th century architecture features grand dining chambers and audience rooms with distinctive ceiling paintings, like the graceful swans adorning the Sala dos Cisnes and the cheeky flock of magpies on the ceiling of the Sala das Pegas, which were supposedly painted because the King was fed up with the gossiping of the ladies at court. So magpies are gossipy? The palace also contains the bedchamber in which the deposed and reputedly insane King Afonso VI was imprisoned for nine years until his death in 1683. Plenty of room for frenzied pacing, luckily.
|Sala dos Cisnes|
|Sala das Pegas|
|Sala dos Brasoes|
|Afonso VI's bedchamber|
Palacio da Pena, thinking that it wasn't far from Sintra. That just goes to show that a guidebook is only as good as the person who doesn't read it, because it turned out that the route I took was five kilometres long and involved a strenuous hike up steep and winding mountain roads. I guess I was lucky that it wasn't summertime, because I probably wouldn't have been able to cope with the heat. As it was I was rather shattered by the time I reached the pinnacle of Santa Eufemia some 50 minutes later.
The climb was definitely worth it, because the Palacio da Pena is a remarkable concoction: a fantasy mountaintop castle in the league of Prince Ludwig's extraordinary Neuschwanstein. The palace is on a smaller scale than its German compatriot due to its smaller size and its combination of styles and vibrant colour scheme contrasts with the Bavarian castle, but both were built for German royalty. The Palacio da Pena was constructed in the 1840s for Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Portugal's Queen Maria II. Inside, the palace is a jumble of styles and densely populated with the clutter of Victorian-era royalty, because it has been left in the state in which it was outfitted when the royal family fled to England in 1910. No photos were permitted inside, but the vibrant colours and fanciful design of the exterior were enough for me. The amazing views across the surrounding terrain were also impressive, and I even experienced the pangs of vertigo clambering around a lofty but decidedly open-air battlement with a huge, plummeting drop below. (My toes are itching even now as I write this).
|Palacio da Pena|
|A triton guards the gateway|
My last stop for the day in Sintra was the nearby Castelo dos Mouros, the ninth century Moorish castle overlooking the town. It was captured by the Christians in 1147 and fell into disrepair until the castle walls were restored in the mid-19th century on the orders of the monarch. Like the Castelo in Lisbon, the walls of Sintra's castle offer splendid panoramic views, and also like its Lisbon equivalent, they offer plenty of opportunity to accidentally fling oneself to certain doom. There is a very real sense of being in a 'proper' castle as you clamber up the steep steps to the high towers and peer down the mountainside at the town below, and wonder how on earth the castle's defences would have been breached in the 12th century if the defenders hadn't surrendered.
It was finally time to head back to Lisbon after a great afternoon. I walked down the steep and winding path through the mountain greenery back to Sintra, and took the train back to the city along with young mothers gabbling on their mobiles while their freshly-scrubbed babies goggled at the passing suburban scenery. I collected my bag from the hostel and loaded the princely sum of €0.90 (NZ$1.60) onto my natty cardboard Lisbon metro card, and boarded a city bus to take me directly to the airport in under half an hour. I needn't have rushed though, because the return Easyjet flight to Gatwick was nearly an hour late. This meant over an hour standing in line at the boarding gate, because the seating isn't assigned and once a queue forms no-one wants to lose their place!
It was a great long weekend in Lisbon, and I highly recommend a visit if you haven't been before. There's plenty to do and see, the prices are low, the weather is great (at least while I was there), and the people are friendly with a good command of tourist English. What more could you want? And as for my map of Western Europe, now all that remains is Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and San Marino, but I wouldn't hold your breath for reports of a long weekend in any of those destinations any time soon...