After the incredible wetness of yesterday’s trip to Sintra today’s sunny weather with a cool breeze was a welcome antidote. As I write this up it is currently raining outside and I just about hear it over the Jenny Hval album playing on my iPod.
As with the previous two days, this day had a focus on a particular are of Greater Lisbon. Today’s focus was on Belém. How did we get there? Why, by an iconic yellow Lisbon tram of course.
To say it was packed would be an understatement (it was on par with Japanese subways), but I had the best seat in the house: right behind the driver. It was so interesting to see the driver at work by using the handles to modify the speed. Also it was just fun to watch him gesturing annoyedly at everyone that crossed the tram’s path.
An interesting tidbit that I learnt about this particular tram route (Route 15) is that this route between Rossio and Belém has been in operation for over 140 years. It’s just that it was previously run by horse-drawn coaches.
List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 64/100Sight: Mosteiro Dos Jerónimos
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
The tram stopped right next to our major destination of the day: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I could see it coming over the horizon whilst we were in the tram, but in person the façade is something else. For one thing it is absolutely massive. Also, the level of detail on everything is extremely intricate.
Considering all the Manueline architecture we saw on display in Sintra I honestly thought I had seen Portuguese architecture at some of its most sumptuous. Until I stepped into the cloisters of the monastery that is.
Perfect sunshine is what you need to enjoy this courtyard and that is what we got. Honestly, I could have just stayed in this courtyard for an inordinate amount of time checking in on all the different flourishes and decorations. But we continued our tour around which meant visits to the chapter house, the refectory and of course the church next door.
The church and the monastery together was enough to take my breath away. With columns that, in places, looked like they were made of snaking stone vines this church just felt like it had grown from the Earth. Whilst not the largest church I have ever been in this just felt cavernous. It also, however, felt like it had not been finished. There were empty recesses where one would have expected there to be statues and/or paintings. So I wonder what happened there.
In order to keep the theme going, out next stop was the Belém Tower. This is one of those structures that has had many uses over the year from political prison to customs house to lighthouse. Considering the prominence and the placement of the tower all these uses seem to make a modicum of sense.
During our visit to the Belém Tower the top two floors were under reconstruction, which was a shame, but we still found our share of joy in the remaining 3-4 floors on offer. You pretty much go inside for the views looking out as, honestly, there isn’t too much to see on the inside. Still, entrance was free thanks to the Lisboa Card so why not go inside.
It was easily time to grab something to eat so we took a walk along the waterfront to our lunch destination. This is a place that I had specifically researched so that I could cross a rather odd mollusc off the list.
List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Goose-Necked Barnacles
Yes, we had goose-necked barnacles (percebes in Portuguese) as part of our lunch. This restaurant was the only place where I could find them talking about selling it in 100g increments. Considering these are over £45 a kilo you can see why I would only want a small amount.
Seeing them there was rather intimidating as I had no idea how to eat them. I ended up watching a brief YouTube tutorial on my phone to make sure we got our money’s worth. Essentially you need to grab them by the beaky end, twist and then pull lightly to reveal the tender edible insides.
Tastewise they share a similarity to the sweetness of lobster meat but with a higher level of salt as you would expect in shellfish. It sucks that these are probably amongst the nicest shellfish that I have ever eaten since it is unlikely that I’ll have this opportunity again.
Obviously we needed more food so we each had a prego steak roll. If Nandos is anything to go by, then we most definitely had a very Portuguese lunch. A very delicious (and once again, reasonable) one it was too.
Since it was free we decided to nip into the National Archaeological Museum. Good thing it was free as it was pretty nondescript to be honest. For a country that launched many an exhibition to Brazil and parts of Africa I am surprised there wasn’t more here. There must be a bigger collection somewhere else one would hope.
For the rest of the afternoon we did a bit of final exploring and shopping before heading back to the room to freshen up for dinner. Sadly the church we intended to see was closed for choir practice, but we got to exploring the Barrio Alto and I met the best rooster in the world. What more can I say.
For our final dinner we went to a real mom and pop place as recommended on TripAdvisor. For whatever reason I decided to not heed the surprise of the guy when I said I would be ordering cod cheeks – I understood this when the food arrived. As nice as the meat was, there was not a lot of it and I had to carve it off of this boiled fish head that had been cut in half. Young me would have seen the teeth and panicked, I just got annoyed that they got in my way of cod flesh.
An unexpected thing we saw on menu was abacaxi pineapple, but there it was in the fruit section. They used the term ananas on the same menu which gave the tip that this was the right pineapple. And it was! Slightly sweeter than a regular pineapple (just not the explosion of flavour that was the Azores pineapple) this made for a refreshing end to the meal. Only it wasn’t the end of the meal.
Here’s the thing. Portuguese cheeses are 2-3 times the price in the UK so I would be a fool to not try and cross as many of these off the list whilst I was here. With this I have crossed off all them from the list. So, mission complete.
Food items: Azeitão and Serra da Estrela
We started off with the Azeitão which was soft and gooey middle. It had a medium nose with some acidity and a slightly salty edge on first taste. Then the tanginess hits you right in the face. This is not on the same level as the Boulette D’Avesnes, and I guess it’s more like Taleggio. Maybe a really strong Camembert but not as creamy or straw-like. Acid notes with a creamy finish. The rind is edible and, somehow, manages to calm it down.
Then there was the Serra de Estrela, which is referred to as the king of Portuguese cheeses. In terms of texture this is like eating a cheese moose or cheese foam. You can cut the top off and scrape out the insides with a cracker. It’s truly something to behold.
The taste starts off mild and after a few bites acidity hits. Nowhere near as strong as the Azeitão though, but it comes with an aftertaste that is almost like hay or whatever those sheep were eating. It is the ultimate cheese of the Portuguese countryside.
Now I am at the end of my time here there are so many takeaway messages from these days spent in Lisbon.
1) This place is a treasure trove of food items. Seriously, when I consider the number of days that I have been here and the number of food items I have had – there is a huge concentration here.
2) Portuguese cuisine is very much it’s own thing. I came in with the wrong thought that it was just a variation on Spanish. So not true.
3) Aside from the men who kept trying to sell me hash on the street, Portuguese people seem to be hospitable.
4) The metro stations are designed to make you are hungry as friggin’ possible. All day today I could smell popcorn on the metro. It was baked goods a few days ago. So, do they rotate the smells to stop you getting used to it?
The biggest take home message of them all is, obviously, how lovely it is in Lisbon. A return trip is likely to happen – mainly so I can try to experience Sintra on a clear day. In terms of other possible trips to Portugal, I would very much like to give Porto a go, so any suggestions welcome.