2016 saw a wonderful trip to central Portugal in addition to other adventures in Vienna, Wales and England. We focused on Lisbon, Sintra and other locations but not as far north as Porto. We visited in mid November which was a perfect time as the weather was temperate (summer can be brutally hot) and the city was not over run by tourists as it is during the summer vacation season. Overall an excellent trip. Very, very friendly, nice people - could not be better. One can clearly see and fee that Portugal, particularly in the Lisbon area, was a world leading country however now poverty and decay is evident everywhere with perhaps 30% of the structures in certain parts of Lisbon derelict in well down on the heels. To bring things back up is a herculean task of not only resolve but funding - well beyond what the country could muster for many years to come (in my opinion). Notwithstanding the dereliction, there is great regal architecture that has been lovingly restored and the eclectic mix adds to the area's mystique.
There were many highlights but Lisbon was particularly a very memorable spot. The city resides on a series of seven hills and makes the hills in San Francisco pale by comparison. We found ourselves constantly trekking up and down with each high and low point containing very unique and interesting neighbourhoods. When we first arrived in the city by subway in the dark finding our accommodation was a challenge and initially caused a fair amount of trepidation. We stayed in what is one of the oldest and most avant-garde neighbourhoods called Alfama. To reach the accommodation we had to walk a very steep hill up a cobbled pitch black lane that served as a combination two-way street and tram line. To say it was tight would be over exaggerating the width of the street. In addition our initial impressions based on the many dilapidated buildings and storefronts gave us a lot of trepidation with respect to our decision to stay in the area. However we were very pleasantly surprised that notwithstanding some of the strange nature of the area it turned out to be wonderfully located and eclectic. The area and city itself is full of an extremely varied population of people including Portuguese of course, Asians, Africans, South Americans and Europeans. With that came a real variety of colours, music and cuisine. One of the big hits in Lisbon is the tram system which runs all throughout the city and up and down the steep hills. Generally Lisbon is not a huge city and in the four days we were there we had an opportunity to walk dozens and dozens of miles over many hours and days and see all of the unique neighbourhoods from ground level. Wandering in Lisbon and being lost many times was a pleasure. One of the interesting things very particular to Lisbon is their history of folk/Bohemian music called "Fado" with its rich history going back centuries. Fado is really only sung in the little restaurants and bodegas tucked into the Alfama & Mouraria neighbourhoods. A fascinating piece of local culture. The city also has a great aquarium that should not be missed. (http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160419-europes-best-work-and-play-city)
We also spent a few days basing ourselves and the wonderful town of Sintra which is just to the east of Lisbon. Sintra is a resort town in the foothills of Portugal’s Sintra Mountains. Sintra also is set in a hilly environment and is where centuries ago the nobility built their summer castles and residences. It's a town of winding hill side streets, charming neighbourhoods and very nice botanical garden. When we arrived we must've spent two hours driving hither and yon looking for our accommodation and even our GPS was no help; through good fortune we ended up on the correct street and were directed by a local resident to the address we are looking for. We used Sintra as a base from which to drive north. (http://www.sintra-portugal.com/index.html)
Being a devoutly Catholic country a great deal of the history and sites have a connection to the religion. In addition remnants from the Islamic in the form of architecture are still visible from time to time.
"The Knights Templar - Tomar
One may remember the "Knights Templar". They were based in a town called Tomar and the castle they occupied called "Convento Christo" was an amazing place to visit. The history behind the cloister and the Knights Templar is amazing and to couple it with seeing the actual well-preserved cloister/castle was a treat. The Knights Templar insignia is in evidence throughout not only the castle but embedded in the towns cobblestone walkways. You could almost feel the Knights thundering down the road on their horses. (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/265/)
No trip to this part of Portugal would be complete without a visit to the Fatima shrine. At the risk of being flippant it was like a small Disneyland for Catholics with the original church and crypts of the three children who are said to have seen the Virgin Mary. There were faithful from all parts of the world wandering and praying throughout the large expanse of religious structures. Recently they completed a new church which holds over 8000 people. Of course as with any place such as this it was surrounded with religious gift shops selling Fatima and church related curios. There was even in the forecourt what must've been a 100 m long "sidewalk" where a number of pilgrims were moving toward the main shrine on their knees praying for something with their rosary beads. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_F%C3%A1tima)
The Monastery of Santa Maria d'Alcobaça
This ancient monastery is one of the most significant and interesting pieces of Gothic architecture in Portugal. It dominates the centre of the small town named Alcobaça. Standing in the middle of town it is an awe-inspiring site. As with many of the structures this one was built to commemorate a conquest of territory from the Moors. It was built back in 1147. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcoba%C3%A7a,_Portugal)
Obidos is a walled "Citadel" city residing on a hilltop overlooking verdant fields. It was originally a Roman town which was wrested from their control by the Moors somewhere after the year 713. It was then taken from the Moors in the 1100s by the first king of Portugal. Overall it is a really well preserved and interesting enclosed village area with winding cobblestone streets and alleyways. The history alone is amazing. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93bidos,_Portugal)
This is an outlying district of Lisbon and an area where historically Lisbon's wealthy lived. It's also the spot of many of Lisbon's main attractions. It's an easy albeit fairly long tram ride from downtown but worth the trip. Belem is the location of many of the old harbours where Portuguese sellers set out to explore the world. In addition there is a beautiful monastery and church by the seaside. When in Belem, one of the main events for tourists is to "The Pastéis de Belem" which is the traditional home of the delicious Portuguese cake. Even though we were there off-season the line of people to get into the bakery must've been 150 meters long. We were not curious enough to wait in line however we returned the next day which was a weekday and got in with no problem. The cakes are basically custard cakes and they were good however we found equally excellent ones all over Lisbon. It is said that this bakery was initially run by monks hundreds of years ago with the proceeds going to support the monastery. Great charcoal roasted chestnuts in the area as well - a favourite of ours. (http://lisbon-portugal-guide.com/belem-lisbon/belem-district-lisbon.html)
Cascais is a charming summer seaside resort town about 45 minutes by train from Lisbon. It was surprisingly nice and interesting with winding streets and tile covered classic buildings and residences throughout the town. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascais) (http://www.ezportugal.com/cascais-portugal)
Cabo de Roca
An interesting spot high on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. This spot is the furthest western point of continental Europe. At sea level there are narrow sandy beaches overshadowed by towering cliffs. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabo_da_Roca) here.
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