Truth be told, the cycling tour in the Picos de Europa was training for the hiking slogs to the castles of Portugal. As I recall my first ‘blog’ suggested that when Dave and I arrived in Lisbon there would be much napping and sampling of Portuguese libations. The plan of the refreshment consumption has stayed true to course. Some things one can not compromise on.
Dave and I are sitting at an outdoor cafe late afternoon on Avenida de Liberdade near our hotel. Some eight lanes wide with two huge pedestrian boulevards breaking up the roadway, the street runs through historic downtown, the Baxia area, to the sea and the home of the beloved codfish. We are shaded from the 30 degree plus sun by towering palm and deciduous tress, the small lion fountains spit water at each other while surrounded by flower gardens and intricate metal fences that are more like art than boundaries. Welcome to Lisbon.
I will confess that Portugal was an after thought to the Spanish cycling trip; an add on while we were close by. You know me always trying to get things ticked off a list even if it be countries to visit. What we have found, even in this city of 2.8 million people, is a sense of welcome. To the Portuguese you can do little wrong. As we sit in the heart of Lisbon I can report that it is absolutely unusual to hear a car horn, or a siren for that matter. Tolerance abounds unabashedly. Should you accidentally launch into Spanish ( I literally have four words of Portuguese in my repertoire ) the Portuguese just smile and nod and with a smile say “English?” Like Canada, Portugal is a multicultural hub. Here we see many people from Portugal’s former colonies of Brazil, Africa and Asia. Add to that the throngs of visitors and we can currently hear four different languages being spoken at this outdoor spot.
So with little preparation for this leg of the journey, Dave and I turned to our friend Rick Steves. All right, all right, he isn’t our friend and doesn’t know us from a hole in the ground, but this travel guide writer can lead you to many hidden wonders in Europe. Besides that he adds humor to the trip ( always good to have a laugh when you have hacked up a lung getting to the turret of an ancient castle)
Much of what we have seen and learned about romantic Lisbon, pivots around the morning of All Saints Day in 1755 when a massive earthquake occurred off the Portuguese coast. The country remains today over 90 percent Catholic and on that fateful morning centuries ago, most of the population was at mass. As church walls collapsed tens of thousands were killed. What followed was a tsunami with a 20 foot wall of water moving 800 feet inland. Fires burned for five days due to toppled candles and cooking flames. Sitting in this blissful spot sipping Portuguese beer, one can only imagine the horror of the water rushing over this very ground.
So the walking tours with Mr Steves as our guide began. A trolley car is suggested for a partial ride up the ‘hill’ to Sao Jorge Castle. As mentioned the Portuguese folks are very welcoming and since the trolley was so crowded that I pretty much sat on the female driver’s lap,I was grateful for her smile. As the antique car,spilling out with passengers, creaked and moaned and lurched, I did my best not to touch any levers so as to send the lot of us hurdling back down the steep incline.( which is saying a lot since my nose was perilously close to the dashboard). We hiked the rest of the way and gasped, both from exertion and the viewpoints of Lisbon and the sea below. The Alfama area is one of the only in Lisbon to remain relatively intact following the quake.
The touring continued , through narrow winding streets, past amazing smells of Portuguese breads and custard tarts, past codfish being barbecued and always the sound of music, be it guitar, mandolin( Portugal is well known for its melancholic Fado music) or flutes. It would seem a happy coincidence that our goal to sample the local beverages and the suggested stopping spots on the tour included such opportunities. We were directed to the Lisbon wine tasting center for a free event You have to love this country growing more than 2000 types of grapes. Clearly the wine association has marketing figured out to offer the tourists free sampling. Then off to the Beer museum and more tasting ( all right Dave and I found that one on our own). Steve directed us to a little hole in the wall for a shot of Ginjinha,the favourite Lisbon drink. The sweet liquor is made from sour cherry like Ginja berry with some sugar and grappa. Perhaps not best at the heat of the afternoon however it was tasty. We were not dressed appropriately for the Port Wine Institute but we did manage to get served, not in the usual friendly Portuguese way, but we did receive some marvelous eye rolling from white shirted servers inspecting our sweaty T-shirts and shorts. The institute had fabulous air conditioning and I think we only left small sweat stains on their leather chairs. Shortly thereafter it was to the oldest beer hall in Lisbon. Once a dining hall of a monastery, it became a brewery in 1834 when the monks were expelled. Seems like quite the change of action for an establishment. Having just written all this it seems amazing we were still walking.
Perhaps the most astounding experience of the day, more than all of the wonderful cafes with their codfish fritters, the multitudes of coloured tiles on the walls inside and out of most buildings in Lisbon, the immense statues, the fountains in the squares, the mosaics of millions of black and white cobblestones that are on every sidewalk and boulevard, was our stop at the Church of San Domingos. We have seen many churches in Spain and Portugal in the past weeks, one more opulent than the one prior. The gold, the statues, the stained glass, the chandeliers, the paintings on the ceilings; all impossible to capture even in photographs. The Church of San Domingos is one of the most active in Lisbon today. In 1755 it collapsed during the 9.0 quake killing many of its parishioners in attendance. When it was rebuilt, the walls that remained after the quake were incorporated as a reminder and memorial. One can not help but gasp upon entering at the darkness and complete simplicity of the decor. With the broken pillars clearly visible Dave and I sat awestruck at the power of what must have happened that day. Although there was no mass at the time of our visit, the Church was very busy and clearly many of the worshippers were overcome by emotion. There are statues along the walls of the church and candles can be lit for prayers. The scene creates a flickering glow on the grey brown walls in the eerie silence. It is Our Lady of Fatima at the back of the church that has by far the most candles. Our Lady of Fatima, is a famous title given to the Virgin Mary as she appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. Today pilgrims go to the sight year round but May 13th and Oct 13th, when she is reported to have appeared to the children, upwards of one million people will make the trek to this spot in Portugal. Perhaps those who can’t make the pilgrimage come here. The Church is like nothing we have ever seen before. Should you ever come to Lisbon we would agree with Mr Steves, this is a must see.
Today we took the train to Sintra, a town outside of Lisbon where the royalty over the centuries loved to hang out. Basically it was who could build a palace bigger than the neighbor’s palace. Up a long steep hill sits a thousand year old Moorish castle. As the Friendly Giant used to say ” Look up. Look way way up” ( If you are too young to remember the Friendly Giant that is just ridiculous). The castle is the stuff fairy tales are set in and I couldn’t help but call out “Rapunzel, Rapunzel ,let down your hair!” Dave pretended he didn’t know me. Although a bus ride is suggested, we walked. ( how hard could it be?). After exploring the walls of the castle we went above to the magical Pena Palace built by Portuguese royalty in the 19th century. It is a combination of styles so has both yellow domed turrets as one might see on a mosque and then square sharp turrets like those below on the Moors castle. I kept thinking it seemed a bit like a Dr Suess castle. As Dave and I wandered back down to Sintra we were thankful to have trained up for the outing on our bikes in Spain.
Boa noite from beautiful Lisbon. I’m going to try to fit a nap in tomorrow, unless we find another castle that needs to be investigated.