Category Archives: Cathedrals

Portugal, Tomar and the Aqueduct of Pegões

Tomar Portugal

The day began with breakfast.  Nothing unusual about that of course, most days begin with breakfast, but this breakfast was unusual.

I have to say that I did not have very high expectations about eating at Conde de Ferreira Palace but I was soon to be proved wrong. The food and the service itself was excellent but it was the ambiance of the dining arrangements which set it apart from other places that we have stayed.

There was only one large dining table and hotel guests all sat together; this sort of arrangement can be uncomfortable at first but within only a very short time everyone was chatting away to each other.  When I say chatting I really mean struggling because around the table there were several different nationalities rather like a meeting at the United Nations but without the interpreters.

The French Canadians from Quebec couldn’t speak to the Germans, the Flemish Belgians couldn’t speak to the Dutch because the French couldn’t understand German, the Belgians couldn’t understand the Dutch and vice versa.  No one except the Portuguese could speak Portuguese.  But this didn’t matter one jot because everyone could speak English, except for the Americans of course, so everyone was able to satisfactorily communicate with one another.  I am forever ashamed of my linguistic ineptitude but today English was the universal language and we all got along rather splendidly.

It was a bright start to the day and we planned a walk out of the town to visit a nearby aqueduct about three miles away that had been recommended to us at the Tourist Information Office..

Tomar Aquduct

The small city of Tomar is situated on the river Nabão, a short but swiftly flowing river that carves its way through a deep valley and consequently the town is situated at the bottom of a steep hill which rises quickly away from the banks of the river and requires considerable stamina to make the trek.

The ascent seemed positively endless, every time we were certain that we were at the top of the hill the road tricked us into climbing even further, even Sisyphus would have despaired and we walked out and past edge of town houses that got bigger and grander the further we went.  Each one had a big dog that barked like crazy as we passed by and with my cynophobic nerves shattered I wondered why?  Why do people keep these obnoxious animals I wonder?

The Aqueduct of Pegões is, it turns out a little known monument and therefore very little visited, totally free access and no tourists.

It was built to bring water to the Convent of Christ in Tomar and is an amazing monument just over about four kilometers long and in some parts reaching a height of a hundred foot or so and made of one hundred and eighty arches and fifty-eight arcs at the most elevated part.  The construction started in 1593 and finished 1614 and it is the biggest and most important construction of the Philip I kingdom in Portugal.  Wow, who knew that, even the Tourist Information Office doesn’t give it a lot of headline space.

It was a quite astonishing place, no one there but us and some occasional ramblers.  There was no entrance fee, no safety barriers and nothing to stop visitors from climbing to the top and carelessly falling over the edge.  We climbed to the top and walked a short way out along the elevated section until we realised that this was quite dangerous so after walking out further than was really sensible and clinging desperately to the stones for security we groped our way back to safety and returned to ground level.

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This was the sort of place that I am reluctant to leave but after a while it was time to concede that this was the end of the visit and we debated the route back.  Should we return by the road and the way that we had come or perhaps take what appeared to be the walking route back along a narrow dusty track?

We were momentarily confused, we had no idea, no map, no SatNav and no clue about the track and bear in mind here that I was with Kim who generally suffers from a chronic lack of direction but who was urging a reckless walk into the woods.  I surrendered my common sense approach to these sort of situations and we followed some optimistic signs and set off down the track.

To our surprise, before very long we were in a blackened wilderness of post forest fire devastation.  Earlier in the year central Portugal had suffered a scorching summer followed by devastating fires which had wiped out acres of trees and caused several deaths.  This was one such area and as we walked now through charcoal and ash we reflected on the power and terror of such an event.  Sometimes I am grateful to live in a country where it rains rather a lot.

Eventually we emerged from the blackened wilderness, stumbled across a road back into town and made our way back to the main square where we were ready for an afternoon drink at a pavement bar.

We squandered away the rest of the day, did a bit of exploring through the back streets, enjoyed an hour or so at the Conde de Ferreira Palace and then dined again at the same place as the night before.  Once we have found somewhere that we like we are always reluctant to give it up and go elsewhere.

Tomar Forest Fire aftermathTomar Portugal Forest Fire

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Portugal, Lisbon to Tomar

Tomar Festival

It took about two hours to purchase the train tickets from Lisbon to Tomar (well that’s what it seemed like) and then another two hours to travel the hundred miles or so north.

Kim finds it difficult to stay awake on trains (or on airplanes or boats or in the car) and slept for most of the journey and left alone I charted our progress through the window.  Out of Lisbon the railway tracks followed the course of the River Tagus, the fifth longest river in Western Europe and the longest in Iberia and down here near Lisbon rather wide I thought, almost like a lake.

As the train clattered on we passed through salt flats then surprisingly lush green fields and fertile farmland, browning vineyards, straining olive groves, tired terracotta houses, wide dusty fields long since harvested for this year and every now and again the train punctuated our journey with a series of regular stops along the way at towns and villages whose names I didn’t record and don’t now remember.

Eventually we arrived in Tomar and I immediately worried about the decision to stop over here.  It was quiet, the streets were empty, it seemed almost abandoned.  The contrast with Lisbon hit me like a punch from a heavyweight boxer, it was like driving a car and going from sixth gear to first missing our five, four, three and two on the way.  I grew concerned about what we would do here for three days.

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It didn’t take long to walk to our accommodation just a few hundred yards away from the station.  This was the Conde de Ferreira Palace which turned out to be an old farmhouse in the process of being converted into a guest house.  An intriguing sort of place, part hotel, part family house and the owner gave us a history lesson and a tour of the property before showing us to our room on the second floor.  Wonky floors and yard sale furniture but we loved it immediately, probably one of the crankiest places that we have stayed in and after we had settled in we took to the streets and looked for somewhere for lunch.  My doubts and worries were beginning to ebb away as though King Canute had ordered the tide to retreat.

I generally leave restaurant/bistro selection to Kim because she is so much better at it than me and I have made previous mistakes so on the basis that if I might unfortunately choose somewhere that disappoints then there is no comeback on me.  I find that tis arrangement generally works well.

Portugal a simple lunch

Kim spotted a likely looking place with pavement tables and rustic green check tablecloths and trusting her instinct selected a spot in the shade and requested menus. The lunch time food was excellent and on the basis that once we have found a place that we like then we will return there again and again (what is the point of taking risks we tell ourselves) we agreed there and then that this would be the place for us for evening meal later.

Fearful of doing everything there is to do in Tomar in one day we did nothing in the afternoon, just dawdled about the streets and down by the river, stopped for a drink in the main square and made our plans for the next two days.  By late afternoon we had begun to adjust to the pace of Tomar and were beginning to put the frenzy of Lisbon behind us.  As I have said before it is important not to be too hasty when making early judgements.

Later we returned to the back-street restaurant for evening meal and it was excellent.

Tomar portugal Main Square

Portugal, Lisbon – Queues, Towers and Views

Lisbon Tram Postcard

The final day in Lisbon was seriously hot.  After breakfast we tidied the studio and then set off rather later than usual for a final day of sightseeing in the city.

First stop was the castle, but the castle is in Alfama district and this is separated from Baixa district by a sort of deep gorge which requires going down a lot of steps on one side and then going up a lot of steps on the other.  We could have used the funicular tram but at €3.20 I considered this a bit expensive for a five hundred yard journey so we walked instead.

Eventually we reached the castle entrance and immediately ran into a line of people queuing to pay and go inside.  After Sintra the previous day neither of us had the patience for another long wait so we abandoned the castle and walked back down the hill to the Cathedral.  It was a shame because the castle guide book boasted the best views in the city.

I don’t remember very much about the Cathedral, it isn’t a very impressive building from the outside and these days I am moving closer to Kim’s views on Cathedrals that pretty much they are all the same on the inside.  I took some photographs as I always do and wondered why because I am certain never to look at them or use them for anything.

Lisbon Cathedral

By midday an electronic sign on a pharmacy shop announced that the temperature was 42° centigrade (about 105° Fahrenheit) and at some point around about now Kim declared that she could stand it no longer and had lost her appetite for sightseeing so demanded some money for the funicular tram and set off back to the studio for a quiet afternoon.  I decided to carry on – Mad dogs and Englishmen and that sort of thing.

Alone now I picked up the pace and made for the Elevador to Santa Justa, a neo Gothic iron structure designed and built by a student of Gustave Eiffel, I would have liked to have taken the lift to the top but there was an inevitable queue and progress looked positively snail like so still not in the mood for queues I abandoned the idea and moved on. It was a shame because the elevator tower guide book boasted the best views in the city.

Lisbon Elevator

Lisbon was so busy and I was taken by surprise by that.  I suppose sensibly September is a good time to visit a city in Southern Europe when ordinarily visitors might expect the temperatures to be a bit kinder.  Not today.

Seeking the shade of the tall buildings I wandered through the streets down towards the River Tagus and found myself unexpectedly back at the Commercial Centre (Praça do Comércio) and came across a ticket office for a climb to the top of the Arco da Rua Augusta which boasted the best views in the city and as surprisingly there was no queue I bought a ticket and went to the top.

I have no idea what the views would have been like from the castle or the elevator but this one was just fine and I spent thirty minutes or so looking out of the city in one direction and the River Tagus in another.  Before going back down I congratulated myself on being patient and waiting for a climb and a view.

ferry

After the Arco da Rua Augusta I made my way to the river and then to the city market and as I generally like stepped inside for a look.  It was a bit disappointing, I am certain that this was once a thriving working class market where ordinary people came to shop but today it has been gentrified and the shops and the food hall are expensive and geared towards the tourists and the city bourgeoisie.

I didn’t stop long and went to the railway station next door and joined another glacial ticket machine queue and waited to pay my fare to visit nearby Belém, it took forever, I could have walked there in the time it took to get to the front of the line but fortunately this didn’t inconvenience me so much and I didn’t miss the next train.

I immediately liked Belém, it was a little more relaxed than Lisbon city centre.  I walked first to the east for a good view of the suspension bridge and then to the west to the UNESCO listed Belém Tower and then to the real reason that I wanted to visit, The Monument to the Discoveries.

Monument to the Discoveries

Located on the edge of the north bank of the Tagus, the fifty metre high slab of concrete, was erected in 1960 to commemorate the five hundredth  anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. The monument is sculpted in the form of a ship’s prow, with dozens of figures from Portuguese history following a statue of the Infante Henry looking out to the west perhaps contemplating another voyage of discovery.

By now it was late afternoon so after a cold beer I took the train back to Lisbon and climbed the steps and streets back to the apartment.  It was surprisingly easy, after four days I had just about mastered the street map and could navigate my way around but it was our last day in Lisbon and tomorrow we were heading north to the small city of Tomar.

Lisbon Street View

Portugal, Train Tickets and The Palace at Sintra

Lisbon Urban Wall ART

Everyone I know that has been to Lisbon said that we should take time out and visit nearby Sintra.  I watched the celebrity chef Rick Stein on TV and he said visit Sintra but what I forgot to take into account of course is that Rick Stein has a backroom staff of researchers and can always be guaranteed a place at the front of the queue and later a table at a top restaurant.

After breakfast in our temporary studio home we made our way to the railway station and set about purchasing some tickets.  In Lisbon this is not an easy process let me tell you.  It is probably the most inefficient ticket purchasing process that I have ever encountered.  There is no ticket office, just a row of automatic self-service metal monsters.  Half of them are out of order and there is a rugby scrum around those that work and the single overworked assistant who is there to try and help.

Lisbon Street Scene

Everyone needs a personal travel card so you have to buy that first and then every passenger has to individually purchase their own ticket.  I cannot buy a ticket for both of us and a family of, say five, cannot make a single purchase.  Every travel ticket has to be bought individually so if customers are paying by credit card this is probably the most frustrating travel experience on the entire planet.  I could probably solve a Rubik Cube puzzle in the time it takes to acquire a train ticket in Lisbon.

Eventually I made it to the ticket machine and after going through the tedious ticketing options proposed to pay with a €20 note but the machine won’t give change for anything over €10 so I have to dig around in the bottom of my pockets and in the inner recesses of my rucksack for some loose change and by the time that I have done that the transaction has been timed out and cancelled.  I could sense frustration and fury in the line of people behind me, I know how they feel, I felt exactly the same way just a few hours earlier when I joined the queue.

Buying a simple railway ticket in Lisbon is like the eternal labour of Sisypus.

Tickets eventually purchased we boarded the train and set out with five million other people to Sintra.  When we arrived the train doors opened and all five million passengers spilled out onto the platform like a people tsunami. I hadn’t expected this and the next challenge was to get past the ticket touts and taxi drivers waiting outside the railway station like fishing trawlers with gaping nets.

Sintra Taxi Guide

I had no idea that Sintra was going to be this busy, the queue for the bus to the National Palace was five miles long, it was cloudy, dull and cold and eventually I gave in and allowed us to be talked into a tour taxi ride to the top.  It was only €10 so I didn’t stress out about that for too long.

As we climbed through a pine forest to the top of the mountain the cloud cleared and ahead of us was the fairy tale pastel painted Royal castle all pink and yellow and glowing brightly in the sunshine.

The Tourist Information guide describes it like this … “The town of Sintra is Europe’s greatest example of the whimsical and colourful Romanticism style of architecture. This elaborate 19th century design style was inspired by the love of art and the mysticism of ancient cultures, to create decorative and flamboyant buildings, of which the Pena Palace is the finest example.”  It attracts over two and a half million visitors a year (a genuine statistic by the way) so we should have been prepared for crowds and queues.

We bought our tickets which at €21 seemed a bit expensive to me and then we walked up ten thousand steps to the entrance and joined another queue.  It took five years to shuffle our way to the visitor entrance moving slowly forwards as though our shoe laces were tied together and then we spent an hour or so cramped like sardines in a tin as we made painfully slow progress through a succession of rather boring palace rooms.  King somebody or other slept here, Prince so-and-so sat on this chair etc.  Personally I was just so glad to get out the other end, find a terrace bar and order a cold beer.

National Palace of Sintra Lisbon

We walked back now to Sintra, about two miles or so somehow missing the entrance to the Moorish castle on the way down, I think Kim probably spotted it but distracted me at exactly the right moment to prevent a suggestion that we pay a visit.

In the town we found somewhere for a small salad lunch and then bypassed the overpriced and tacky tourist shops and made our way back to the railway station via the Gothic style National Palace.  I confess that I found Sintra to be rather disappointing, a tourist honey trap and an unnecessary diversion to our visit to Lisbon.  I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend anyone to go there.  Go to nearby Belém instead, it is a lot more interesting and much less touristy.  I wasn’t that impressed with Sintra as you can no doubt tell.

It was hot again in Lisbon and after we climbed the hill from the railway station to the part of the city where our studio was located we were glad to stop in a shady park for a late afternoon cold  drink in a nearby park.  Later we dined at the restaurant that we had spotted the day before and we were glad about that because the food was absolutely excellent.

One day left in Lisbon.

Sintra01

Red Pictures from Portugal

Tomar Portugal ParadeCoimbra PortugalPortugal Red DoorPortugal Sunset

Portugal, Lisbon and Mountaineering Sightseeing

Lisbon Tram

It was hot in Lisbon, very hot indeed, everyone kept telling us that Portugal was in the grip of a heat wave and that it was too hot, but we didn’t mind, we were on holiday.  We settled into our studio apartment, cranked up the fan and then left and made for the nearby centre of Baixa.

By now it was late afternoon and the heat was beginning to drain away into the deep shadows cast by the tall buildings and the sun was melting into the deep pools of shade of doorways and courtyards so we enjoyed a walk to a shady park where we stopped for a beer and then took a stroll through the elegantly tiled but grotesquely graffiti scarred streets of the town.  I was shocked by the urban scrawl which some call art but I call vandalism.  I didn’t like it.

In contrast I liked the views from the top of the city even though there was a lot of construction work going on.  From a high vantage point we looked across to the castle and the cathedral and down to the river and the commercial centre.  We continued to walk down and down, I had no idea that Lisbon was going to be so steep and hilly and it was beginning to make Rome or Valletta seem like Florida in the USA or Lincolnshire in the UK.

Lisbon

Eventually we reached the ruins of a cathedral but it was getting late so we didn’t pay to go inside.  Ruined because it was destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which was one of the World’s major catastrophic seismological events – ever!

It occurred before the introduction of the Richter Scale of course (1935) but today it is estimated that the Lisbon earthquake had a magnitude in the range 9.0  to 9.5 which, on a scale of 1 to 10,  is just about as big as it is possible to get and makes the event possibly the biggest ever in the history of the World.  The resulting Tsunami reached the Caribbean in the west and as far as Greenland to the North.  This was one hell of a bang let me tell you!

We were struggling to get our bearings but managed to grope our way back to the apartment passing on the way a restaurant that caught our eye for evening meal.  I found a shop for beer and wine and next day breakfast essentials and then we sat and relaxed, changed and wandered back to the restaurant.  It was full, really full and no slots left all evening so we booked for the following night and set off to find an alternative.

After a long walk I liked where we found but Kim was still sulking so we didn’t linger long after dining and returned and spent our first night in Portugal in our tiny studio.

Lisbon Doors and windows

The next morning the sky was blue, the sun was rapidly rising in the sky and by the time we had prepared and eaten breakfast, tidied up and left the apartment the mercury was already rising rapidly.

The plan was to make our way down to the River Tagus and then take in some of the sights along the way.  Some way along the planned route we took an unnecessary detour and we managed to get sucked into the labyrinth of back streets and got quite lost.  I confess that this was entirely my mistake but happily Kim didn’t seem to spot this, or, if she did, she generously chose to overlook it and not mention it.  I kept quiet about it.

lisbon streets

We eventually emerged from the streets down to the river and some way away we could see the famous 25 de Abril (previously António Salazar) Bridge and we started to walk towards it.  It turned out to be further than we estimated and the view wasn’t that special anyway so eventually we abandoned the walk and made our way back up a another steep hill to the city centre.

At the top of the hill we visited the Basilica but I have to agree with Kim on this point, it wasn’t memorable and it looked like any similar church or cathedral in Catholic Europe and as we walked out of the door I immediately forgot all about it.

Lisbon Commecial Centre

Back at the river we stopped for a drink and an hour in the sunshine and then we tackled the walk back to the apartment. We passed through the Commercial Centre with its magnificent buildings where it was possible with a bit of imagination to conjure up a vision of a major naval and commercial centre with ships and dockyards where now there are tourist river cruises and ice cream parlours.

Eventually we found our way back to the apartment where we sat and enjoyed the local environment before making our way to the chosen restaurant which turned out to be absolutely excellent.

Later we made plans to visit nearby Sintra the following day.

Lisbon Lisboa postcard Trms

Portugal, Travel Plans, Research and Arrival

Portugal Postcard Map

We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourites and sometimes we travel.  This year we decided to travel and we chose to go to Portugal.

There are organised guided tours available for this sort of thing but we prefer to make our own arrangements and not be restricted by a holiday company schedule and inevitable stops at shopping centres and outlet factories that suit the Company but not the Traveller.

We had decided to use the Portuguese railways so we plotted an itinerary that started in the capital Lisbon and then worked north through the town of Tomar, the city of Coimbra, the seaside at Ovar (Furadouro) and then finished in the second largest city in the country at Porto, a couple more days by the coast at Vila do Conde, visits to the cities of Guimarães and Braga and then back home.

Portugal Tiles Ajulejos

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Portugal is ranked forty-first which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.

Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar, the Left Wing Carnation Revolution of 1972 and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.

Egg Custard Portuga

Unhappily, the European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Portugal’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only fifteenth out of thirty which is one place behind the United Kingdom.  Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.

The Country has fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites and our travel itinerary was going to take us to six – The Tower of Belém in Lisbon, built to commemorate the expeditions of Vasco da Gama, the National Palace of Sintra, the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, The Historic town of Guimarães and The Historic Centre of Porto.

Portugal is famous for its Atlantic beaches which stretch for one thousand, one hundred and fifteen miles and along this coastline are three hundred Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst all participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way they get even better and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one proud blue flag flapping away every three and three-quarter miles or so.

Furaduero Beach Portugal

My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Portugal has participated in the annual contest forty-nine times since its debut in the 1964.  Up until recently the country held the unfortunate record for the most appearances in the contest without a win but they put that right in 2017 when they won in Kiev with Salvador Sobral’s entry, “Amar Pelos Dois”.

In my research I have discovered some more impressive statistics: Portugal is ranked third in the Global Peace Index, just behind Iceland and New Zealand.  The index gauges global peace using three measures – the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation. Portugal for example was one of only a few European countries that escaped involvement in the Second-World-War, the others were Spain, Switzerland (only in theory of course because they did a lot of Nazi banking and gold trading), Sweden and The Republic of Ireland.

On the subject or war and peace, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (Aliança Inglesa) ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, between England and Portugal, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force – with an even earlier treaty dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373.  England (UK) and Portugal have never been on opposite sides in any military conflict which is a very impressive statistic when you consider that in that time England (UK) has at one time or another been at war at some time or another with almost every other European country.

Lisbon Tram Postcard

We arrived at Lisbon Airport early in the afternoon and took the metro into the city centre. A rather odd journey as it turned out because the automated on board information system curiously announced arrival at the stations one after the one we were stopping at next so we had to be careful not to get off one stop too early.  Anyway we negotiated the journey and then after a bit of map confusion which we sorted out over a beer at a pavement café walked the final half a mile to our accommodation.

We had selected a studio apartment for our four nights in Lisbon and it turned out to be most satisfactory. The Travel and Tales rooms were situated in a domestic block of apartments so we were going to spend our time in Lisbon rubbing shoulders with real locals and we were happy about that.

We were allocated the Fernando Pessoa apartment who according to Wikipedia turns out to be… “a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher, described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language”.

I apologise immediately for my ignorance in this matter but I have to confess that I had never before heard of him.

Fernando Pesa Poet Travel and Tales