Wordpretzels, you may have been aware that I have been an intrepid traveller in the last few weeks, travelling to Portugal for a city break with Lady Barton St Mary. I’d like to share my impressions of this rather beautiful city.
Having landed at the airport, we decided to ‘go native’ and take the metro to our hotel in the centre of Lisbon. Buying a ticket was fairly easy, despite my dim-wittedness and determination to ignore the advice from the very helpful railway employee. Yes, they have friendly, helpful rail staff.
We bought a very cheap ticket and metro card (Lisbon’s answer to an oyster card) and sat out the 11 stations to San Sebastiao, completing our journey to the Real Palacio Hotel on foot. This was after a long day of travelling, so we entertained the local populace with some tradition English marital bickering intermixed with an occasional demonstration of suitcase toppling (mine was top heavy). As it transpired, the walk to the hotel was a matter of a few hundred metres, but when tired and hefting half a ton of shirts, shorts and high heeled shoes (hers, not mine) at 10pm, things always seem a little harder.
The hotel was lovely. The following morning, we sat in the hotel breakfast room whilst Lady Barton St Mary planned the day’s itinerary, thoughtfully consuming her yoghurt and fruit. Essentially, it meant making our way to Praça do Marquês de Pombal to catch one of the Greyline hop on/hop off open top buses that covered the entire city on different coloured routes. The square had an enormous statue of the pop star Prince, after ‘When Doves Cry’, before he became a symbol and about the time he was bonking Sheena Easton.
We hopped on to the blue bus route which basically covered the eastern side of the city. The man tore our tickets (rather worryingly) before handing us a pair of red headphones. You plugged these into the jacks in the back of the seats and tuned into a channel that spoke your language. The gaps were filled with some rather pleasant fado, Portuguese folk music.
I had trouble concentrating on the commentary, since I tend to doze off on buses, but here are some of the highlights of our hop on/ hop off tour, lasting a couple of days.
BAIXA/ALFAMA (Green Route)
A lovely place which is full of shops, cafes and tourists and is the home of fado. This is where you can find The Praça do Comércio, a large expansive, bright square with amazing statues and a real feel of Portugal’s sea faring prowess. Being a rather narrow country with lots of sea around it, they say that Portuguese people have the sea in their blood, but this is silly, since sea water is very dirty and would no doubt kill you if it entered your bloodstream in any great amount.
This grand place is where Portugal took the first steps in becoming a republic, assassinating King Carlos I and his heir Luis Filipe in 1908. They obviously couldn’t see the point in keeping something that needed lots of taxes but sold gazillions of tea cups, bunting and tiny national flags once every decade.
It’s also where there is a statue of Pedro Avares Cabral, remembered for discovering Brazil. However, the people who lived there already were a bit taken aback by being discovered, but as Lady BSM pointed out, their opinion hardly mattered once the Portuguese had slaughtered them all.
We had a very leisurely lunch, served by a delightful Portuguese girl from Poland. Beer in Lisbon costs about 4 euros a litre in cafes and restaurants, at least half the price it would be in England. Therefore, I thought it proper that I drank at least twice as much as I normally would at lunchtime. This made the hop on/hop off bus’s commentary even more confusing; for example, this is what I recall from our other tours:
BELEM (red route)
Here is where you will find a very big church called Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, named after St Jeronimo, the patron saint of jumping out of aeroplanes. You could queue up to go inside and see the tomb of Vasco de Gama, famous discoverer and inventor of Gama bears, those colourful sweets so loved by small children.
A short walk away you can find Torres de Belem, a huge fortification that was originally built in the middle of the river Tagus to scare
the bejebus out of potential invaders. Conveniently, it has now been towed into the shore so that people can queue up for hours and look inside it instead of the lovely big poster sized pictures adorning the walkway along the river bank.
We also took the opportunity to join the enormous queue for Lisbon’s famous cake shop, Casa Pasteis de Belem, buying some of the famous Portuguese custard tarts with a secret recipe. They were lovely, but no different to the other custard tarts I ate in Portugal (I ate a lot of them).
Lovely square with fountains and a statue of King John I, who was revered in Portugal and really stuck it to the man abroad. By the way, there are a lot of statues in Lisbon.
Not in Lisbon, but a 40 minute train journey away. The best way to see Sintra is to find a nice café in the centre of Lisbon with wi-fi access and view it on the internet. The train is a bulk standard one and very full. The transportation delights do not end there. You then have to catch a bus up the hill to Sintra Castle, a steep ascent of 2 km that, due to the huge amount of traffic, takes another 30 minutes. Once you’ve queued at the ticket office and joined the queue for the small bus to the castle, you’re hoping it’s going to be pretty bloody special. In fairness, with help from the audio tour, it was an interesting and enjoyable experience. Homesick Londoners would love the whole day, being crammed into trains and buses next to travel weary male smokers wearing polyester football shirts, allowing easy access to their heady aroma of body odour and stale tobacco.
The only disappointment for a Londoner, used to paying eye wateringly high prices for substandard food, would be the excellent restaurant there. It was here I learned that your choice of beer in Lisbon depends on which football team you support; Sagres if you’re Benfica, Super Bock if you’re Porto.
More entertainment ensued upon the arrival of the bus returning us to the railway station. Having waited an hour in the queue, the European tactic of ignoring said queue backfired on several miscreants as the furious Italian ladies set about them with loud shouts and slaps to their arms. The offenders slunk back to where they came from, under the glare of the indignant elderly matriarchs. We didn’t get on the bus, so decided to walk down the hill. Two other buses overtook us, the Italian ladies waving as they passed. We half-heartedly practised our marital bickerings from San Sebastiao, but it was all too much effort.
At last, my faith in Portuguese cooking was restored. Having suffered a traditional fish soup last year in the Algarve – (essentially a tin of salmon in boiling water, accompanied by an Eastern European maître de standing next to me kissing his fingers and saying ‘delicious’) – we found two wonderful restaurants, namely Sessenta and O Talho.
In Sessenta (we could see the restaurant from our hotel room, but Lady BSM forbade me from shouting my order out of the window), I ordered a Turbot meal which ranks in my top ten dishes of all time. I loved it. We returned the following evening.
O Talho (The Butcher) is a restaurant behind a butchers’ shop, where we had a fantastic steak dinner for a very reasonable price. They are both in El Corte Ingles area of Lisbon, if you’re interested.
As we sat in our customary seats at the local bakery, eating cake for breakfast, I decided that Lisbon is a very fine place to visit. The people are genuine, polite, dignified, and friendly and prepared to put up with me.
I am now at home, trying to remove 9lbs of Portuguese custard tarts and several gallons of Satres (Benfica!) that has become attached to my body in the form of blubber.
I look forward to returning soon.