Window on Lisbon and beyond

 

A peep at Portugal's secret drawcards

OK, we admit it. Portugal has grabbed us by our heart-strings with its beauty, friendliness  - and something more.

This country is different.

It took us a while to realise and record what the other reasons were, so stay with us as we explore the final part of our trip through Spain and Portugal, and maybe you will be able to add a couple more, as well.

Portugal is not afraid to stretch - just like the 17-kilometre Vasco da Gama Bridge, Europe's longest, over the Tagus river. For travellers like us, self-driving and headed for Setibul to the south of Lisbon, it saved us much time.

Portugal is comfortable with its history...

Hotel Club d'Azeitao, the country club hotel we had booked online before leaving home, was set in the Arrabida Park, close to the village of Azietao, and located an easy eight kilometres from the much bigger town of Setibul. Online, it had looked very good, but we have done enough travelling to know that this is not always the case when you finally arrive.

However, the good news is that this place far surpassed our initial expectations. It has definitely had some practice with hospitality, for sure, as parts of the hotel date from the 17th century.

This hotel was going to be our base for the next six days, as we intended to branch out in a different direction every day, a system that we find works very well.

Although our room was large and comfortable, we spent an hour or so on the first day, simply wandering the extensive grounds, discovering the hotel's various amenities, like the gallery, above... 

...the generously-sized pool, a vineyard, spa facilities, a children's play-centre...

...and (did I mention it was late summer?) a field ablaze with red poppies.

WATCH THIS VIDEO....

 

Colour defines Portugal whether it's a summer field crowded with red poppies - or a wall of brightly hand-painted tiles, often deep blue and yellow.

In my notes I tagged Setubal as a 'mauve and purple town' - a true compliment, as these are my favourite colours.

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Expect the avant-garde...like this sculpture on the footpath of Setubal's Avenue Luisa Todi.

In the Arrabida, the Atlantic meets a vast natural park, ideal for trekking and mountain biking. Setubal, about 50 kilometres south-east of Lisbon, is the main centre, also easily in reach of Alentejo, a large agricultural region to the south. 

However, age is respected too, like this bandstand in the gardens of Luisa Todi Avenue. This major road is named for a famous 18th-century opera singer, born in this city in 1753.

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Bars are everywhere....on the street, in a cafe, night and day, there's always time for a coffee, a beer, or some local port. Don't you love how the garbage-can, here, colour-coordinates with the tiling?

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There's always a reason to celebrate...

In Setubal, we came across a laneway chock-a-block with frames and flowers. Why? Maybe it was to celebrate the season. Possibly it was 'just because'.

What an excellent way to honour sunshine, blossoms - and life!

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Southern Portugal's climate is made for being outdoors....

Setubal's main square is made for socialising, conveniently bordered by cafes and bars and, far left, the tourism centre and Municipal Council, painted deep purple.

Whenever you see tiles like these, appropriately called Portuguese pavement or calcada portuguesa, you know you are either in Portugal itself, or one of its current or former colonies. Go to Sri Lanka, Macau, Goa and many more places, and you will find them - the everlasting thumb-print of Portugal.

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Cafes may be old-style or trendy like this one in Setubal. If you love good cafes, you'll probably know the moment you set foot in a new one, whether it will deliver what you crave. It was that way for us at Na Pas de Quois also located on Setubal's opera singer's street. Appropriately, the name translates as 'you're welcome!'.

It was a hot day and we desperately needed to chill and drink fluids. This was our solution. Just look at the goodness in that mint, kiwifruit and lime, juice of the day, which came ready to be mixed in with the ice. 

The whimsical decor inside - cup-and-saucer hanging lamps, risque signs for the toilets - made us love it more. Even the outdoor rack of herbs, wines and newsletter, was placed to catch attention. AND the coffee was good too!

A day later, in Lisbon, we stopped at a crowded padaria for filled bread rolls, an obviously popular go-to lunch spot for city workers.

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Lisbon, Portugal's capital, is busy, VERY busy.... 

HINT: Do not attempt to self-drive. That was the advice from everyone in Setubal, so we caught a bus into the city centre, crossing the Tagus River on the much smaller April 25th Bridge (named for the 1974 Carnation Revolution on this date).

To get around in the city itself, you may choose to walk (although Lisbon is built on eight hills, and the cobbled footpaths are narrow and can be a trip-hazard) or take a tram, sightseeing bus, or hire a driver of one of the many smaller vehicles, to allow you to see the sights more easily.

Lisbon is known for its colourful trams.The Lisbon tramway network has been in operation since 1873 and now has six lines. Its 63 trams operate over 31 kilometres.

These ones, above, are models of course, but they do make an unique and appropriate souvenir or gift to take home

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Lisbon is a city of monuments...

The Praca do Comercio in Lisboa, the Portuguese name for the city, is located south of the main city block, on the waterfront. It has several outstanding monuments. In the picture above, the Arco Rua Augusta, stands behind the central equestrian statue of King Jose I which was built to commemorate the city's reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake. 

Commercial buildings with colonnaded walkways surround the square on three sides and there are also two Information Centres. Make time to enjoy the Lisboa Story Centre and learn about the background of this fascinating city and its tumultuous history.

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The city is lively and worth exploring

As you would expect there are buskers, and it's no accident that this one is playing a guitar, an instrument that is very popular in Portugal. Lisbon is proud of the city's classical guitar concerts.

Laneways in Lisbon are crowded with shoppers and tourists, but of course they are decorated with traditional Portuguese mosaic tiles.

Here the dining space mixes with strolling visitors and views of King Jose I in the adjacent square.

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Let's talk about the food...

Aaah! Here Portuguese tarts, pastries and cakes fill a cake-shop window. Yes! The Portuguese surely love sweet things.

Fresh cheeses made from the milk of cows reared in this country feature at almost every meal. Azeitao cheese comes from the Arrabida Mountains and is designated DOP.

Find out more...

In Portugal the sea is never far away. Its coastline stretches almost 1200 kilometres, and all species of seafood are available in season, especially sardines, which lead the hit parade.

When they are in season (March and April, September and October) whole fresh sardines are on almost every restaurant menu. In 2011 grilled sardines were elected as one of Portugal's seven gastronomical wonders.

Find out more...

The rest of the time, there is an endless supply of canned sardines, such as these, targeting tourists to buy them and take home as gifts and souvenirs.

Even more popular is bacalhau, dried smoked cod. In major cities these restaurants sell Pastel de Bacalhau, elongated balls of bacalhou filled with cheese, then deep-fried. These are even more delicious when served with a glass of port.

It is laborious work, as each 'pastel' is carefully shaped by hand.

Bacalhau is found on almost every Portuguese menu, and in this case (above) the entire restaurant is dedicated to it. Before use, the dried cod must be thoroughly soaked and rinsed, a process that takes several days.

This shows how large these fish are, and the man on the left was carefully sorting through them to find the best one to buy. Most importantly, did you know that bacalhau does not come from the local coasts, but from the North Atlantic? Proving this, see the box under the fish, and the sign marked Norway.

When Portuguese exploration began in the 14th century, dried salt-preserved cod, became a staple item of diet for the sailors on those ships. Soon it was traded with many other countries, who now have classic codfish dishes on their menus. 

Many more fish and crustaceans appear on menus too, and supermarkets have almost anything you might need.

Something we had not tried before was fried cuttlefish. In the small village restaurant where we dined one night, almost every table was loaded with plates of this local delicacy. Expecting it to be like calamari, we were surprised to discover that it was much thicker and more chewy.

Perhaps one of the best seafood meals of our time in southern Portugal was at this restaurant, Baluarte da Avenida. Here small rounds of sausage were interspersed with calamari and prawns that came sizzling to our table.

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Religion is important for the local people as most regard themselves as Christian, and 81 percent identify as Catholic. Lisbon Cathedral was built in 1147 has survived many earthquakes including the massive one in 1755 which destroyed the Gothic main chapel.

Although this ancient building draws many tourists, it is not just for sightseeing. The day we visited, a group of schoolchildren were practising for a choral performance in the cathedral.

 

Some other churches in Portugal are also of historic importance, such as Setubal's Convento de Jesus founded in 1489 and a National Monument since 1910. It is also popular with pigeons too, as you can see.

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In such a tourist-heavy area, gift shops and boutiques abound to catch the attention of passers-by. Near Lisbon Cathedral we found this place, Chi Coracao, selling high quality clothing and accessories.

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An evening of village life

Early on in our travels, I would plan ahead obsessively - checking opening hours of the places we wanted to see, crunching travel minutes so we would fit it all in, and then being deeply disappointed because on the day we were to visit an art gallery, let's say, it had closed early!

These days we prefer to wander, taking in whatever the season - or pure luck - delivers.

So that's how we found ourselves in the village of Azeitao, just a kilometre or so from where we were staying, making plans to return that night for the annual festival.

Here you are looking at one of the best confections I have ever tried, bought from a stall at the festival, no doubt made by the man who sold them, - or, more probably, his wife!

As a addict for all things 'figgy', buying these was a no-brainer. I asked for a good paper bagful to take with us as emergency snacks while we travelled on. These and several other munchies bought on this night lasted us until we boarded our flight home in about a week's time. 

Watch the video (above, on this page) to share the experience...

It turned out to be an evening of local fun and music, homemade food and unpretentious entertainment. Few of the stall-holders spoke English, even a few phrases, and I almost wore out my one word of Portuguese - obrigado (thank you).

Because we were staying in the area, we quickly found a cafe, just across the road from the park where the 'Festa' was held, named it as 'ours' and came here every morning for coffee and pastries. There is something very 'grounding' about feeling like one of the locals. Even if it is only for a few days, after the first two mornings, the barista recognised us and automatically made our choice of coffee.

Usually we could hardly resist a Portuguese tart, warm from the oven, crisp and the ideal companion for coffee, but on one morning there was a special addition to the counter's glass-fronted display. Somehow we deduced that the filling was made from sweetened custard and almond meal, wrapped in thin pastry sheets. It was sensational and called Pastel de Tentugal.

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Oooh, yes, there are winelands too....

Azietao is nicknamed 'the wine town', so we thanked fate for drawing us to stay in this region which we had never even heard of beforehand.

Key produce of this region is muscatel grapes, designated DOC and used for red or white fortified wines.

This wine-family business was founded in 1834, six generations ago. Its history lies in the cellars where some 100-year-old wines are still kept.

 A wine-tasting in the adjoining Museum House is a must, as here you can begin to absorb the lifeblood of the region. 

Nearby Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal is one of Portugal's most innovative wine producers. While a wine-tasting is definitely recommended, the grounds of this winery, at the base of the Arrabida Range, has much more to offer.

Where else would you find custom-made - blindingly blue! - Chinese warriors and their horses, for instance?

Or, more in keeping with the history, a chance to closely examine an ancient olive tree?

According to the plaque, this tree was planted by Romans in 650BC and saved from extinction when a nearby dam project was planned.

Since at least 2000BC wine grapes have been grown in this part of Portugal in the Tagus and Sado valleys, and has continued until modern times.

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Artisan work as it has been for centuries...

Quite close to our accommodation, we found Vila Fresca which has accommodation as well as a tile gallery and workshop.

Is it just me, or does your arm and shoulders ache just looking at this! The precision and fine art skills that go into the creation of each tile is unbelievable. Fortunately that long wooden wrist-rest assists the artist to keep her hand steady. 

We could have spent an entire afternoon just browsing through the hundreds of different tile patterns on display.

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A trip to fairyland

Everyone who visits southern Portugal should go the extra distance and visit Sintra, about an hour west by train from Lisbon. This town was originally a royal sanctuary but has become a resort town in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains. 

The pastel-coloured villas and palaces are story-book perfect, and why wouldn't they be? Many tourists beat a path to this medieveal gem, and accommodation, souvenir shops and cafes abound. The Moorish and Manueline-style Sintra National Palace has twin chimneys and elaborate tilework, and are easy to access from the town. 

It is best to come by public transport as finding parking may be difficult. 

Even the walk from the rail station along the park-lined promenade to the town-proper takes some time, but the entertainers...

...like this skilful bubble-blower...

...and the many goods for sale, make it seem very easy. These cork handbags, remind us that cork is a major commodity in Portugal. Originally used for the wine industry, today many other uses have now been found.

Further south in our travels we passed thorough cork-growing areas and were able to see closely how the cork is harvested.

From May to late-August, the outer part of the lower trunks of selected trees aged between 24 and 30 years old, are cut away and each tree is marked with a code. The work is skilled and tedious in order not to damage the tree itself.

Finally at the upper town we can see the ramparts of the 19th-century Pena National Palace, known for its whimsical design, far above on the hilltop. There is a road and many people walk up, although others choose to hire the driver of a small vehicle (50-euro per person on a tuk-tuk trip) for this last part of the journey. 

Others choose simply to enjoy lunch and a coffee in one of the many hotels and cafes, or sample the local port wines.

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A trip to the rice-lands

Don't only visit Portugal's cities - the countryside (as we had discovered in the north) is just as interesting. One day we headed south towards the city of Sines a little over an hour from Setubal.

Enroute we stopped for lunch at Comporta, a small coastal village on the Sado peninsula, sometimes referred to as 'the Hamptons of Europe'. It was stork-nesting season too, so we spent more time scanning the chimney pots than we did admiring the houses.

We felt right at home, in Comporta, ordering an excellent lunch at Eucalyptus Cafe in the shade of, what else but a giant gum tree!

As paella fans, we of course knew of Portugal's use of rice in cookery, so it was interesting to travel through an area of rice-growing countryside. Those liquid green 'fields' near Comporta added yet another dimension to this region's range of produce.

Sines' main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of 15th-century Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama. Today's Sines is a busy place, a large and important industrial maritime port. Vasco da G. would never recognise it, now.

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Huge stones and stones and tiny flowers

Too soon, it was our final day in southern Portugal. We had heard of the Almendres, the megaliths of Evora, and as they were close to the route we would take, heading for Madrid, we decided to make a short detour.

WATCH this video to learn more...

Standing stones are found throughout Europe and other parts of the world, and mystery and superstition surround them. Were they built as grave markers or places of strange rituals? No one can tell us for sure, but we found these ones beautiful and fascinating.

This information board may explain some of the ideas about these stones and, in the background you can also see a cork tree plantation. 

While we were fascinated by the megaliths, we were equally charmed by the roadside wild flowers.

Note to self when travelling: watch out for the little things!

Hiding in the shade.

This tiny blue butterfly was only about the size of my little fingernail....but look how beautiful it is.

We left the stones feeling as happy as this tiny bee, tumbling around in pollen.

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Heading for Spain

What would you do, if you saw this on the horizon as you drove along the highway?

Well, obviously, we turned off and followed the narrow winding road up and up, until we came to the village of Evoramonte, fortified in the 14th century.

From the ramparts, the view back towards Evora is stupendous.

While the population has dropped to just a few hundred residents in recent years, we noticed some houses in the town offered accommodation.

It would certainly be a quiet and beautiful spot to stay for a while.

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One final surprise

Just a few kilometres from the Spanish fortress town of Badajoz we arrived at Elvas, also fortified in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the chief frontier fortress south of the Tagus river.

Imagine our surprise when we turned a corner to be confronted by this, the 16th-century Amoreira Aqueduct, seven kilometres long, bringing fresh water to the city.

It is an amazing feat of architecture, engineering and physics, with 833 arches, and constructed by mortared stone masony.

Many storeys high, as you can see from the size of the car in one of these arches, this aquaduct was not only a great surprise to us, but also a delightful final discovery before we crossed into Spain just eight kilometres further on.

What a journey!

We hope you liked this grab-bag of great things to see and do in Portugal.

 


Words and pictures ©Sally Hammond

Video @Gordon Hammond

Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently in Portugal, self-driving and staying in accommodation at their own expense. All opinions are their own.

 
 

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