A Travellerspoint blog

October 2013

Lisbon – Vasco de Gama Iz ’Ere

sunny 25 °C

In 1497 while Christobal Colon (Christopher Columbus to you) was still bragging that he had found India in the Caribbean Sea, Portuguese sailor, Vasco de Gama, took a southerly tack around Cape Horn and found India precisely where it still is today – in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Well done Vasco - Good navigation. But, while 93% of Americans wrongly venerate Columbus for discovering the United States, 97% of respondents believe that Vasco de Gama is the medical term for varicose veins.
Sometimes it just pays to get lost and be a loser.
So where is Vasco today?
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Here he lies in the Church of Santa Maria in the Belem district of Lisbon. This is his sarcophagus…
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Santa Maria is part of the expansive Monastery of Jeronimos and is the church where Portuguese sailors prayed before and after their voyages of discovery in the 15th century. The two-story cloisters are quite spectacular…
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We were as delighted with Lisbon as Columbus was when he bumped into Hispaniola and thought he’d hit India, because, on his previous visits in the 1960s, James had found the city about as appealing as bubonic plaque. But today the previously rat infested docks and dilapidated warehouses are fancy marinas; the quayside brothels and mariner’s bars upscale restaurants; and many of the smelly fishermen’s wharves have been turned into parks. This is the port’s 16th century Belem tower which is now surrounded by parkland…
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Not everything in Lisbon has been renovated and renewed. The ancient trams still rattle through the narrow streets of the old city, but only because the antique vehicles are packed with tourists…
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The locals prefer the swish, modern ones…
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Despite the present economic slump, and the inordinate number of panhandlers, Lisbon is looking up; way up. This is the refurbished Elevador do Carmo that has lifted Lisbonites and visitors to the upper city since 1902…
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Many of the buildings in the city centre have been spruced up and many of the streets have been turned into pedestrian shopping areas…
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This tiny shop has been in business since it was built in 1923 and is home to one of the most famous glovers in the world…
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The wide, tree-lined boulevards of Lisbon are pleasant to walk and the metro, though relatively small, is efficient and inexpensive. There are hotels and restaurants a plenty, and castles and sights to see. All in all – Lisbon has sloughed off its odious past and is now well worth a visit.

Posted by Hawkson 01:40 Archived in Portugal Comments (4)

Sintra - Castles in the Air

sunny 25 °C

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High above the clouds on a mountain overlooking a distant Lisbon is the royal palace of Pena - claimed to be one of the most romantic places on earth. Originally a Moorish fortress, it became a monastery in the 16th century before being completely rebuilt and refurbished as a lavish palace for King Ferdinand in the 1840s. Here’s the opulent dining room…
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The Palacio de Pena is a fairytale castle with Hollywood leanings and the mixture of Gothic and Rococo can be a little overwhelming at times…
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Some of the ceilings are definitely a little over the top…
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At the foot of the castle, clinging to the steep sides of the mountain, lies the old city of Sintra, where terrifyingly narrow streets and vertiginous stone stairways snake up and down the mountainsides…
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The Sintra area simply bristles with historic castles, palaces and mansions and its close proximity to Lisbon guarantees swarms of daytrippers. So, to avoid the crowds, we stayed in Sintra and hit the sites before the tour buses arrived and after they had left. Without the daily throngs of sightseers Sintra is a sleepy little place where you can wander the great halls and bedrooms of the palaces without bumping into anyone but an occasional bored docent…
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The Swan Room in the National Palace in the centre of the town is truly spectacular when there is no one to block the view…
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This is the equally deserted bedroom of the King. The elaborate azulejo wall tiles date from 1530..
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Azulejos are traditional tin glazed blue tiles that have been used to adorn churches and grand houses in Portugal for more than five centuries. We wonder what the King would have made of the fact that today azulejos are frequently used to decorate Portuguese railway stations and public toilets!

Posted by Hawkson 07:02 Archived in Portugal Comments (5)

Picture Perfect Ōbidos

storm 22 °C

We are wending our way south as we try to keep ahead of winter but there could be some stormy times over the next few days. Residents of west coast communities know well the unpredictability of a marine environment, but Portugal has had more than a tempestuous climate to contend with in the past two thousand years. Invasions by Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, Teutons and Moors led to repeated destruction of the infrastructure and culture until the 14th century when a united Portugal was born. But civil wars and conflicts with neighbouring Spain continued, and many of the cities were destroyed or badly damaged by a cataclysmic earthquake in 1755. Napoleon’s soldiers only made matters worse when they ravaged this region in the early 1800s. It is therefore surprising that any ancient monuments survive, although many, like the fortified city of Ōbidos, have been significantly reconstructed in more recent centuries...
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Ōbidos dates from 1148, although it was built by the Moors on the site of an earlier settlement. It is a Lilliputian city of perfectly proportioned stone houses lining narrow cobblestone streets…
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It has an impressive entrance gate decorated with 17th century glazed tiles…
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And it is topped off with a fairytale castle…
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Every café and trinket shop in Ōbidos offers local cherry liqueur, called ginja, served in Lilliputian cups made of chocolate. At only one euro a shot it was definitely worth a try…
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Beyond the city walls is the stone aqueduct of Amoreira built in 1575 on the orders of Queen Catherine of Austria to bring clean water into the city. It’s market day in Ōbidos and the locals see no reason not to set up there stalls in the shade of the 438 year old structure as they have done for generations...
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This little girl was helping her mum sell chestnuts…
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It’s chestnut time in Southern Europe and the plump, hairy-skinned little critters are just falling out of the trees. Chestnut roasters are doing a roaring trade on city streets and in the markets, but there is no need to buy them: country roads and footpaths are just littered with chestnut road kill.

Posted by Hawkson 06:45 Archived in Portugal Comments (3)

A Sunny Portuguese Sunday

semi-overcast 23 °C

We’ve been spectacularly fortunate with the weather since we arrived in soggy Santiago a week ago. It has certainly rained – poured on occasions – but only at night or when we’ve been travelling. Our arrival in the ancient city of Coimbra is a good example. Never heard of Coimbra? Neither had we. But it’s Portugal’s third largest city and it was home to the country’s only university until 1911, (this has to be a record, though not an enviable one). Much of the university is housed in magnificent palaces and historic buildings clinging to the steep sides and top of a small mountain…
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The skies opened as we drove into the city during the evening rush hour and we would never have found our hotel in the narrow, winding streets without our GPS. But, by the time we had checked in the clouds lifted and the rain stopped. Coimbra University is similar to Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo in that there isn’t a patch of flat land in sight...
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but VIU never had buildings like this…
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Or a church like this…
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Churches, cathedrals and monasteries form the backbone of historical buildings in Portugal and many of them are still in sacred service, albeit catering to a dwindling congregation. We thought that visiting religious buildings on Sunday might prove difficult but, joy of joys, not only were they open for business on the Sabbath – there were no admission fees. So now we can take you on an absolutely gratis tour of the incredibly ornate Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitoria in Batalha. Part of the building was never completed after the great earthquake of 1755, but the giant pillars point to the enormity of the planned structure...
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And then on to the vast Cistercian abbey in Alcobaça…
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This abbey, completed in 1222, housed 999 friars together with hundreds of novitiates and workers. Despite earthquakes and wars the abbey remained in use until 1834. Here’s James trying out the kitchen table for size…
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While Sheila wonders how much washing up she would have to do in this sink...
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Two extensive abbeys before Sunday lunch is just about all we can manage, so now we’re off to visit a castle or two – so much history and so little time.

Posted by Hawkson 14:27 Archived in Portugal Comments (8)

A River of Wine

Cruising The Douro

sunny 23 °C

Port may put on a suave, sophisticated face, but it engenders frivolity in both young and old because of its sweetness and hidden strength. Stereotypically, port is imbibed by elderly aunts and aging grannies (purely for medicinal purposes) or given to impressionable young women by amorous young studs for purposes completely unrelated to their health. But, while some wine aficionados might dismiss port in the way a connoisseur of classical music may be disdainful of a Strauss waltz for being too sickly or easy on the palate, you can be sure that when the ladies have retired from the dinner table; the bow ties have been loosened; the Cohibas lit; there are few who will pass the decanter of port without taking a fill.
In Portugal a very good bottle of tawny port can be bought for about eight dollars, which may explain why this particular blog entry is becoming increasingly verbose as the evening wears on.
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It is mid-October in the Douro Valley, the grapes have been harvested and now the vines are in mourning for their lost offspring. The autumn leaves of burgundy and gold are beginning to fall, and soon the naked vines will be buffeted by rude Atlantic winds and chilled by winter’s hoary hand. But the fruit of their slender limbs will be lovingly crushed, often by human feet, until the lifeblood flows and begins its metamorphosis into wine. O.K. Definitely too much port now, but it is difficult not to write romantically about such a beautiful place…
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But photos cannot do justice to the sheer vastness and beauty of the landscape. Vineyards pattern the hillsides into a verdant quilt in every direction…
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While incredibly narrow cobblestoned roads snake through the terraced vineyards and historic villages on either side of the valley...
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But the best way to experience the ever changing scenery is from the deck of a river cruiser …
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Luxuriously appointed vessels like the Ama Vida cruise sedately up and down the Douro and pamper passengers with five star dinners and wines at five star prices, but we chose a simpler trip aboard a traditional barco – a small wooden boat once used to carry the casks of new wine to the vintners in Porto – and we were rewarded with a glass of the good stuff …
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We’ve just heard that Canada now has free trade deal with the European Union. We can only pray that this will lead to port at eight dollars a bottle - Saude!

Posted by Hawkson 11:36 Archived in Portugal Comments (8)

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