Departure Day

Why is it that the weather on your last day is always the best? I guess you could call it ‘Sol’s Law’. I got up quite early, used the hotel lobby WiFi to add pictures to yesterday’s blog, checked out, leaving my bags with the concierge and set off under the brightest of cloudless blue skies to where I should have made my way last night. The trusty Blue Line from Parque took me to the river near the ferry terminal and the one major area of the city centre I hadn’t yet explored – Alfama.

Breakfast in a sunny square was good but maybe I should have waited to feast at one of the more traditional establishments that line the narrow streets of Alfama. I didn’t get to check out why there was a big poster for Jose Saramago, an author I like a lot. However, refreshed, I make my way up to the cathedral a fine edifice with imposing twin towers and more tuk-tuk operators than you could shake the proverbial stick at. They could probably have taken me up to the nearby castle but I preferred to saunter in the sun through the narrow streets and plunging stairways of the district.

I felt doubly bad about missing fado last night as I though all the shows would start around 22:00 (a friend told me the best ones do) but many of the bars advertised shows starting at 19:30 so I might just have stayed awake,

Alfama is a fascinating district with many souvenir shops aimed at the tourist market but also dry cleaners, bag wash shops, hairdressers (no – barbers) and minimercados with those dim interiors that reveal so many product lines to the intrepid. Also there’s a full complement of churches as befits one of the earliest settled parts of the city. My foot funicular took me along part of the route of the famous Tram 28. The queue to board was already long so I just snapped it and thought of San Francisco.

After an hour or so of exploring I found a view of the river through a break in the street and made my way down steps and steep and slippery cobbles to Santa Apolonia which is the eastern terminal of the Blue Line. I thought I’d have another look around Chiado so rode the two stops to the Baixa-Chiado station. This must be one of the deepest stations on the metro (Google confirms it as the deepest at 45 metres) as I had steps and then four long escalators before reaching the surface. It was much livelier today than on my previous Christmas Day visit and after a bit of sightseeing and window shopping my eye was caught by a barber shop with beer. It’s a really funky venue where you have a trim with a Lagunitas IPA (if trendy, Sagres if not) while your friends enjoy a drink and/or a snack.

Time to head back, pick up bags and make for the Red Line to the airport. That was the easy bit. The metro delivers you to Terminal 1 and you follow signs to Terminal 2 as that’s what it said on my boarding pass. In a large concrete desert is a little bus stand with a shuttle bus to T2 – you have to be sharp to spot it! This takes you to the distant, isolated terminal which is exclusively for Ryanair, EasyJet, Whizz and Norwegian. It’s not connected to any other part of the airport – no lounge! – and is very sparse and functional. I do recall a lengthy bus transfer when we arrived but nowhere else have I ever had rubbed in so firmly “Hey guys you opted for low cost air travel – this is what it feels like”. Once again the Priority Queue was longer than the Other Q as they call it and since we all had to go to the plane by bus it didn’t really matter. The flight was thirty minutes late leaving and struggled with a head wind but my faithful Data Cars driver was there to meet me at Stansted. He’s a Pakistani with an MBA from London Metropolitan University and the best job he can get is driving. We had a lengthy political discussion all the way down the M11 fortunately with shared views about most of the ills of the modern world.

Lisbon provided an extremely pleasant break over Christmas. There is much more to see and do and it would feel very different at other times of the year. Worth another visit? Definitely.

Countryside and coast

A rather delicate start to the day and a decision to delay breakfast until arrival in Sintra, trains permitting. So it was off to Parque station on the Blue Line and then through the wonderful arches of Rossio station to catch a train to Sintra.

There was one scheduled for 09:41 but a huge queue at the ticket office and machines where I was sure I’d need to top up my rover card. At 09:40 I decided to give it a try, was amazed when the barrier opened and I jumped onto the crowded train. It meant standing all 40 minutes of the journey and the windows have a tedious dot screen over them but in fact I don’t think I missed a great deal. My previous estimate of one in every three people currently in Lisbon coming from China was borne out on this train. From what I could see, we passed not very pretty apartment blocks, swathes of disused factories, small suburban hubs with the same pharmacies and supermarkets – and still loads of banks, they haven’t started closing down here. Finally a little countryside before pulling in to Sintra terminal. Laying siege to the station entrance were wannabe guides: walking tours, coach tours, tuk-tuk tours, Segway tours and bicycle tours and probably others I didn’t spot. I made my way past them all and found a little local bar that had juice, coffee and croissants so my day was properly under way.

I walked from the station area into the centre of the old town passing a series of sculptures kindly displayed by the council, but unfortunately only about a third of them were labelled so while I could admire some and pass quickly by others it would have been nice to know where they originated.

I arrive in the main square where the National Palace has two tall towers shaped a bit like the pottery bottle chimneys you find in Stoke, but more elegant. I decided to give it a try and having made my way up (160+ steps) through a variety of eras, styles and rooms with multiple purposes, I decided it had been worth while. There’s a blend of Islamic, Christian and some pagan imagery in the palace and the hits for me were the ceiling of swans each posed differently, the magpie room with the motto “For the Good” when magpies are usually written off as thieves and a mermaid room that stirred memories of a wild correspondence a few readers will recall.

The other great discovery was that the chimneys were in fact the outlet from the kitchens which were magnificent in their scale to cope with all those royal banquets.

As I stood at the top of the palace I looked up at a mist-swirled castle and said to myself, “No”. Instead I walked through the old part of the town, thanking my lucky stars I was here at his time of the year. I can just imagine how rammed it would be at peak holiday seasons. There are a few signs of a real town but it has largely been taken over as a tourist destination and small buses whizz you from one palace to the next.

After a big palace I fancied something on a smaller scale and took the bus to Monserrate which has several British connections. It has a large park complete with artificial waterfall designed by a Brit William Beckford, thought to be the richest non-titled gent of his era, he was at Monserrate from 1793 to 1799. The guide book says he was forced to flee Britain after being found in a “compromising position” with a sixteen year old boy. I visited his falls and shortly afterwards on the way down to the palace at the heart of the estate, a cromlech folly. Now one of my friends who may read this, Gwyn Headley, (Google him) is the world’s expert on follies so I guess he knows all about this but I have pictures just in case.

The palace itself is something after the style of the Brighton Pavilion with Indian, Islamic and Italianate features. It was built by another Brit Francis Cook who was a textile millionaire in the mid nineteenth century and was perhaps inspired by a reference to the estate by Byron in Childe Harold after his visit in 1809. Anyway it was a fascinating house and garden to visit and provided the country escape I had planned after four days of urban tourism. I rejoined the shuttle bus at the top of the drive and as we made our way back into Sintra I was glad my driving ambition had been foiled. On many of the roads we used the constructors had been less that generous with the spread of tarmac and with very steep runoffs at either side I spotted the potential for disaster when encountering other vehicles. Our bus had to stop and reverse a few times. It was a fine little tour through Colares passing fields of trees weighed down by oranges – yum it’ll soon be marmalade making time!

I could have spent more time in Sintra which is a super town on any number of steep hills and with endless tourist attractions but Cascais and Estoril called and a late lunch by the seaside beckoned. And very late it was as the bus from Sintra to Cascais via Cabo de Roca through the Sintra-Cascais National Park took the best part of an hour. I resisted the temptation to get off the bus and stand by the lighthouse at the most westerly point of Europe – ticking those boxes is for younger travellers and it was windy and cloudy so not a lot to be gained. The bus decamped us in Cascais and after a few false starts – extensive car park, closed up Market – I did find the way to the beach.

The famous street pavers had overdone it here with a wavy patterns than made me quite dizzy as it looks like the paving is in peaks and troughs but is all flat. However grilled sardines with butter, sea salt and parsley were a grand recompense for holding off lunch till nearly four o’clock, Facing me was a wheel, at 32 metres the biggest in Portugal according to the display on the screen beside it. After lunch I walked along the seafront passing another cove before coming to the station. Again the evidence of crowded summer visits was everywhere as only about half of the souvenir and ‘craft’ shops were open and I could feel the potential of the August crush.

A train was leaving a few minutes after I arrived and it hugs the coast all the way back into Lisbon with occasional great views interspersed with the backs of apartment blocks. Not as dramatic as Dawlish to Teignmouth in Devon but a fun ride. As it was nearly dark and beginning to rain I decide not to get off at Estoril which I’ve herd from many is a fine town – well it’s something to look forward to.

Having mentioned earlier the frequency of banks, I’ve been struck by how many bookshops there are in Lisbon and as I descended the stairs at Cais do Sodre terminal there was a book fair actually in the station concourse with avid customers.

As it’s my last night in Lisbon I should be going to enjoy the nightlife, find some jazz (I did look and there’s none till Saturday) or a Fado club to hear blues singing, but I had had a bad night, a very active day with lots of up, a late lunch and so I’m staying in to write this, listen to music and read a book (a real one courtesy of Richard S). Sorry!

Lisbon is famous for its graffiti, some very fine, some less so. I was struck by this piece to which a neighbour had obviously added some extra sheets to improve the wind power.