Tag Archives: World Heritage

Sicily – Trouble With Traffic

“To an American, Italian traffic is at first just down-right nonsense. It seems hysterical, it follows no rule. You cannot figure what the driver ahead or behind or beside you is going to do next and he usually does it!”  –  John Steinbeck

By the third day we had used up the breakfast supplies that we had bought on day one in the street market so we needed more.  Having convinced ourselves that we had paid a premium price at the market and having identified a LIDL supermarket barely two miles away we walked there instead.

This involved crossing the bridge over the water again and venturing once more into the untidy side of the city which involved a very dangerous walk along an abandoned industrial site with crumbling buildings and potholed streets.  An area which once provided employment but now nothing, not even hope.

Road construction in Sicily it seems makes little or no provision for pedestrians and there is an almost complete absence of pavements which requires those on foot to take their chances at the side of the road or in the intermittent cycle lanes which provides little help at all because motorists just drive along them regardless.

In Italy, traffic regulations currently in force were approved by the Legislative Decree number 285 of 30th April 1992 and are contained in the Italian Highway Code called the Codice della Strada, but anyone visiting a busy Italian city or town would be certain to dispute that there is such a thing as traffic regulations or a highway code in Italy.

Crossing the road is especially dangerous, there are pedestrian crossings but they haven’t been repainted since Mussolini was in charge and car drivers just ignore them.  Local people seem to have the hang of it, they just step boldly out into the road, look straight ahead and ignore the obvious danger

The only exception to this is nun’s.  Italian drivers will not hit a nun – you see groups of them breezing across eight lane highways with amazing impunity, so if you wish to cross some busy place your only hope is to wait for some nuns to come along and stick to them…” – Bill Bryson

Italy it has to be said has some insanely different driving rules to the rest of Europe and the traffic was murderously busy and dangerously hectic along this stretch of road.

Here is a general speed limit of fifty kilometres an hour but Italians generally ignore that and this is the second problem – the drivers –  because, in my opinion,  one of the biggest mistakes in the development of the modern world was to introduce the Italians to the motor car.

Italian drivers obey no rules and have no self-control, no manners or tolerance; junction priorities mean nothing because show a moment of hesitation and this is interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull-out, cut you up or just simply push in.  They are impatient and, show a split-second of indecision and they go for their car horn like a trigger-happy wild-west gunslinger.  At a junction or a roundabout the Italian driver narrows his eyes and flashes a ‘do you feel lucky punk’ sort of glare while his right foot hovers menacingly over the accelerator pedal.

Traffic lights are another good example of these different rules because each one resembles the starting grid of a formula one grand prix. 

At an Italian traffic junction there is an intolerant confusion of cars all impatiently throbbing with engines growling, exhaust pipes fuming and clutch plates sizzling whilst behind the wheel the drivers blood pressure reaches somewhere beyond boiling point. 

A regard for the normal habits of road safety is curiously absent so although the traffic light colours are the same as elsewhere they mean completely different things.  Red means slow down, amber means go and green means ‘pedal to the metal‘  At a junction an Italian driver simply points his car at the exit he is aiming for and five seconds before the lights go green he shuts his eyes, presses the accelerator to the floor then races forward and may God have mercy on anything or anyone in his way.

If the normal rules of driving do not apply here then the normal rules associated with parking definitely are completely irrelevant.  But it does look like great fun.  Sometimes there is a small and hopelessly inadequate car park full of impatient drivers looking for non-existing parking spaces, blowing their horns, waving their arms and shouting at each other in that classic Italian driving style.  

More from Bill Bryson…

I love the way Italians park… it looks like a parking competition for blind people.  Cars are pointed in every direction, half on the pavements and half off, facing in, facing sideways… fitted into spaces so tight that the only way out would be through the sun roof.  Italians park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid on my lap.” 

So, we completed our shopping and as we suspected it was a whole lot cheaper than the street market by as much as 40% in our estimation and we had the bonus of sensibly priced bottles of wine.

But now we had to carefully negotiate our return journey, this time with shopping bags.  We were so glad to cross the bridge and get back to relatively normal traffic conditions and as we passed the cathedral we said a quiet thank you to whoever it was that had been watching over and taking care of us…

 

 

Sicily – I like a Kettle but Kim prefers a Washing Line

When travelling to Europe We have given up on hotels and preferred instead to stay in apartments.  They are generally cheaper, offer more space and are chock full of facilities.

I especially like that they have a separate bedroom from the kitchen and living accommodation because I generally wake first , sometimes over an hour or so before Kim and in a hotel room I am reluctant to get up and make a cup of tea for fear of disturbing here.  Many hotels in Europe don’t even have tea making facilities, so there is another consideration but in an apartment there is always a separate kitchen and a kettle.

The apartment  in Ortigia was brilliant for this even though I felt a little guilty that this was suitable family rooms converted to tourist accommodation.  A different debate that I won’t go into here.

Anyway, to get to the point, Kim especially likes washing machines and if the apartment has one makes a point of washing our clothes and hanging them out to dry in the Mediterranean way even if they don’t really need it.

Sicily – Doors and Windows of Syracuse

“I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened, and I’m not afraid to look behind them.”
― Elizabeth Taylor

I am always looking out for doors and windows to photograph and Syracuse did not disappoint…

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

I do like doors, I really like doors, especially old doors, I speculate about their history, who passed through them and what stories they have to tell…

Sicily – A Sunset and Trouble with a Mosquito

“Sicily was a gift from the gods to the Greeks.” – Salvatore Furnari

It was a glorious afternoon, a big blue sky, a burning yellow sun and unexpectedly high temperatures so we left the balcony and returned to the labyrinth of streets below.  

I was no longer panicking about being lost in the maze and I immediately liked the place with its unique combination of cultural heritage which was evident everywhere we turned and along every sinuous street that we explored.

Sicily, probably more than any other part of the Mediterranean, maybe even all of Europe, has been subject to so many invasions and waves of migration over the centuries. From the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, to finally becoming part of Italy only with the unification of Italy in 1860 makes it a melting pot of cultures and we had five days ahead of us to explore it all so we were in no real rush this evening.

Some areas were surprisingly run down.  What was surprising was that in some of these part derelict buildings there were clearly family apartments with people living in quite appalling conditions, their occupation of inadequate accommodation given away by the laundry left to dry over rusting balcony railings and from washing lines stretched out randomly across the streets.

After only a few minutes we came across the shop that I had used earlier and I immediately realised my earlier geographical mistakes, I had simply selected the wrong turning and that had disorientated me completely.  I was happier now and a lot more confident on account of having a map and mobile phone with Google Maps.

We walked as far as the centre of the island of Ortigia to Piazza Archimede named after the famous Greek mathematician and all round clever dick who was born here in approximately 287 BC and which now hosts an impressive collection of statues and a spraying fountain.

Towards the end of the afternoon the  main square was beginning to get busy with a tsunami of people coming in waves into the old town and then just walking backwards and forwards like an Atlantic tide. The pavements were flowing with people like lava spilling from a volcano, the piazzas were packed, the pizzerias overflowing and the gelateria noisy with babbling chatter. 

This was the  passeggiata, an Italian tradition where local people descend on the town at dusk and just walk and sometimes stop to talk. Some people had bought fold up garden chairs and were just sitting and chatting, others were playing cards, some were hanging around the bars but mostly they were just walking up and down and around and around and they were still coming in as we battled against the flow and made our way to the seafront just a few yards to the west.

At the fishing harbour men were still going about their daily chores and preparing their boats to put out to sea later and this gave way to a long elegant promenade, Foro Vittorio Emanuele II where people were beginning to gather in expectation of a sunset.  As local people they will all have seen this sunset many many times over but it still draws them in like a moth to a flame.

We finished at the Fountain of Arethusa, a natural fountain and according to Greek mythology the fresh water fountain is the place where the nymph Arethusa, the patron figure of ancient Syracuse, returned to earth’s surface after escaping from her undersea home in Arcadia.  The Fountain of Arethusa is the only place in Europe where papyrus grows (allegedly) which explained why the gift shops nearby all had postcards, book marks and fridge magnets made from the stuff.

The sunset came and went, we returned to the apartment and thoughts turned to evening dining.  The owner of the apartment had earlier made a recommendation so based solely on that we returned to Piazza Archimede and discovered a charming trattoria with a traditional menu and enjoyed a vibrant plate of Sicilian pasta.  We knew instinctively that we would be returning.

The day finished with a night of terror.  It was a hot night and in the early hours I pushed the duvet back to cool down but as I lay there a heard zzzzz, zzzzz, a bloody mosquito and we had foolishly travelled without insect repellent.  It simply hadn’t occurred to us.  Not taking any chances we pulled the duvet up to our necks and checked for bites because we had been lying out of the sheets laid out like an all-you-can-eat buffet table for creepy-crawlies.

I don’t like all-you-can-eat buffets much myself because I invariably overload the plate and eat too much and the mosquitoes suffered from the same lack of self restraint and sure enough we had been attacked. 

I had only a couple and considering how many glasses of wine I had drunk the previous day took I pleasure from imagining that the little blighter that got me would most likely be suffering from a monster hang-over! I had a vision of him in my head sitting there with his pals, rubbing his head and saying “never again. never ever again…!”

The next day we made it a priority to buy insect repellent.

Portugal – Setúbal and Seafood Dining

The nearest beach was about three miles away to the west so we laced up our shoes, packed our bags and set off.

First stop was the city market, said to be the largest covered market in all of Portugal, which was a wonderful experience, so much better than next door Pingo Doce supermarket, especially the fish section at the back with slabs and slabs of fresh fish and more varieties than I could ever have guessed at.  And it was selling fast as local shoppers gathered around squabbling over choices and prices.  It was like a rugby scrum.  So we thought that it might be a good idea to come back later and make our own selection for our evening meal.

Next, a second market down on the sea-front, this one exclusively fish and also enjoying brisk trade and then past a harbour of fishing boats where rugged men with weather beaten faces and  hands with broken knuckles were cleaning down and mending nets in preparation for going out to sea again later.

Unsurprisingly this was an area full of fish restaurants and some interesting street art including a boulevard decorated with leaping dolphins and we examined the menus in anticipation of lunch later on. 

We were heading for the Praia Portinho da Arrabida and I was fairly confident that I could plot a course along the sea front to get there but sadly I was badly mistaken and a couple of dead ends required retracing our steps turning the three mile walk into a five mile walk and all the time Kim’s patience slowly draining away and then after only a short while quickly draining away.

We came across some beaches but there was no one on them and there were warning signs saying not to swim there.  They didn’t explain why but the skull and crossbones persuaded us to carry on to our intended destination.

A seafront statue/tribute to the fishermen of Setúbal …

So eventually we arrived at the beach, a rather sad and deserted beach as it turned out and although we rather liked the idea of a swim the previous warning signs had put us off, that and the fact that no one else at all was in the water.  So we went to a beach bar instead, Kim had a coffee and I had a beer.  I refuse to buy tea or coffee because I consider it to be extortionately overpriced.  Why buy a coffee when it costs more than a beer?  It doesn’t make any sense.

 Another Portuguese navigator/explorer – Jose João Besugo

With the beach plan in tatters we had to rethink our day now and as we sat and chatted we went through the menu and we wondered why something called Choco Frito was doing there; we had assumed that it was something like a deep fried mars bar but Google came to our rescue and explained that it was a cuttlefish dish which turns out to be a local speciality.  We agreed that on the way back it was only polite to try some.

No chance.  This being Sunday everyone in  Setúbal was out eating and every café/ bar/restaurant had a line of people waiting for a table.  I thought there was a global cost of living crisis but obviously not in Setúbal. We had spotted a place we liked the look of earlier down a grubby back street close to the fish market.  Not a hope in hell, the place was overflowing, the queue was a mile long and selections were being regularly wiped off the chalk- board menu.  So we moved on.

Back to the city market which was now closing up for the day and most of the fish had gone.  I know that they eat a lot of fish in Portugal but this was quite something and slabs that had been overloaded this morning were now quite empty.  Another plan that now required a rethink.

On Setúbal seafront boulevard we continued to search. At one we were lucky, there were a lot of people in groups of four or more but a waiter called us through for a table of two.  What good fortune.

I don’t as a rule take pictures of food but in this case I made an exception…

We ordered the cuttlefish of course, everyone else was, we declined the optional starters which was a good decision because the main event was huge, a big helping of Choco Frito, a really large portion of fries and a massive plate of salad.  I have to tell you that it was delicious, I like squid and octopus so it was inevitable that I would also like the cuttlefish.

The size of the mid afternoon portion ruled out any thoughts of evening meal so we finished off the chicken from the previous evening with a simple salad.

Later we walked to the sea front again and watched the twinkling ferries making their way back and forth across the waters of the estuary and agreed that tomorrow we would make the crossing in search of a proper beach.

Later, I walked to the supermarket for essential alcohol supplies and by chance passed by a McDonald’s.  I am always interested in what McDonald’s have on their alternative menus across the World and wasn’t so surprised that in  Setúbal I came across fish fingers…

A regional variation in France. is served on a baguette..

And in Spain inevitably there is patatas bravas…

In Greece the burger is served in a pitta bread which looks rather tempting..

but Poutine in Canada looks like slop and needs a leak-proof box…

What is your favourite McDonald’s meal? And I don’t believe anyone who tells me that they have never been there and tried one!

 

 

Portugal – Trouble at Supermarket Checkouts

In my previous post I dealt with the frustration associated with buying a train ticket in Portugal at a self service ticket machine.  Today I move on to the mystery of supermarket checkouts in Portugal.

In the country there were familiar supermarkets for us from the UK, ALDI and LIDL and then a couple  that were  not – Pingo Doce and Continente.  Continente is the largest supermarket chain in Portugal and Pingo Doce is the third. In Setubal we came across a convenient Pingo Doce located close by to the apartment so we went there to shop for our evening meal.

I liked all of these supermarkets in Portugal, they all had a much wider product range than in the UK, more bread, more fruit, more vegetables but especially more fish and whilst Kim shopped for essentials I browsed for fantasy.  The shopping experience is mostly similar to being in the UK and providing you remain focused you can have filled a basket, sidestepped the tempting but unwanted special offers, have negotiated all of the aisles  and be finished in just a few minutes. 

But then you get to the check-outs.

Chaos. Absolute chaos. In the UK you can expect to be through the checkout in under five minutes even if the two people in front both have a full trolley load to clear. Checkout staff in the UK are the fastest on the planet, no mercy if you don’t keep up.   If it was an Olympic event they would win gold, silver and bronze.  Not so in Portugal.  They would come last. Fifteen minutes in the store – thirty minutes (on a good day) waiting to pay.

And it was the same everywhere that we stayed and shopped in Portugal, Obidos, Cascais, Ericeira, Lisbon and now Setúbal.

A main reason for this is that most customers want to pay in cash but the cashiers have no coins in the tills so when someone offers a note they ask if they might possibly have the right change which involves fumbling in pockets and purses looking for loose, long forgotten coins.  “Oh, here is an Escudo, do you still take Escudo?”  Worst of all some customers just throw their coins down and let the cashier do the sorting and when it is all done take an age to put it away again.

This slows the whole process down to somewhere significantly below glacial speed and several conga lines of frustrated customers begin to form and begin to block up the aisles.  Although several frustrated people take the risk there is no point whatsoever  changing lanes because they are all the same.  They are all advancing at the pace of a silted up river bed.  This is life in the sloth lane.

Quite by chance there was some welcome entertainment as a group of university students entertained with music and singing which made the process a bit more tolerable but only just.

I have an important travel tip here…

DO NOT under any circumstances let the cashier see that you have a purse full of coins because they will beg to relieve you of it.  I swear that they are on a shift  bonus to get hold of coins.  I like to carry a little pouch with loose change, say about twenty euro or so but have learnt from experience never to show it.  One of my travel objectives is always to come home with my pouch full of coins ready for next time.

Behaviour at supermarket checkouts is something that intrigues me.  I wrote about it once in a post a long time ago (2010) and I do understand that it might be considered a bit sexist now but here it is now (with apologies where considered necessary)…

Read the full story Here…

So, we negotiated the checkout queue, went home with our purchases and had a simple meal of cooked piri-piri chicken, new potatoes and fresh salad and after as the sun began to slide into the River Sado took a walk to the shoreline and just sat and watched. 

Tomorrow we thought that we might try and find a beach.  We considered taking the apple green ferry to the Troia peninsular but decided instead to go for a hike.

 

Portugal – Lisbon to Setúbal

 

So after four days and nights we prepared to leave our city centre apartment in Lisbon and move on to our final stay south of the River Tagus in Setúbal .  This should have been straight-forward but obviously wasn’t.  I could have predicted that.

The cobbled streets are not good for drag bags and Kim lost a wheel after only a few yards so we had to find the missing parts amongst the stones and then put together some sort or temporary repair and cross fingers and hope that it would hold out.  We made the train station and then a two stop ride to the transfer station to Setúbal. 

Now, buying a train ticket in Portugal is not easy but when using the national rail operator the automated ticket machines all have an option to use the process in English.  Not so the service from Lisbon to Setúbal which is run by the only privately operated train service in Portugal and which obviously doesn’t consider the translation service to be essential.  That is the private sector for you of course, private profit rather than public service.

So, after a wait of glacial proportions I made the front of the line but was quite unable to interpret the instructions so with a queue forming behind me and beginning to feel slightly awkward I had no alternative but to  abandon the quest and stand back and observe.  I watched a few  local people to get some tips. 

The first man was far too quick for me  and he galloped through the process but the second and third were thankfully  a bit slower as I tried hard  to remember the sequence.  Eventually I felt mentally prepared and optimistically rejoined the queue.

After twenty minutes I was back at the machine and I sailed through it  this time like a local expert who had been doing it all of their life.  Insert cash now it said and I offered a twenty euro note that was immediately rejected so I tried again and was instantly rejected once more.  I tried a different note and was instantly rejected.  A line was beginning to form behind me again and then someone tapped me on the shoulder and helpfully informed me that the machines only take a maximum 0f  a ten euro note.

Now I needed change so I went to a cafe bar who said that they were unable to help but then discovered that they could help if I was to purchase something.  So I bought a small bottle of beer, drank it quickly and returned to the ticket machine line.  Twenty minutes later I had the tickets to Setúbal  but by this time we had of course missed the train so with fifty minutes to spare we went back to the cafe bar for another beer and spent the change that they had just given me.

After that it was all plain sailing.  The train crossed the 25 de Abril Bridge, the forty-seventh longest suspension bridge in the World (a long way behind the Humber Bridge near where I live at twelfth) and then carried on towards our destination.  I was looking forward to crossing the bridge but it was an inevitable disappointment because from on board the train there is nothing to see.  It is much better to view the bridge from a good viewing point with a train crossing over it than to be on the train crossing over it with nothing to see but flashing girders.  Anyway, I have done it and I was glad of the experience.

This is the Ribblesdale Viaduct in Yorkshire, much better to see a train crossing it than to be on the train crossing it.

On the positive side rail travel in Portugal is very reasonable, no, it is better than reasonable it is cheap, and the benefit of being over sixty-five, the fares are half price.

After the rail delays we arrived in Setúbal  around mid afternoon, stopped immediately for a pavement glass of wine and then proceeded to our city centre apartment which turned out to be quite excellent. 

I think I mentioned before that on this trip we had chosen apartments instead of hotels and we were so glad that we did, so much better value for money and so much space.  I generally wake first in the morning and in a hotel room this means lying still and not being able to make a cup of tea.  In an apartment I can get up, close the bedroom door and enjoy a brew in the kitchen.  We will be doing it this way again.

The facilities were so good that we thought we might stay in tonight and cook for ourselves so we took the short walk to the nearby Pingo Doce supermarket and thereby hangs another tale which I will tell you about next time…

 

Portugal – Lisbon, Castles and Churches

Our excellent apartment was in the Bairro Alto region of the city, an elevated district high above the River Tagus and the commercial centre of Baixa, an area that required a lot of hill climbing, strong knees, deep lungs and steep steps to negotiate.

Today we were planning to explore more of the city and our first stop was the Castelo de São Jorge

The Patron Saint of Portugal is Saint Anthony of Padua (I have come across him before) and the Patron Saint of Lisbon is Saint Vincent and Saint George is somewhere down the Catholic Church pecking order as the  Guardian Angel of Portugal.

The castle is in Alfama district and this is separated from Baixa district by a sort of deep and rather inconvenient gorge which requires going down a lot of steps on one side to get to the bottom and then going up a lot of steps on the other side to get to the top.  We could have used the funicular tram but at €3.20 I considered this unnecessary expenditure  for a five hundred yard journey so instead of whirring and wizzing to the top we walked and wheezed instead.

Amalfa is the historic heart of Lisbon, occupied by the Moors during the occupation of Iberia and once they had gone subsequently chosen by the Christians as the site for their defensive medieval castle to stop them coming back.  The district was badly damaged by the 1755 earthquake and sadly no original buildings survived but it has retained its compact and rather  quirky original  layout with tightly packed streets and alleyways and hidden secret corners to explore.

It has to be said that the area is rather run down with several dilapidated houses screaming out for  attention and a bit of love and affection, abandoned cars and graffiti scarred walls  but this only adds to the charm of this part of Lisbon. Here are cobbled streets minus a few cobbles, decorated with terracotta plant pots and effusive flowers, gaily coloured doors and shutters and flapping washing lines stretching out and dripping indiscriminately upon rich and poor across the lanes below.

Eventually we reached the castle entrance and immediately ran into a line of people queuing to pay.  This time we decided to risk it and to our surprise the line moved quickly and we were soon inside.  It isn’t a very authentic castle, it was destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake and restored in the 1930s under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar.  Often described as a benevolent dictator he was responsible for a lot of historical restorations and there is nothing wrong with that in my book.

In 2006 in a  public opinion television show Salazar was judged the “Greatest Portuguese Ever” with 41% of the vote.  I find that interesting, he was sort of a right wing fascist but not quite and in similar votes in Spain and Germany viewers were forbidden for voting for Franco and Hitler.

I don’t know much about Salazar except to his credit he denounced Hitler and the Nazis and kept Portugal in the Western European Time Zone but the fact that a nation would vote a dictator who suppressed the democratic process for over forty years perhaps explains human nature and maybe why people in the UK keep voting for a succession of despicable Tory governments.

Maybe people  just like the feel of a jack boot on the back of their neck.

There were some excellent views over the city from the castle walls and we stayed for an hour or so before leaving, stopping for an excellent lunch in an authentic restaurant (on a table next to some especially noisy and boisterous Germans) and then made our way back down to the Tagus.

I spotted this man on the way down. Working from home perhaps?

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.

I preferred the Igreja de São Domingos, a National Monument in the centre of the city and maybe the unluckiest church ever.  Damaged by an earthquake in 1531 and completely destroyed by the big one in 1755, it was rebuilt and completed in 1807 but destroyed again by a terrible fire in 1959.

Instead of the altar I took a picture of this fire damaged corner…

The church was restored and reopened in 1994 but the restoration didn’t attempt to repair the internal fire damage and that, in my opinion, left it in an authentic state.  I liked it and we spent half an hour so examining the interior.

When we emerged from the gloomy interior something quite odd had happened to the weather, the sky was suddenly grey and it was pouring with rain, we purchased an umbrella from an enterprising street seller who had seized the opportunity, found a bar in which to shelter and after the storm made our way back to the apartment.

Later that evening we dined in our favourite restaurant (so good it was fourth night in a row) and then prepared to move on the following day to the coastal city of Setúbal.

Portugal – The Streets of Lisbon

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Portugal – Belém and the Age of Discovery

I like Lisbon, everything about it.  Really, there is nothing not to like about Lisbon.  Even the graffiti.  Even the graffiti.  It is a little understated and has no pretensions like other European capitals. This was my second visit and I would happily go back for a third.

I am always interested in place names and how they travel. There are sixteen place in the USA called Lisbon over fourteen States (Maine and Wisconsin have two each)  most are in the east and the most westerly is in Utah.  Portuguese ethnicity in the USA is thirtieth in a long list but the Portuguese language is thirteenth most spoken.

What I find even more interesting is that there are no places in Brazil called Lisbon or in a lot of other ex-Portuguese colonies.  There are however  four in Columbia and one each in Peru, Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique.

The Portuguese Empire…

I immediately liked Belém, it was a little more relaxed than Lisbon city.  Our plan was to visit the centre and visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jerónimos Monastery and the tomb of Vasco da Gama but the queue was huge and I am not good with queues and Kim is not good with UNESCO World Heritage sites so we abandoned the plan.

The  Jerónimos Monastery is a World Heritage site that I have seen from the outside but not the inside.

I didn’t get to see the tomb but there is a large statue of him in the adjacent gardens.  One of the early explorers European Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India via the South Atlantic around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope and he opened up the trade route in spices from the east which made Portugal temporarily fabulously rich.

From the centre we made our way to the River Tagus and the UNESCO listed Belém Tower, a fortification built on an island in the river to provide protection for the city and a launch site for the explorers in the Age of Discovery.  I had to queue for tickets  of course but it didn’t look too busy so I didn’t mind waiting.

But then it began to get difficult.

The Belém Tower was built five hundred years ago and was designed as a fortress without any allowance made for accommodating thousands of tourists hundreds of years later. 

The rooms and stairways are small and tight and can only accommodate a few people at a time so there was a lot of waiting about as the flow of visitors was managed by a team of patient staff.  This made the whole process rather tedious and what was even more frustrating was that there was nothing to see in any of the rooms where we were continually kept standing and waiting for the one way system to flow.

The Belém Tower is definitely a World Heritage Site better seen from the outside rather than the inside.

Close to the Tower is the modern  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  Henry looking out to the west, perhaps contemplating another famous voyage of discovery.

Portugal and Spain once ruled much of the World but their Empire building was in a different style, Portugal had Henry the Navigator, a methodical explorer seeking out new trade routes with maps and charts and Spain had Conquistadors like Francisco Pizzaro swashbuckling their way through the New World with swords and gunpowder in search of gold and conquest.

Lisbon 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 neighbour  Spain to make discoveries in the New World and in 1494  after years of squabbling  a Treaty was signed which divided the World in two along an arbitrary line of latitude roughly half-way between Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese) and Hispaniola (Spanish) effectively giving Spain the whole of the New World and Portugal with bits and pieces in Africa and the Far East.

The treaty was signed at the castle of Tordisillas in Castilla y Leon which is somewhere that I visited several years ago in 2010…

For Spain this might have seemed like a very  good deal at the time but it rates as a serious negotiating disaster  as they failed to take into consideration the South America eastern bulge which gifted Brazil to Portugal and it gave up the Amazon rain-forest and all of its riches for the barren Andes of Patagonia. 

Some historians suggest that the canny Portuguese already knew about this when quill was put to parchment.

This Treaty was an example of extreme European arrogance of course.  Spain and Portugal conveniently ignored the fact that there were already people living there with a completely legitimate claim to the land.  Later as Spain and Portugal went into decline other countries like France and Britain simply ignored the Treaty (endorsed by the Pope no less) and went on a colonisation spree around the World.

Portuguese expansion continued and 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. 

Thanks to Empire,  Portuguese, by the way, is the eighth  most common language in the World. 

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa…