Portugal

DestinationsEuropePortugalWestern Europe

The playground of royalty

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A different world opens up an hour away from Lisbon – the rolling hills and lush slopes conjure up images of Bavaria and it is not too far from the truth to say a rather homesick King who married a Portuguese Princess chose to dwell in relative peace in such surroundings.

Introducing Sintra, the playground of royalty in the 19th century.

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The quaint town is itself about a pleasant 10 minutes walk through the winding road filled with greenery. And the boo-moment of the day happened when I read the map wrongly, and thought the palace was situated in the heart of town. To my chagrin, it was actually 5-6 km away, and uphill. A miserable trudge (at least it wasn’t raining) eventually brought me there, and I consider that impromptu hike my week’s worth of exercise.

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In any case, the Palacio de Pena is so reminiscent of the Walt Disney castle in multi-colour, and while not as grand as the Neuschwanstein, packs quite a punch combining many exterior styles of architecture and gaudy interiors that monachies seem to favour. Classical music blares from speakers, attempting to recreate the mood of the 19th century. Typically, it is difficult to separate the presence of a Romantic sentiment in such extravagant pursuits.

About 6 km away from the Lisbon city centre lies a little suburb called Belem (or also oddly known as Bethlehem the house of bread) more famous for its egg tarts than its bread, unfortunately. Pateis de Belem, or so it boasts, has been making its egg tarts since 1837, and its recipe kept under lock and key since then.

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Nearby, the Monument to the Discoveries marks the 600th anniversary of Henry the Navigator, a structure shaped like a ship with carvings of famous explorers on its sloping sides, but, something else takes the cake.

The poster building for Portuguese tourism is also found here: the Tower of Belem, or the Torres de Belem, commemorates the expedition of Vasco de Gama to India, and later for Portuguese explorers to find more fresh ground to put their feet on.

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DestinationsEuropePortugalWestern Europe

Old world charm

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One wonders at the tripartite heart of Lisbon – the Bairro Alto (now the clubbing district), the Baixa Chiado (the centre piece and shopping area) and the Alfama (the oldest quarter that survived the 18th century earthquake), yet Tiago merely called it a big village.

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He is not wrong, for all 3 areas are interconnected, but the Alfama, followed by the Bairro Alto is undeniably the most compelling with its winding, uneven streets, and its stunning views at various look-out points. Up the Castelo Sao Jorge, a Visigoth battlement enhanced by the Moors with which the Tourism office makes a quick buck out of mere ruins, yields a magnificent panorama of Lisbon.

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Down the front, the large square Praca do Comercio must have greeted its seafaring visitors in the grandest manner possible. Rickety Trams are in-thing, especially Trams number 28 and 15, which pretty much take one past all they need to see in Lisbon.

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DestinationsEuropePortugalWestern Europe

Lisbon and its Taxis

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I reached Lisbon after a rather harrowing 7 hour bus-ride, in which the driver in Jekyll-Hyde form, turned sanguine to nasty as he neared Lisbon Sete Rios Bus station. By the end of the journey he was already yelling at someone for some unfathomable reason, and I thought it wise to walk away before it escalated into some full blown quarrel.

Then it was into a taxi from Sete Rios to Rua de Augusta (an apparently famous vein of the city) and found it most disconcerting to find that the cabbie himself didn’t know the way.

“Cruzamento Rua de Augusta com Rua de Conceicao…” I had said to him curtly, attempting to pronounce the tilda-ed word properly. Either he did not understand a word I said, or my accent was so bad that I should not have tried at all. There is a nasal twang to the words, not unlike French.

He rattled something off in rapid-fire Portuguese, and I, in a panic, whipped out my notebook to show him I wasn’t lying at all. Without warning, he stopped the cab in the middle of the road (thankfully not that many cars at this time!), scribbled down the word “Rocio” on a piece of scrap paper and chattered once more in Portuguese.

I shrugged helplessly. Wasn’t a taxi driver supposed to be reliable enough to know the way?

With the cab still stationary, he immediately got out, leaving me rather stumped, and yelled at another passing cab.

The cab drove past him but his unparalleled determination was rewarded as he drove madly after the passing cab, honking and yelling until it stopped grudgingly for him.

And for a while, I was left in a Portuguese taxi, watching the meter run, without a driver who was some distance in front talking to some other cabbie. He could be plotting the next bank robbery in Portuguese for all I know.

But he gesticulated lots and it seemed that he stopped the other taxi to ask for directions himself.

Indeed, I was dropped at the junction of these 2 roads, and found the hostel on the first floor near the Praca do Comercio. The impatient and reckless nature of Cabbies worldwide is universal, I realised, after watching the way he sped down a narrow lane at 70km/hr, and wound down the window at every opportunity to gesture and yell.

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Travellers House is hidden on the famous street, up one floor. Its owners are friendly (I was given an immediate map and run-down of Lisbon – with an almost pre-made itinerary, complete with an impromptu pronunciation of Portuguese words), and the hostel is yuppie-chic, with macs for internet access, and wooden-bed dorms. Its american-accented owners are travellers themselves, stylish and well-informed, as evidenced by the well-worn but up-to-date Lonely Planet books lining the bookshelf.

“It is a safe city,” said Tiago, one of the owners of Travellers House.

“In fact, I have never seen any kind of violent crime, unless…,” he whispered conspiratorially, “there is some jealous husband whose wife had some affair.”

But what I wanted to know was this – do the Portuguese observe some kind of sacred siesta in the afternoons as the Spanish do?

Tiago had looked appropriately shocked.

“We have none of this nonsense here, thank God. It’s a completely different culture!”

I laughed at that.

Carollers still throng the street as I type. “Gloria in Excelsis” wafts gently through the windows, mingling with the constant jazz music that comes from the reception.

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