Portugal is a hugely popular travel destination for British holidaymakers but usually they head for the coast and the beaches of The Algarve. We aren’t attracted to typical holiday resorts so we decided to explore a different side of Portugal, one less touristed, exploring small towns and countryside rather than the beaches. Our first stop was in the capital city of Lisbon, staying at a small hotel called The House; a family run place which was perfectly located near a main tram stop. http://www.thehouse.pt/hotel-overview.html Despite a predilection for purple and a very small room (we did book last minute), we liked it and had a great roof terrace with views across the city.Lisbon is a beautiful town to wander. Be prepared for some pretty steep hills but hop on and off the wonderful trams when your shins start jarring. We used the 28 Tram frequently, rumbling around over the cobbles and up and down the steep hills. Tram routes http://www.lisbonlux.com/lisbon-transport/electrico-28.htmlOur Lisbon site-seeing started in the Belem area near the Tagus River at the Jeronimos Monastery, a registered UNESCO World Heritage building. Replacing a church formerly on the same site, the monastery is built from Lioz stone, opened in 1495 and also known as The Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belem. Find out more from their official website http://www.mosteirojeronimos.gov.pt/en/ In the same Belem district we walked to the Monument to the Discoveries on the northern banks of the Tagus River estuary; where exploration ships departed to trade with India and the Far East. It is a monument to the Portuguese navigators built in 1939 to honour Portuguese discoveries made in the 15th and 16th centuries. Shaped like a ship setting forth with the navigators and explorers straining forward towards a new horizon under a billowing sail, it’s a formidable monument to Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery. Situated on the waterfront you can see the 25th April Bridge spanning the Tagus.One of our favourite places and close by is the Museu Nacional dos Coches housed in the Royal Riding Hall on the Alfonso de Albuquerque Square. A very popular museum which houses a beautiful collection of historical coaches, one of the largest collections in the world. Built as a horse riding hall, the interior is 50 metres long by 17 metres wide and was used for horse training, games and horse riding exhibitions watched by the Portuguese Royal Family from the boxes which overlook the space. There’s a wonderful atmosphere here and the craftsmanship of the wooden coaches makes you long wistfully for a time before mass production http://museudoscoches.gov.pt/pt/Like most cities Lisbon has its pockets of ‘green lungs’. Trams 25 and 28 take you to the beautiful Estrela Park; filled with palm trees, ornate fountains, statues and a small lake. It’s one of the most popular neighbourhood parks and includes a cafe near the water. It’s easy to while away an hour here appreciating the exotic plants, formal garden planting and looking for local birdlife. The Estrela Basilica, the first church in the world dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus and the most important architectural endeavour of Queen Maria of Portugal. Dating back to 1779 built in the Baroque, Neoclassical style it stands in the Praca de Estrela. Gorgeous churches and UNESCO heritage sites aside, the magic of Lisbon is simply wandering its streets, stopping to eat cakes from the fabulous pastry shops, Natas, delicious custard tarts encased in layers of deliciously buttery flaky pastry are a favourite, and enjoying a drink at a local bar; equal highlights to the monuments of this pretty city. Cobblestones, statues and beautiful architectural details are enough to extend your time here as it’s such a joyful place to wander in leisurely fashion. It hasn’t yet been spoiled by homogenization and chain coffee shops, and the atmosphere is so much the richer for it.
After a couple of days in Lisbon it was time for us to move on and explore more of the country. Eschewing the tourist beaches in Faro, leaving the city and driving over the 25th April Bridge to the South Central region of the country, the Alentejo known as the ‘Bread Basket’ of Portugal and close to the border with Spain. Evora, Alentejo.
A small town that packs a big punch for any tourist willing to head off the tourist track a little. En route to our next destination we stopped for a couple of hours in the preserved town centre, still partially enclosed by medieval walls within which ancient monuments include the Roman Temple of Diana, an aqueduct with huge arches stretching 6 miles, the site of the 1808 Battle of Evora and a 16th century chapel of bones ‘Capela dos Ossos’. With that role call Évora is unsurprisingly an UNESCO World Heritage site and a member of the ‘Most Ancient European Towns Network’ http://community.worldheritage.org/articles/eng/Most_Ancient_European_Towns_NetworkThe sun dropped in and out as we wandered the town. We ate lunch in a small wine bar; traditional Portuguese food of mashed bread, onion and cod with prawns which was delicious and the restaurant was packed with local families. As strangers in town where no other tourists were evident, we were made as welcome as the regulars. We dragged ourselves away, our stomachs full, walked around the town again buying cakes and fresh empanadas from the local pastillara to stock the fridge when we reached our final destination.Before leaving we visited the Evora Chapel of Bones Capela Dos Ossos, a well known monument which is part of the Royal Church of St. Francis. The chapel interior is decorated with the real human bones and skulls of local people relocated from overcrowded cemeteries circa the 16th century. It is believed that approx 5,000 corpses are interred here including the bones of the three Franciscan monks who founded the monastery in the 13th century and the grave of Bishop Jacinto Carlos de Silveira who was killed by Napoleon’s French soldiers in 1808. It is, as can be expected, macabre; respectful? Unsettling… but of its time. Santa Eulalia, Alentejo
An hour’s drive later we arrived in Santa Eulalia where we planned to stay for a week. Casa Ermida is absolutely stunning. We couldn’t believe our luck when we arrived at this incredible architect designed house overlooking a lake. We found this place on one of our favourite travel websites called i-escape. I think this is the only way you can book this place: http://www.i-escape.com/casa-da-ermida-de-santa-catarina/overviewWe treated ourselves and booked the suite which is the only upstairs room and covers the entire area above the ground floor. A very large space with wrap around windows overlooking the lake and the small chapel also owned by the property. It’s a big house with 7 bedrooms; the other 6 bedrooms on the ground floor decorated in traditional style. Every room has a large bathroom, each one finished in a different colour polished plaster. You can book by room or you can splash out and book the entire house. It’s only a 2 hour drive from Lisbon and at this time of year in April/May – the surrounding countryside was bursting with colour and wildlife. The living room had huge double height windows overlooking a lake. Deep green roofing tiles have been used as wall art in the dining room and everywhere you look there are eccentric touches; antiques, an old wheelchair, a huge open fireplace stacked with logs, fishermans glass floats hanging from the roof rafters, fishing nets and a handmade kitchen painted in vibrant colours. Fortuitously we had the entire place to ourselves.
Elvas and Sao Vicente
An overcast day. We drove into nearby Elvas, another UNESCO fortified town enclosed by city walls painted in the traditional colour yellow seen throughout this region. Not realising that 1st May is a national holiday here, everything was closed, the town pretty much deserted. This peaceful former city dating back to the Romans, the Visigoths and taken from the Moors was at the forefront of defending Portugal from the Spanish and the French. Surprisingly for so much history and original buildings, not many tourists pass through and I imagine on a sunnier day when everything is open this would be a fascinating place to explore. Today there was a small flea market in the main plaza, a couple of traders clothed in black resembling wizened mystics, selling black pots and African masks. We marvelled at the thousands of hand-set cobbles mostly made from marble. The Castle of Elvas was closed as was the nearby Senhora da Graca Fort but a wander around took in pretty buildings and narrow streets, the smaller Santa Clara Square with its stone carved pillory (a flogging pillar), castellated walled gates and acres of beautifully inset coloured cobblestones.
We left Elvas and drove back to Casa Ermida through the small town of Sao Vicente. Rows of old men in flat caps were sitting on benches and low walls lining the road of this small town, quite openly staring at us; not rudely, but with curiosity. Not many tourists pass this way and when they do they are usually Spanish as it is only about 5km from the border with Spain. We ate a late lunch at the very busy Pompilio restaurante, Rua de Elvas, 96- S. Vicente. Tel 268 611 133. One elderly man stood behind a glass door at the restaurant whilst we were waiting to be seated, staring at us for quite some time. I’m glad we made an impression, I just hope it was the right one. Lamb with potatoes and onions, traditional Portuguese cooking. Dave ate Porco and we had the typical Flan cake with sticky plum for desert. Great food in a bustling atmospheric restaurant with families celebrating the holiday, we were very lucky to get a table.Campo Maior
Another local day trip this time to visit the Campo Maior Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos de Campo Maior) dating to 1766 and annexed to the Campo Maior Mother Church. Smaller than the bone chapel in Evora it is more atmospheric and you can get closer to the bones to see them in more detail. It feels less ghoulish and more respectful, it’s brightly lit, more ornate and feels calmer. To visit inside the chapel you first need to find the priest of the church and ask him to grant you access. We went in to the church and a lady working inside took us to the Padre’s office. There was a very small fee of a few euros each which goes towards the maintenance of the chapel.
It’s another pretty fortified town with it’s own medieval castle, old buildings with layers of peeling paint and a peaceful feeling. Again we seemed to be the only tourists and the streets were very quiet. Driving out of Campo Maior we stopped at a local cemetery on the main road near the roundabout, I think signposted for Port Allegre. The flowers were all long lasting fake plastic blooms giving the cemetery a sugary confectionery look; bright pink and orange popping colourfully against the marble stones and stooping angels.Chilling out at Casa Ermida
We spent the following day relaxing at Casa Ermida, it’s going to be a wrench leaving this place. This area is well known for its bird watching. The storks are fascinating, they nest on top of the posts of the huge electric pylons lining the motorways. The pretty Hoopoe bird with its distinctive feathered crown was my favourite and they would often strut by very close to the windows looking for insects. The aerial photo below shows the remote location of the house on the larger piece of land with the chapel on the smaller plot. One day I could live like this, looking out over wildflowers watching the sun set over a lake with no other houses for several miles.
Casa Ermida and the guests are looked after on a daily basis by husband and wife Joao and Isabel who along with their daughter and dogs Maxi and Raffa, live in a small house on the property. They made breakfast for us each morning and we became friendly. I would sit in their doorway chatting with Isabel, playing with the dogs at quiet moments at dusk.
Estremoz Market Day and Vila Vicosa
Saturday and a traditional market day in the nearby marble town Estremoz. An antique and food market was set up in the central square. We had coffee first where I had the opportunity to photograph Dave in the company of several local men in their flat caps. He’ll kill me if he sees this photo – hah! The market was busy, mostly with locals buying fruit and vegetables and some of them choosing birds from the birdseller with his stacked bird cages. My favourite building on the square was the pretty green tiled Pastelaria Alianca with its ornate windows and decorative stone details. We had lunch at Cafe de Alentejano, packed out with local people in the upstairs restaurant. It was okay but the food in this area becomes limiting after successive days eating the same dishes. I will however never tire of the gorgeous pastries from the pastelarias which are a Portuguese highlight and which I eat back in London at the Portuguese cafes in Ladbroke Grove. We stopped by in the small marble town Vila Vicosa on our way back to Casa Ermida for our last night. The house was suddenly filled with people, every downstairs room taken by a large family in for the weekend. Not sharing a common language we smiled and exchanged greetings but it was a good end to the week of having the place entirely to ourselves; it felt like the right time to move on.
Our next destination Sintra, back towards Lisbon where we’d be flying home from at the end of the trip. Sintra is less than an hour drive from Lisbon but so completely different and quite an astonishing place. We arrived around 1pm and checked in to the Villa Mira Longa at Estrada da Pena, 04. Tel 351 964 306194. A fabulous location with great hosts within easy walking access to most of the sights. We had amazing views at our buffet breakfast of 2 of the famous Sintra palaces. The house is beautifully decorated with chandeliers, a full size taxidermy peacock, antiques, old velvet and silk sofas. Our room was tucked away, accessed through a lush tropical garden running down alongside the house.
Once checked in we were straight back out again to visit the extraordinary Pena National Palace, set high on a hill in the Sintra mountains, resembling something lifted straight out of a fairytale. A Romanticist castle and UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s a national monument which was bought in 1838 by the King Consort Ferdinand II. He transformed the former monastery in to a summer residence and playground for the Portuguese Royal Family. It was the last place that Queen Amelia of Portugal spent her final night before going in to exile. The paint colours have been restored over the years and it looks quite bonkers; magical but still bonkers!
It is fantastical, like a huge folly built by a rich eccentric. At the foot of the hill (which is a good steep 30 to 40 minute walk up to the palace) there are stunning gardens which you can visit included in the admission price. Day 11 of our trip and a 5 minute walk from the guesthouse are the gardens of the Palace Quinta da Regaleira. It was built in the 1890s, the obsession of an eccentric millionaire Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. The Palace was designed by the architect Luigi Manini and is a profusion of Gothic pinnacles, gargoyles and an octagonal tower with Manueline symbols which recall the Portuguese discoveries. You can visit inside this 5 storey building and wander its rooms and terraces. The gardens are crammed with palms, ferns and exotic plants and decorative grottoes. There’s the waterfall lake, a cave and a chapel all giving access to a mysterious tunnel system. There are two separate tiered ‘Initiation’ wells hidden among the trees. Neither were used as a water source but these ‘inverted towers’ are linked to Tarot initiation rites. The larger well has a 27 metre spiral stone staircase with several narrow landings which you can climb and both of the wells are connected by the tunnel system. Kids must love this place, it’s the ultimate game of hide and seek.The following day we drove through Calores then carried on down a steep winding road topped with loose murram to Cabo da Roca where it was overcast and raining. We had reached the most westerly point in Europe. Landmarked with a small lighthouse it was very busy with tourists so we had a coffee then went for a walk to look down the wildflower strewn cliffs to a cave and the sea. Other than the lighthouse there isn’t much else to keep you here but on the road heading back towards Sintra we saw signs for the Convento dos Capuchos which turned out to be a bewitching beautiful place.
The entrance to this Franciscan monastery (founded in 1560) is marked by two huge boulders. The monks lived in tiny rock-hewn rooms lined with natural cork which was peeling in chunks from the walls. This was our favourite place in Sintra; the sun came out as we sat in a peaceful area with a small decorative pond surrounded by moss covered boulders and huge trees. No-one else was here yet the castles in Sintra were crowded…but this truly is a gem of a place. This is their official website: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/parques-jardins-e-monumentos/convento-dos-capuchosFrom the monastery we drove back through central Sintra to visit the Monserrate Palace and gardens landscaped in the 18 century by the wealthy young Englishman William Beckford and immortalised by Lord Byron Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). In 1856 the abandoned estate was bought by another Englishman, Sir Francis Cook who built the beautiful Moorish palace and transformed the gardens with a sweeping lawn, Rose gardens and sub tropical trees and ferns from around the world.
It’s a very scenic place to spend a couple of hours and a must see in the area for anyone interested in plants and formal gardens. A large pond teems with goldfish and giant carp, there are waterfalls, follies, a Mexican garden, Cork Oaks with ferns growing on their branches, Strawberry Trees, a small lake, a chapel and a ruin tangled in the roots of a Fiscus tree. Official website: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/parques-jardins-e-monumentos/parque-e-palacio-de-monserrate/And so our journey around Portugal came to an end but with so many other regions to explore we expect to return. Porto, the food capital, appeals. The country has so much more to offer than what the average tourist brochures propose and we were blown away by the eccentric castles and gardens…but Portugal, you can hold the Bacalau…we tried the national dish twice and decided that heavily salted cod is not for us!