Mon 7th Dec – Mon 14th Dec
Our road to Lisbon began with a brief stop over in the pretty, but pretty quiet town of Vila Nova Da Barquinha about 90 kilometres South West of Vila Velha De Rodao. We didn’t see that much of it except for a quick stroll in the morning to explore the contemporary sculpture park across the other side of a tiny water feature/ stream from Heidi. I found it amazing that this sleepy town, no bigger than East Grinstead had a contemporary sculpture park (which had by the looks of it probably cost a tidy sum to create as it was very well designed). I also found it rather amusing that the only people we saw in the town reminded me of my grandma and granddad (neither of whom would have really been able to get their heads around or appreciate said sculptures).
Soon we were on the road again and heading towards Obidos, a tiny historic town that we had heard a lot about (as it is a famous Christmas shopping destination for tourists). We settled in Casa Azzurra, a little place in the country-side, just outside the Obidos but within cycling distance . The site, though marked as an aire, was more like the Grand Vigne (the small campsite we had stayed at in Messe). As we arrived we were greeted by a friendly German couple and their son Bjorn who was probably about our age. At first we mistook them for guests but as it turned out Bjorn was soon to be the new owner of Casa Azzurra, so he and his parents (who were lending a helping hand) were staying in their motorhomes whilst the sale completed (at the end of the week).
Bjorn was obviously on to a winner as the aire was a very popular one especially as it received very high scores on the ‘Camper Contact’ app. It was probably a little too campsite-like for our taste (as we tend to enjoy a wilder landscape) but we could definitely see the appeal. The only down side was the hoards of mosquitos that seemed to find the site equally as appealing, and by the end of our two nights there we were sporting many red blotches.
It was a sunny Wednesday when we set off on our bikes to visit Obidos (which was about a 4 kilometre bike ride away). I was really happy to be back on my bike and even enjoyed the steep hill up to the walled town (even though I had to get off and walk part of the way). Once at the top we cycled through an arched gateway and entered into the town. It was funny, we had had two opposite accounts of Obidos, one of a romantic fairytale town and one of a hideous tourist trap… As you walked through the little cobbled streets passing flower covered houses, colourful window surrounds of blue and yellow, and the pretty artisan shops with readymade stalls attached to the front doors, you could see why. It was very charming, but there was something about the combination of the chocolate box vista, the blistering sunshine, and the cheesy Christmas music (that blasted out from speakers at every corner) that made the whole thing seem a bit surreal.
The tourists were out in force thronging the tiny streets as they delighted themselves with overpriced nick-nacks. Matt and I needless to say managed to resist the urge and instead opted for a walk on the towering medieval wall that encircled the town. Standing in places at about 12 meters above the rooftops the ancient walkway offered great views over the town but with no barriers, a three foot wide (very uneven) walkway and rather slippery shoes, I really had to watch my step (especially when trying to weave my way around a rather obstinate tourist who seemed oblivious of the amount of room his large camera bag took up as he pushed unrelentingly past me). In the UK you probably wouldn’t have been allowed to touch the wall, let alone walk around on it, but I tend to find this sort of lack of ‘health and safety’ rather refreshing.
After Casa Azzurra, our next stop over was a small aire in the car park of the municipal football ground in Sintra where we planned to spend the next two nights before heading to Lisbon on Saturday. I guess some people would have been put off by the idea of sleeping next to a busy football pitch, but it worked really well for us and provided an ideal base from which to explore Sintra. So on Friday morning we embarked on another intrepid bike ride (involving even steeper hills and a lot more traffic) through Santa Maria and on to the Quinta da Regaleira.
Whilst Obidos was kind of ‘cute’ (I paraphrase from other tourists), Sintra was absolutely stunning, with the Quinta da Regaleira being the highlight of our day!
Designed by Italian set-designer and architect Luigi Manini the small but elaborate palace took over six years to build, with Manini visualising and overseeing every tiny detail. His incredible talent became more and more apparent as we walked around the house admiring the carved wooden ceilings, ornate stone fireplaces, mosaic-ed floors, tiled walls, clever proportions and beautiful aspects. On the top floor the full extent of Manini’s genius was revealed in his incredible architectural drawings which detailed each and every element of the design and which in their own right were things of beauty.
Manini’s skills as a set designer played an integral part as he indulged the hermetic influences of António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, (his client and patron) whose passion for alchemy, theosophy and the occult heavily influenced the aesthetic design of the palace and it’s gardens. This we saw exemplified in the 27 metre deep ‘initiation well’ whose plunging spiral staircase is laden with symbology and either leads you down into the depths or up into the light depending upon the direction you choose.
Ever a fan of spiral staircases I eagerly descended the staircase, divided by nine platforms and inspired by Dante’s ‘nine circles of hell’. At the bottom I couldn’t resist standing on the masonic star and waving at Matt in a rather un-masonic way as I gazed up, before venturing on to explore the dark passageways and labyrinth caves of the grotto. (A place that you could imagine playing host to torchlit rituals and hedonistic parties).
Another great example of Monteiro’s influences and Manini’s arresting design is the small library whose mirror edged floor gives the optical illusion of a floating platform suspended in mid-air between two book-lined worlds. One that you are able to step into, and the other, a mirror image underneath, that you can glimpse at but never quite reach. It is truly one of the most simple yet astonishing interiors that I have ever seen.
After the heady experience of Quinta da Regaleira, our subsequent visit to the ruins of the old Moorish Castle on the top of the hill seemed to pale in comparison. Despite the great views from the walls of the old fortress, there was little else to capture our attention, so we hopped back on the bus that had delivered us from Quinta da Regaleira and retrieved our bikes before exploring Sintra’s beautiful old town.
That evening after successfully navigating the serious of cardio-rich gradients that made up our cycle back, we sat down to a well deserved meal, feeling a great sense of contentment with our experiences of the day and looking forward with anticipation to more exploring in Lisbon. Our plan being, to set off early the next morning (a Saturday), park Heidi in a campsite on the outskirts of the city and spend the night in a hotel in the Alfama quarter of Lisbon (which we had already booked).
Morning came and we executed our plan with the kind of efficiency and time keeping that generally makes me nervous (incase I have forgotten something), but puts a big smile on Matt’s face. It was just after lunch when we stepped off the bus at Praça Da Figueira and attempted to locate our little hotel.
We wandered around the streets trying to give off an air of street-wise savvy be-fitting of a city renowned for it’s pick-pocketing. After a few wrong turns and a great many steps we arrived at our hotel and joyously inspected our room. Contemporary, modest and colourful, it afforded a great view over the city and a slightly unusual modern figurative painting (which Matt and I could only interpret as a naked man giving himself a very good time). But most importantly it had an amazing shower! Needless to say, we both stripped off and took it in turns to bask in the blissful cascade of water raining down from the large square metal shower head…. After the trickling faucet of Heidi’s shower… I could have stayed in there for hours!
Eventually we managed to drag ourselves out of the hotel room and go on a mission to find somewhere to eat that evening. As it turned out we did not have to go very far as Matt had read about Chapito a restaurant com circus school only a few doors down. So we nipped in to find out if they were able to cater for a coeliac under the guise of a drink and a bowl of chips. Though their lunch menu wasn’t particularly coeliac friendly, the chips themselves allegedly suffering from cross contamination, we were assured that dinner in the more formal dining room would be no problem. As it seemed to be both popular and full of atmosphere (not to mention the occasional clown) so we decided that it would be a good choice, particularly as all the food, including Matt’s chips, looked really good (I did wonder if Matt had maybe greased the waitress so he could have a bowl to himself).
With time to spare before dinner we decided to take a wander around the Alfama, the small district, full of moorish influence, in which we had chosen to base ourselves. An unusual area, the Alfama is famous for a diverse collection of reasons; ranging from it’s labyrinth of narrow streets, to it’s profusion of very spectacular graffiti, to it’s notoriety as the birth place of Portuguese melancholic ‘Fado’ music.
So far on our travels, the one thing that Matt and I have yet to see is some good live music. Having downloaded the Lonely Planet guide we had been delighted to see that Portuguese folk music was big in Lisbon (due to its 1820s heritage in the port-side brothels) and so had booked our hotel within easy reach of the main Fado bars. That afternoon we got our first taste (a rather acquired one) as we were sitting having a drink in a little square in the Alfama. The sorrowful utterances were performed by a large troupe led by a charismatic guy who’s mimicry and mime (when he wasn’t singing) reminded me of a character from a minstrel show. Matt was somewhat less enthusiastic and started visibly bristling, particularly when the guy began to single out fellow onlookers for some unsolicited banter whilst at the same time hitting them with a güiro (a small wooden maraca type instrument). Anticipating a major sense of humour failure, I thought it best to make a speedy exit before he came over to us, so we knocked back our drinks and quickly made our escape.
Back at our hotel room, we decided that we should perhaps research Fado to see if it was actually our cup of tea. All attempts at googling brought up stories of ‘tourist traps’ and overcharging, whilst the youtube performances by revered Fado artists failed to impress. It began to dawn on me that we should perhaps stick to dinner having seen how tiny the Fado bars were and how obvious it would be if a certain person (who can tend to make the odd lairy comment when drunk) decided that it wasn’t to his taste.
Going out for dinner seemed like such a treat, especially as we had to climb a windy spiral staircase up to Chapito à Mesa, which had spectacular views over the city. The food also did not disappoint and I enjoyed a delicious fish dish and accompanied by some very tasty wine. Being the dirty stop-outs that we obviously are, we decided to forego the Fado bars and instead went back to our hotel room and amused ourselves by laying on the bed looking up at the ceiling and stomach drumming to the Cadbury’s ‘glass half full’ Gorilla version of Phil Collins’ ‘In the air tonight’…. Something that we found absolutely hilarious (like I said very tasty wine).
The next day we regained our adventurous spirits and decided to follow our noses and explore Lisbon. As it happens, we somehow managed to unintentionally stumble from one great find to another completely unaided by any guide books. The city slowly capturing our imagination and working its way under our skin. We must have walked for miles passed the famous elevator, then from the dramatic Praça do Comercio with it’s Venetian-esque jetty, along to the sumptuous Mercado da Ribeira food hall (one of our favourite finds) glimpsing brightly coloured trams and tuk tuks along the way. In the Praça do Comercio we were offered a large ball of weed, which we swiftly declined but readily partook in the gastronomic delights of the Time Out market (or rather I did… what can I say, I couldn’t pass up a gluten free crepe!).
Our meanderings were not entirely aimless as we had had a text from Nick and Chez (who were in Lisbon with Jacqui, Art and Tay awaiting the infamous Enrique at the MEO arena) to say they were having a browse around the LX Factory near the ’25 de Abril’ Bridge. So we decided to wander in their direction with the hope of meeting up. What we hadn’t realised was just how ginormous the bridge was, so walking towards it was a bit like walking over mountain peaks thinking that the summit is over the next ridge when it is actually 50 kilometres away. In the end we resorted to hopping on a tram for the last couple of miles (being Sunday these were few and far between) so by the time we got there we had missed those guys by about 30mins. Undeterred (as we would be seeing them in a few days), we decided to pause for a quick roam around the eclectic collection of alternative galleries, quirky shops and street-food-style cafes. It was a great collective, reminiscent of Brick Lane, Shoreditch or Spitalfields (before it became too commercial).
Feeling the afternoon approaching we decided to make a move and hopped on a bus to the Belem district, famous for it’s huge riverside sculpture, fortified tower and a myriad of bustling cafes. We walked around until our legs began to ache and then headed into the nearest cafe for Mat to grab a gourmet burger. No sooner were we under the cafe awning when the heavens opened and a deluge of rain hit the pavement like a million tiny drums. Sensing that our time in Lisbon was coming to it’s natural conclusion, Matt grabbed his burger and we legged it to the bus stop just in time to catch our homeward bus.
We arrived back at the campsite feeling very pleased with our Lisbon adventure and extremely happy to see that Heidi was still in one piece.