“I’m a big believer in winging it. I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find a perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident to happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary” – Anthony Bourdain.
We allowed and we watched.
Getting this trip organized was nothing but one struggle after another. I didn’t know this at the time, but it was the beginning of a great love story. Let’s just say that like most epic love stories, ours started with a lot of struggles and Portugal was playing hard to get.
Since the moment we uttered the word ‘Portugal’, a series of unfortunate events unfolded. In an attempt to spare you all from the agonizing details, I have summed up the issues to –
- UAE resident visa expiration
- Schengen visa shenanigans
- Our plight to get a direct flight and failing at it (advice – avoid bank holiday weekends)
- Finding out that most of the hotels were booked out (it turns out, Portugal was hosting Eurovision this year)
And so on….
Considering Fernandified’s Nana was a Portuguese (she gave up her Portuguese nationality and kept her Indian Passport), Portugal was always in our plans to visit and explore. We were fascinated by how this small country colonized many countries and left it’s influence everywhere in the world. For instance, it is claimed that it was the Portuguese who taught the Goans (part of India where the Portuguese colonized) how to make bread, which was spread to the rest of India. I am not so sure how true this is but bread is still called pão in Goa as it is in Portugal!
So we decided that Portugal will be the destination of choice and started planning the trip. This trip has left us both completely broke, exhausted but thoroughly satisfied and even more convinced that this country is quite simply – MAGIC.
Before we dig in, just a few words on Lisbon:
‘Lisbon’ is a word derived from Phoenician words ‘Alis Ubbo’ which means ‘safe harbour’. It is believed that Phoenicians were the first people to settle in Portugal.
Lisbon has never been listed as an official capital but it is widely accepted that it is the second oldest capital in Europe – after Athens, and is at least 400 years older than Rome.
Lisboans call Lisbon ‘cidade das sete colinas’ meaning ‘city of seven hills’. However, Lisbon actually has eight hills. It is believed that one of the hills (ironically, the tallest of them all) is omitted to make Lisbon sound as important as the city of seven actual hills – Rome.
The city suffered a devastating earthquake on All Saints day (1st November) in 1755. The quake was followed by a tsunami that swept the entire city and then a firestorm that lasted a week. All three disasters came down one after the other leaving the city completely destroyed. The re-constructed Lisbon is what we see today. The city was rebuilt under the clever direction and plans of Prime Minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the 1st Marquess of Pombal – thus leading to the name Pombaline architecture. The new buildings were decidedly restrained due to the urgency to rebuild and lack of capital keeping a standardized styling and reduced azulejo tiling. The area most affected by the calamities was the downtown area, known as Baixa. After the reconstruction, it is fondly named Baixa Pombalina.
The country rose from devastation with gusto and style. The country was one of the most powerful in the world with its colonies in Africa, Brazil and to the Far East. It then experienced a downfall making it the poorest nation in Western Europe to today as an equal player in the EU and a thriving nation.
You have to admit, Portugal’s resilience makes you wonder what is it about its people or the culture that seemingly helped overcome such lows and conquer such highs. I was truly intrigued.
Day 1 – Belém, Lisbon
We arrived in Portugal and went straight to collect our car from the rental company. We did not find an easy-on-the-pocket rental for automatic cars so we opted for manual thinking that Fernandified learned driving in the UK and we should be able to manage right? WRONG! Let’s not forget that Lisbon is known as the City of “Seven” Hills. Getting used to manual cars, navigating a completely new city, getting lost and extremely narrow roads were taxing to say the least.
After probably 231352 arguments in 30 minutes, we made it to our apartment.
Belém is a parish in Lisbon, which eventually became a symbol of Portuguese expansionism since it is located on the mouth of River Tagus. Named after the Portuguese word for ‘Bethlehem’, Belém houses some of Portugal’s most prominent historical sites and beloved institutes.
Just a couple of 100 meters from our apartment is the wildly popular – Pastéis de Belém. A cane refinery factory located next to a general store near the Joranimos Monastery in early 19th century would become the most famous pastry shop in entire Portugal. Due to the 1820 liberal revolution, all convents and monasteries were closed and the clergy and laborers expelled. In perhaps a desperate attempt to earn money and survive, a monk brought sweet pastries to sell at the general store, which we have now come to know as Pastéis de Belém. The pastries shop gained its enormous following and fame due to the visitors of Belém who usually travelled from the city of Lisbon by boat to enjoy the sites and grandeur of Jerónimos Monastery and Torre de Belém. The secret recipe has been passed down till this day and some theories suggest that only five people know this recipe and that they never travel on the same plane for the safety of this recipe.
With so much history and hype about the beloved pastries that have now become synonymous to Portugal itself, I needed to try these sweet surprises. Unaware of how close this place was from our apartment, we were walking towards the monastery when we noticed a long queue only to realize that the queue was for none other than Pastéis de Belém. We gingerly chimed in and stood in the queue. Its skilled confectioners bake these golden and crispy tarts in the “secret room” till today and an approximate of 20,000 pieces are sold per day. These pastries are crispy on the outside with soft tart in the center. You sprinkle cinnamon powder and fine sugar before you take a bite of that tart made with centuries old recipe.
Next, the obvious choice was to see the Jerónimos Monastery which is right next to Pastéis de Belém and this monastery is of particular interest to us since it was built to ‘trumpet Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498’. The monastery’s late gothic Manueline style architecture lends it an almost delicate and lace-like feature although it stands strong since its completion in 1601. The details on the façade were incredible.
Where the monastery stands today used to be a church, which provided assistance to seafarers travelling on river Tagus. King Manuel I later commissioned the construction of the monastery with taxes collected from spices from Africa and the Orient thus soon becoming synonymous to the Portuguese age of discovery. What better place than this to be the final resting place of Vasco de Gama?
Once we have taken our fill of the beautiful Monastery and after taking photos of an Indian family for the umpteenth time (they weren’t fans of our photography skills), we departed for Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries).
What was initially supposed to be a temporary structure now stands proud on the northern banks of the Tagus river reminding people of the glory of Portuguese footprint around the world. The marble floor around the monument had intricately marked all the Portuguese colonies around the world, we of course had to go look for Goa. Fernandified was all smiles – perhaps it has been his innate desire to go back to his roots?
From here, you can see the suspension bridge build by the same company which built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. You can also see the statue of Christ, with arms wide open as if to bless the city, similar to the one in its sister country – Brazil. We soaked in the remnants of the sun which came and went in patches as if in preparation of rain to come. Through whiffs of a local artist’s rendition of ‘Kiss of the Rose’, we walked towards the magnificent Torre de Belém.
King John II had the idea to build forts to increase the protection along the coast of River Tagus, but died before executing this plan. The task was taken up by King Manuel I of Portual, 20 years later – hence, Torre de Belém embodies the distinctly gothic Manueline style similar to Jerónimos Monastery with its filigree ornamentation which incorporates details of maritime adventures and that of God.
The tower was closed when we visited it but there were people bustling around the monument, taking in the sunset, Instagram photo shoots and what have you. We decided to head back to our apartment because it would soon be time for dinner and we wanted to spare enough time to get lost or to take detours as we please. We were rummaging through the narrow streets, stopping every now and then for an outlandish colored home or cute corners.
We went back to our apartment knowing very well that both of us were in love with this country.