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Have Bag, Will Travel
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So, we left Ericeira around mid morning and headed south towards our next accommodation in Cascais with a simple plan of stopping off midway and visiting the Palace of Sintra.
It didn’t quite work out as we had planned. Sintra turns out that this is the most visited tourist site in all of Portugal.
For the most visited tourist site in all of Portugal t isn’t very well signposted and we found ourselves in a massive queue of traffic all as equally confused as we were. Eventually making it to the Palace there were no available car park spaces and the queue to enter looked a mile long. We abandoned our plans and moved right along on.
This was a shame for Mike and Margaret but we had been before in 2017 so weren’t that disappointed.
We had arranged to arrive at the apartment in Cascais at five o’clock so we had to change that for three o’clock but we still had about three hours to wait so we drove first to nearby Estoril on what is known as the Portuguese Riviera.
It is home to fifth largest casino in Europe and the place had a completely different identity to our two previous stops on Obidos and Ericeira. The casino means wealth and Estoril is one of the most expensive places to live in Portugal with a seafront full of swanky hotels and a string of up market bars and restaurants.
I think I am right in saying that features in the title of a song by Fleetwood Mac – “Nights in Estoril”.
Not really my sort of place I have to say, rather similar to Vilamoura in the Algarve and I didn’t like it there a great either but we were only there for a couple of hours so it didn’t really matter a great deal. I prefer fishing harbours to modern marinas, cathedrals and castles to casinos, sun-blistered doors and washing lines to modern street scene, cobbled streets to marbled boulevards.
We used the time at our disposal to walk the length of the seafront almost to the marina at Cascais and then turned around and walked all the way back again.
Our accommodation in Cascais was most unusual. Not a holiday home as I was expecting but a private residence which resembled a shrine with an odd collection of Chinese artefacts which I imagine were quite expensive because they were all under lock and key. I wasn’t so keen on the decoration so we stayed mostly in the kitchen during the stay.
Very soon after arrival I was beginning to think that maybe I had chosen badly to visit Cascais. Not really a problem I concluded after only a short while because we planned next day to take the train to Lisbon.
Late afternoon and leaving the odd apartment we walked to the seafront taking several wrong turns on the way and then as the time approached seven o’clock we found a restaurant with prices that matched our budget and sat down for evening meal.
Leaving the restaurant our problems urgently began. We weren’t sure where we were or how to get back to the apartment, it was beginning to turn dark and no one had been paying attention. Mike and Margaret had no internet service on their phones, Kim’s battery was blinking warning red for low battery and I had left mine behind and I couldn’t remember the accommodation address which was sitting securely locked away in my e-mail account on my phone on the kitchen table. Bugger.
I often leave my phone behind because, to be honest I find them to be very anti-social.
Without any mapping information to assist us we had to rely on guesswork and Kim’s limited navigational skills. Eventually after forty-five minutes or so we came across a supermarket which we recalled was close to the apartment and after stopping off to purchase wine were glad to grope our way back to our temporary home.
The following day we explored Cascais in daylight but I had already decided that I didn’t like it a great deal, too South of France, too Costa del Sol and I was looking forward to moving on to Lisbon,
I didn’t even get any good door pictures. Except this one…
Taking a break from the beaches we took a short ride to the nearby city of Mafra which is an unremarkable sort of place except for a very good cake shop and the magnificent Royal Palace which is enormous and can be seen from several miles away. The palace is huge and covers an area of almost two and a half square miles and has one thousand two hundred rooms.
It is part Palace, part Cathedral and part Convent and is one of the fourteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Portugal.
It is the biggest Royal Palace in Portugal and makes it even more famous is that the last King of Portugal, Manuel II spent his last night in Portugal at the Palace after being deposed in October 1910. He escaped the next day by Royal Yacht from Ericeira and lived the remainder of his life in exile in England, in Twickenham.
I am guessing that the lady with no bra on is the Portuguese equivalent of the French Madame Liberty…
I am afraid that I am quite unable to explain why Republican icon Madame Liberty has no clothes on. It is an interesting fact however that when the French built the Statue of Liberty for the USA they made sure that she was more discreetly attired so as not to offend New World sensibilities.
There is nothing else to tell you about Mafra or Madame Liberty. So…
… Just like Brooke Bond Tea Cards I am a collector of World Heritage Site visits, if there is one close by then I just have to go. Here are some more that I have been to in Portugal…
Built in the eighteenth century, the University is a National Monument and has priceless historical value being the main tourist attraction in Coimbra. The building has three floors and contains about two hundred and fifty thousand volumes and being someone who loves books this place is a little bit of heaven. The collection dates from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries and represents the finest works from Europe at the time on the subjects of medicine, geography, history, science, law, philosophy and theology.
Tomar is one of the most historically important cities in all of Portugal with a history that stretches back to the Romans and probably even before that. Fast forward a thousand years and after the capture of the region from the Moors in the Portuguese Reconquista, the land was granted in 1159 to the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1160, the Grand Master in Portugal, Gualdim Pais, laid the first stone of the Castle and Monastery that would become the headquarters of the Order in Portugal and from here they pledged to defend Portugal from any subsequent Moorish attacks and raids
Turns out is the biggest fortified town not only in Portugal but all of Europe. Inside the fortress town we walked through the ancient whitewashed streets, cobbled streets which were painful to negotiate in tourist sandals. Along narrow passages lined by houses with blistered wooden doors, Shutters thrown back like the wings of butterflies basking in the midday sunshine. Sagging washing lines groaning under the weight of the dripping laundry. The rich aroma of lunch time cooking seeping out from open windows. Outside of the front doors pots of flowers in various stages of bloom and decay.
As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’. In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.
Évora is an interesting city and has a busy history. The Romans conquered it in 57 BC and built the first walled town. During the barbarian invasions Évora came under the rule of the Visigothic king Leovigild in 584. In 715, the city was conquered by the Moors and during this period the town slowly began to prosper and developed into an agricultural centre with a fortress and a mosque.
Évora was captured from the Moors through a surprise attack by Gerald the Fearless (what a fabulous name) in 1165 and the city came under the rule of the Portuguese king Afonso I in 1166 and then for a few hundred years or so it then flourished as one of the most dynamic cities in the Kingdom of Portugal.
At five hundred and sixty miles long the Douro is the eighth longest river in Western Europe (the eighteenth in all of Europe) and flows first through Spain and then Portugal and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. This part of the Douro Valley, and for about sixty miles towards Spain, has a microclimate allowing for cultivation of olives, almonds, and especially the grapes and the hillsides are scattered with picturesque quintas or farms clinging on to almost every improbable vertical slope dropping down to the river where tourist boats were making the daily return trip to Porto.
Many hilltops in Portugal have been places of religious devotion and the Bom Jesus hill was one of these. It was an ancient site where in 1629 a pilgrimage church was built dedicated to the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus), with six chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ. The present Sanctuary was begun in 1722, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Braga, Rodrigo de Moura Telles and under his direction the first stairway row, with chapels dedicated to the Via Crucis, were completed. He also sponsored the next segment of stairways, which has a zigzag shape and is dedicated to the Five Senses of Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch and Taste and each is represented by a different fountain.
The historical centre of Porto is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and we were now approaching one of the six bridges across the River Douro, the Ponte Dom Luis I, which is an iron bridge designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel and built on two levels. From the top elevation there were unbeatable views of the river, the old town and Vila Nova de Gaia, a sister city on the other side of the river.
I will tell you about Sintra and Lisbon in later posts, the three that I haven’t got around to yet are the Coa Valley, Batalhia and Alcobaca. Watch this space.
More from Mafra…
When the tourists have gone and the crowds have dispersed it is time to look for the detail…
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When it comes to hiring a car if I get involved nothing is ever straightforward.
Even if I haven’t been involved in the hiring arrangement in the first place.
And after getting dragged in and some inevitable faffing about at the car hire desk regarding levels of risk and insurance and some misunderstanding we eventually gave in, paid up and took the motorway north out the city towards our first destination, the town of Obidos.
We had decided that this time we would avoid hotels and book apartment accommodation instead mostly on the basis that they are cheaper (always an important consideration in my book) and we were delighted with our first selection which was a three bedroom family house about half a mile from the centre with a sunny garden terrace and a very fine view towards the town.
After settling in, choosing rooms and approving the accommodation we took the short walk into the town. My research had let me down here because I had no idea that it was such a popular tourist destination and we passed through a car park packed with expectant coaches waiting for day trippers to return from a whistle stop drop to be taken on to the next tourist destination.
Once inside the city walls we immediately understood why. It turns out that at almost one mile long it is one of the longest complete walled towns of medieval Europe and on a list that includes Carcassonne in France, Dubrovnik in Croatia, Avila, Toledo and Segovia in Spain and Valletta in Malta.
Simply stunning, a long sinuous wall of solid stone, crenellations, battlements and punctuated at regular intervals by watchtowers and sentry posts and in the centre a magnificent castle, magnificent even if today it is a luxury hotel complex.
Tourist shops of course anticipating an impulse purchase…
Narrow confusing cobbled lanes that sometimes led to nowhere and at other times back to the exact place where we had started out. Flower bedecked whitewashed houses decorated with washing lines strung out like bunting as though in anticipation of a carnival. Multi-coloured shutters thrown open like the wings of a butterfly, Houses all painted white to remain cool, blue and yellow to deter insects, or so it is said.
I have heard this before, someone told me this in 1997 on a visit to the Algarve but I am unable to confirm whether or not it is true.
And a perfect uninterrupted rooftop vista. It took me a while to understand why and then it struck me, no air conditioning units, no satellite dishes and no tv ariels. I came to the conclusion that there must be regulations about this sort of thing in Obidos. I came across it once before in the north of Portugal in the city of Guimarães.
It seemed like a good idea to climb to the top of the wall until we got to the top of the wall.
Forty feet high or so and barely a three foot wide path around the battlements with nothing to stop an unfortunate slip and fall. The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations.
To be fair however they do have warning signs at regular intervals together with a long list of disclaimers.
I am not very good with heights. It is called acrophobia. I can’t explain it. I don’t know when it started. It just did. My intestines churn and drop to the pit of my stomach, my head spins with vertigo, I have an urgent need to cling on to anything that might prevent me from falling to certain death including people. Even complete strangers. It is the same feeling that I get whenever a dog comes anywhere near me (I have told you about that before I think), the fear of pension fund collapse, another five years of Gory Tory government and my grandchildren’s future in uncertain times.
I have to confess that I was so glad to get down off that wall, find a bar and take a beer to settle my shredded nerves. Then I had a second. If I had had a third I might have been persuaded to go back up. But maybe not.
As we walked out of the town back to our town house accommodation everything was rapidly changing. The tour buses had gone, the crowds had disappeared and there was a transformation from tourist town to simple Portuguese. The shops became less frantic, the restaurants began to prepare for evening dining and the shadows deepened in the narrow lanes. It was all so much more agreeable.
On the edge of town we chanced upon an effervescent little bar/restaurant which was flowing over with local people so taking that as a good recommendation we made our way inside, secured a table and enjoyed an excellent but rustic evening meal.
We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourite 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.
Where exactly should we go this time we debated. We had previously been to the Algarve in the South, Porto and the Douro and north of the Algarve to the Alentejo. Eventually we agreed on the greater Lisbon area with stays in Obidos, Ericeira, Cascais, Setúbal and the city of Lisbon itself.
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.
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 we had previously visited ten of them and intended to add to this total this time.
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.
When it comes to wine, screw caps have all but completely replaced the cork. Interestingly 35% of the World’s cork forests and 50% of World supply comes from Portugal so there, for the time being the cork stopper still reigns supreme.
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 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.
It was the day of the Queen’s funeral the day that we flew out which was rather a shame as we would have liked to have watched it on TV. The airport was unusual, solemn, subdued and rather eerie actually, much more polite than normal. Shops and restaurants closed for the duration, big screens showing the ceremony without commentary or sound . The two minutes silence almost completely observed except for one young man taking a phone call until obliged to end it quickly on account of the disapproval of those around him.
There was a one hour delay before departure which was not bad under the circumstances.
The plane landed at Humberto Delgardo Airport, named after a lliberal politician who challenged the dictator Salazar and was assassinated for his trouble. I am always interested in the naming of airports. Porto in Portugal is named after another politician, Francisco Sá Carneiro, who died in a plane crash and I have always thought that to be curiously inappropriate.
Life at the Tui Blue Hotel was rather tedious I have to say with a looping Groundhog Day daily itinerary so we decided to break out and do something different. A train excursion to the city of Lagos, thirty-five miles or so west of where we were staying at Olhos de Agua.
There was an expensive taxi ride to the railway station at Albufeira one of those taxi rides where I watch the meter ticking away and increasingly panic about the cost and then to compensate inexpensive train tickets to Lagos at less than five euro each return (seniors rate). The price was right but the train was soporifically slow and stopped several times and took over an hour to reach our destination and we arrived just about midday.
I liked it immediately as we walked from the station to the old town. So much nicer than Albufeira with a a retained history, a nostalgia and a satisfying whiff of the past Some of my favourites – aged doors with sun blistered paint and elegant iron balconies, cobbled streets and whitewashed houses. Really lovely, really lovely.
Lagos was once a Moorish city, the capital of the Algarve and one of the most important cities in all of what is now Portugal. How the Moors must have loved life in Iberia, excellent weather (not as hot as North Africa), no deserts, an abundance of fresh water, good fertile soil for crops and not nearly so many flies.
This idyllic lifestyle came to a sudden and abrupt end after the Reconquest when the Moors were forced to abandon their city after a brutal siege by Northern Crusaders. In Spain and Portugal they celebrate the reconquest but in reality it was the replacement of a benevolent and progressive regime with a barbaric and medieval reversal of progress.
Without the Moors the city rapidly became neglected, the port silted up and the city went into a long period of decline. This is something that always intrigues me, it is rather like the Roman Empire, great civilisations provide advancement in human development but Barbarians always come along and tear it down and set progress back several hundred years. Rather like BREXIT in the United Kingdom right now. It really frustrates me because we learn absolutely nothing from history.
What happened to the Ancient Egyptians, the Native Americans of USA, the Classical Greeks, the Romans, they all showed great progress in human development and then they disappeared and the process was reversed. What lies ahead for us I wonder?
Down at the seafront was a statue of Henry the Navigator, quite possibly, no, almost certainly the most famous of all Portuguese sailors and adventurers.
I had seen him before of course in Belem in Lisbon at the The Monument to the Discoveries. Located on the edge of the north bank of the Tagus, the fifty metre (I hate Boris Johnson and I emphatically refuse to go back to imperial measures) high slab of concrete was erected in 1960 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. The monument in the capital city 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.
The statue in Lagos is rather less spectacular.
Lagos was an important port during the Age of Discovery when Portugal was a major maritime nation as it built a World empire. It competed primarily with neighbours Spain to make discoveries in the New World and in 1494 after years of challenge a Treaty was signed which gave Brazil to Portugal and all the rest to Spain. For Spain this might have seemed like a good idea at the time but it rates as a serious negotiating disaster as it gave up the Amazon rain-forest and all of its riches for the barren Andes of Patagonia.
By the mid nineteenth century Portugal had the fourth largest European Empire but at only 4% of World territory was way behind France (9%), Spain (10%) and Great Britain at a huge 27%. That is a massive amount of land grab but I wonder if the Roman Empire might have been even greater given that the known World was much smaller two thousand years ago.
We spent a very enjoyable afternoon in Lagos, it was different, it wasn’t the tourist Algarve of Vilamoura or Albufeira, much more similar to Silves and Tavira; had a very pleasant pavement lunch and then took the train ride home, had a few stressful moments trying to secure a taxi ride to the hotel but eventually made it back to our accommodation,
We had tired of the hotel catering by this point but had discovered a very nice Portuguese restaurant in the village which served traditional food so were we glad to abandon the school dinner hall tonight and spend an excellent evening with proper food.
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 in the 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.