In and around Lisbon

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Greetings all and welcome to the entry marking my one year anniversary of my adventures on the road. It's hard to believe it now but a year to the day I bade my parents a fond farewell from a wintery Sydney and embarked on this journey of a lifetime.

Phew - it's been a long haul and a sometimes rocky ride but now that I'm in Portugal I can almost see England, my final destination, across the Atlantic and Channel, and it won't be long before I'm resting up on her shores. It will be a shame for it to end but who knows, there might be another trip like it in me yet. We shall see.

Anyway, on to Lisbon - one of those places you have heard about in romance novels (the names of which elude me now) and in connection with the second World War. I hadn't really planned on coming here but after receiving a nice invitation to visit a new friend in southern Portugal, here I am. It's a great little town too, a grungy place perched at a confluence of two streams emptying into the Tagus river and surrounded by steep hills of roller-coaster intensity that combine to give the place a style and vibe entirely of its own. Grand squares, rickety trolley cars, cobblestone laneways, cute little plazas and a blizzard of Portuguese flags in anticipation of great footballing triumphs add nicely to the effect.

The weather didn't really cooperate with my sightseeing but I got out and did it anyway. Temperatures in the low 20s were a welcome respite from the heat of Madrid, so starting in the main square dotted with sculpture and fountains of various periods I prepared to hike.

Soaring high over town to the east is the Castello de Sao Jorge, an 11th century fort built atop ruins of Phoenician, Roman and Muslim settlements dating all the way back to the 6th century BC. Must have been prime defensible real estate for all of that time, considering the expansive views and quintessentially medieval castle ruins that sit here now.

With that done I found out that there isn't much else in the way of big-ticket items to see. A massive earthquake hit Lisbon in 1755, killing 30,000 and levelling the place, and other options like the World Expo site and the cathedral at Belem are a number of kilometres out of the city centre. Annoying and difficult to get to when you're recovering from a hangover induced by a pair polite but big-drinking Irish brothers, everyone lamenting Australia's exit from the World Cup.

But little delights are all over this rugged city for those willing to walk. Unique architecture built with the remnants of South American gold after the quake, a very religious streak evidenced in shrines about the place and of course the painted cows which brought back fond memories of good times with my sister and friends riding the beasts five years ago in Berlin - one of the first of two dozen cities to host these crazy guys since then.

Like another place visited not long ago the stenciled street art is also very defining for the city and the country itself. Full of caustic wit and political charge, it adds to the dilapidated air of the city but also to its character, so whilst many wouldn't approve it's worth noting in its own right.

With that it was time to head further afield to the fairytale villages around Sintra - playground of the rich and royal in this small land. Full of palaces, mansions, elaborate fountains and castles it's undeniably touristy now but is still home to the ultra-wealthy and a good day trip from the capital.

Taking a circuitous route through winding roads and then mystical 'Lord of the Rings'-style wooded paths, I headed straight up to what I thought would be the highest point in the area to get the lay of the land - the old Moorish Castle. Sunlight speckled through the canopy and gave the air a surreal glow. The forest has overtaken the castle, first built in the 9th century AD by the Moors and then regenerated in the 19th, but the battlements still stand tall in a spine along the hillside that is dotted with huge boulders. A very cool scene indeed.

It takes a while to wander along the narrow walls but the views all the way to the Atlantic coast are well worth the trouble. Halfway along I noticed a castle on a higher peak nearby, so once I'd found my way out it was onwards and upwards to that.

The Palacio da Pena is wonderfully kitsch castle built by one of the Portuguese kings a couple of centuries ago and was for a time the main residence of the ruler. I haven't seen anything like it on my travels and you just marvel at the spirit of human creativity - it looks like a child's birthday cake or gingerbread house. Surrounding it lies extensive, often overgrown, gardens where the German-born King tried to mix tropical and temperate species to retain a little sense of his northerly home.

The tiles and sculpted facade adds to the dreamlike atmosphere and inside was quite interesting too with most low-ceilinged rooms open for restricted viewing. The Queen did have a Queen-sized bed and it was a surprise anyone could get around their space due to the amount of delicate crap they squeezed into them. Still, a better than most indication of how royalty lived in their heyday.

When I was stuck on the train for half an hour coming home from Sintra, waiting for all of the carriage doors to shut in unison, I started thinking that after three big cities in a row it will be good to get out and enjoy the countryside somewhere. So off to Faro and the beds of languid sea grass now, and with only a couple of weeks to go such a change of pace is very much anticipated. Once I get to London there won't be much time to relax!

Next entry -> adventures in the Algarve

Great Brands of the World - Portugal

I'm not going to find anything better than this - an ad that without doubt will only increase the feverish pitch of support from Portuguese football! Good luck guys!

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