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A Canção de Lisboa – Day 3: Sintra

I know that going anywhere in Europe in November comes with a risk of rain, but looking at the weather broadcast the night before we came to Lisbon gave us a false sense of optimism. But still, we didn’t quite expect the weather we got today.

Anyway let’s backtrack to the beginning.

I have a lot of respect for the public transport. We did not have to wait long for anything today. The longest was a 5 minute wait and the train was already sat there waiting.

Sintra is about a 40 minute train journey from where we were staying in Rossio (and the journey was free thanks to the Lisboa cards that we bought). When in Sintra we bought the 5€ tourist bus round ticket as recommended… and as I would also recommend.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 63/100Sight: Sintra
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #142

The whole day was spent seeing the sights of Sintra so it is a bit difficult to know when to say this was ticked off.

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We started out in the historical town centre of Sintra with a visit to the National Palace. The most distinctive things about this palace are the two conical chimneys. They look so out of place, and yet they really make the palace special.

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Speaking of special, this royal palace was amazing on the inside. So many rooms that are impeccably decorated in many different ways. Most have rather obvious names, such as the pictured Swan Room, and feature beautifully painted ceilings, ornate tiling or both. It was a real eye opener to see some of these beautiful designs and continue my learning of the Moorish influence of this area of Europe.

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As we are on the topic of Morrish, the second of the three main stops on the tourist bus route. On a clear day the views from the top of the highest tower must be exceptional. On this day, it was breathtaking (and wet) to see the clouds physically roll in over the walls. There was something very Skyrim, Hound of the Baskervilles and Game of Thrones about the sheer amount of cloud that was swamping the castle.

The walk from the bus stop to the castle did not give us any warning about how wet and cloudy it was about to become. In fact, it was clear enough for us to be able to appreciate the sheer scope of the second outer set of walls. It was one when we started going up a tower and commencing a wall walk that it became clear just how wet the rest of the day was going to be.img_4099
Looking back on the day – the ruins of the Moorish Castle really was the highlight of the  day in Sintra. I actually cannot think of the last time I saw such a large set of ruins from the Middle Ages.

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A fairly short walk away from the castle was the final stop of the route – the Pena Palace. Now, I would not be surprised if Disney took a cue from here when designing some of their parks. As a palace it was designed for fun (having converted an old monastery) and the bright colour scheme on the outside really does agree with this.

As with the National Palace, the insides are beautifully decorated. However, the decorations here are a lot less subtle and there are more (smaller) rooms. Some of them have beautiful trompe-lœil painted walls whilst others feature tiles. You can also see many specially designed chandeliers and light fixtures including a rather beautiful glass chandelier meant to resemble a morning glory.

I have no doubt that we would have been able to appreciate the Pena Palace more of it was not for the near constant rain. For example, walking around the walls should give wonderful views rather than the sea of clouds. Still, it didn’t deter us from looking around some of the grounds, but first we had to eat some of the Sintra cheese tarts that we bought in the town centre.

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We made for the so-called Valley of Lakes which is at one of the lowest points of the Pena Park. These specially designed lakes looked extra otherworldly in the mist (Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ came to mind… but only after we skipped down a slope singing a song from The Wizard of Oz).

A number of the lakes feature ornate duckhouses. These might have made me jealous of ducks and their wonderful digs. But that my problem apparently.

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Flashforward a few hours and we are back in Lisbon having dinner. For the first time ever I actually decided to have octopus for dinner. Sure, it looked like it was going to reach up and grab me, but the results were rather delicious with lime juice and fried potatoes. I can only imagine my reaction to this when I was in Portugal 16 years ago. The word ‘mortified’ comes to mind.img_4140
Since it was still early there was a chance to wander around the nearby shopping streets to get some souvenir and gift shopping done. We might have spent a bit too much on this, but with Christmas lights starting to go up in Lisbon how could we not?

One more full day here. I really have fallen for this city. Aside from the many times I have been offered drugs, the people are just so friendly and helpful. Here’s to the final day as I scarf pastries down my trap.

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 2: Alfama and the Oceanarium

Never let it be said that we don’t pack things into a day on holiday. So many things done today that it really feels like a day of two (rather different) halves.

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We started out by heading for one of the three Lonely Planet Travellist places that I am hoping to hit up on this trip. Our walk took us first to Lisbon Cathedral, whose presence was absolutely massive amongst the surrounding smaller houses.

Inside it is a bit barer than some of the other cathedrals I have been to recently, but there are still some really impressive architectural aspects. To get into the main cathedral is free, but if you want to venture around the cloisters and treasury there is a 4€ fee.

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Well worth it just to know that the money is going towards the upkeep of the cathedral and the archaeological excavation currently happening on the centre of the cloisters. Already they have been able to find old Roman and Islamic remains. Who knows what else they’ll find.

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The treasury is worth it just to be able to get the view from above the cathedral. Never have I ever been so close to a stained glass window that I could make out such a wealth of detail. It made me wish I knew more about the saints and their symbols to better identify them. Hey ho.img_3989
We went across the road to the Church of St Anthony. I think this is the first time that I have been to a church build on the birthplace of a Saint. As you can probably guess, that meant this church had its fair share of pilgrims making their way to the crypt to say their prayers before buying things from the gift shop.

As for us we were able to enjoy the opulent decorations on display in the main church. Gold, gold, gold as far as the eye could see. Also the desiccated corpse of a young Saint Justina. The second time, after Catania, where I have seen a dead body on display in a church.

List item: Visit 100 of the Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist
Progress: 62/100img_3994Sight: Lisbon’s Alfama
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
Position: #336

So here we are in the first of the Lonely Planet Travelist areas in Lisbon. Alfalfa is an area of Lisbon characterized by winding streets, colourful buildings, lots of little shops and quite a few churches.

It’s hard to just to talk about an area like its a landmark, but it was just such a pleasure to walk through its streets and take in the surrounding as we went higher and higher.

At the top of the hill, and I think technically out of the Alfama, is the Castelo de São Jorge. At the top of one of the towers is, as we overheard from a guided tour, the highest point in Lisbon.

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This is another one of the places where you could just spend a wealth of time taking in the views. We did take our sweet time in the castle grounds just looking at as many different views of Lisbon as we could find.

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The castle itself was large and impressive. Just reading up on the age of some parts of this castle (we’re talking 12th century here, with the hill having been occupied since 4th century BC) just makes you feel humble. That is until you find yourself hugging walls as you clamber down steep stairs whilst singing the New Girl theme song.

This was the end of the first half of the day. The middle was characterised by getting annoyed at the Lisbon bus system after buses just didn’t arrive when they were meant to (as in we waited for 40 minutes and the bus that was meant to run ‘every 15 minutes’ just didn’t materialise… we later found out that the road was closed for works some 100 metres away) so let’s skip on through.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Dieimg_4015Food item: Sweet Marjoram

Lunch was at about 2pm in the cafe attached to the Lisbon Oceanarium. It was here that I somehow managed to tick off a food item since they used sweet marjoram in one of their sandwiches. It just goes to prove that you never really know when you are going to come across one of these. Maybe Lisbon is just a treasure trove of these.

A quick lunch later and we were in the Oceanarium, which is apparently the largest indoors aquarium in Europe. It was also magnificent.

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The whole thing is centred around one large ocean tank that contains my new best friend: a sunfish that I have called Derp. There are other things in there like devil rays, groupers, sharks and guitarfish; but Derp is truly the magnetic presence of the tank. Okay maybe not, just watching the fish was enough, but actually seeing a sunfish in the flesh was something truly special.

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There are a lot of other exhibits in the aquarium including penguins, puffins, otters, jellyfish and a whole wealth of other creatures. Seriously, this is an impressive aquarium to visit and (thanks to it being a Thursday in the off season) it was actually rather quiet. It meant that we could just take our time and take pictures of our favourite fish.

We wandered through the Parque de Nações before taking the metro back home. This park, which was the location of the 1998 World Expo feels so wonderfully modern. So many interesting looking buildings and sites that kinda reminded me of Odaiba.

Dinner was further proof of the wealth of 1001 foods available in Lisbon. It was not a place that I would have normally gone in, but TripAdvisor and a pre-visit glance at the menu persuaded me that it would be worth the visit.

img_4047Food item: Suckling Pig

To help me with the ticking off (as well as ensuring he got a good meal) hub went for the sucking pig. It was a mountain of pork like I had not expected for 11€. In the UK you would probably have to pay 2-3 times that.

Now, on one level I disagree with the concept of sucking pig wholeheartedly, but my god was this good. So very tender they it just collapsed off of the bone. Also, as pork goes, it was a sweet meat. This is a good thing.

img_4048Food item: Black Scabbard Fish

So, the waiter tried to warn me off this. Like he actually told me what this fish looked like and that it basically wasn’t a normal fish. I got a “don’t complain if you don’t like it”

I did not complain. I adored this. It was some of the best fish I have ever had and I can’t think of what I’d compare it too. Perhaps eel would be closest, just not as oily. It was very close textured and slightly salty.

I would have this again. And might do if we find it in another place. Or just visit this place again. Usually a no no for me on holiday, but there are a lot of other things I want from this menu.

img_4049Food item: Guarana
Progress: 585/751

This was not the end of the food items today. Oh no. We actually managed to pick up some Brazilian guarana soda on the way home! I hadn’t really thought about it , but it makes sense that you could get some Brazilian things here. It tastes like a refreshing tropical berry that’s like a nicer version of Red Bull. That’s about it, I have no other touchstones for this..

So that’s today. This may be one of the longest blog posts I have written for a good while. Time for bed so I can be up early tomorrow for our trip to Sintra!

A Canção de Lisboa – Day 1: Arrival

It feels like only yesterday that we arrived back from our trip to Netherlands. Maybe because it was only a week and a half ago. At any rate, I could quite easily get used to being in and out of airports considering how much time I have been spending there recently.

For this latest mini-break I find myself returning to Portugal since I was last here 16 years ago. I don’t remember too much about the previous trip, but there are some things that feel familiar. Mainly the smell of the tree sap as we walked through the greener areas and the patterns of the tiles on the floors and walls.

The first day is always a bit odd, especially when you arrive in the mid-afternoon. Too much time to not do anything, but not enough time to do anything sizeable. So we just wandered around the nearby area.

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The bus ride from the airport was already making me feel like this was a city I could fall for. A shop like this? Well that just sweetens the deal. We didn’t go inside because… well I’m not entirely sure if we’d make it out without buying a can of sardines with our birth year on it.

One thing I had never appreciated about Lisbon is that it is a coastal capital. But there it is, the estuary of the Tejo River as it enters the Atlantic Ocean. The smell of the sea is faint, but very much there as you head to the river’s edge. I guess that must be because this is brackish water rather than seawater.

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We reach the river as the sun is going down and the view is beautiful. The light of the sun is so very red. The surrounding buildings are glowing as if they are facing a gigantic bonfire. The bank is very crowded as we all gather to watch the sun going down.

After some sun watching (and after turning down a vendor’s offer of cheap marijuana) we headed back up to the Rossio area where our hotel is.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Dieimg_3958Food item: Azores Pineapple

On the way back we happened across a shop I was looking to go into tomorrow. A shop that specialises in food from the Azores. I had researched this and was ready to buy a pineapple for the food list with no plan of how I’d be able to eat the damned thing.

Luckily they had free samples of the pineapple on offer, so I was able to try it there and then without having to fruit wrestle. This tasted unlike any pineapple I has experienced before. The flavour just exploded in my mouth. It felt like a sweet and concentrated pineapple flavour that I would normally have in a sweet. So basically it’s the best pineapple I’ve ever had and I’ve bought some pineapple jam to try and recreate this experience at home.

Dinner was at a small place near the hotel. I’ve purposely been researching places to go that were Tripadvisor friendly and would not break the bank. We managed to get a meal for three here for 26€, so I think I did a good job.

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Food item: Alheiras De Mirandela

I got myself the Alheiras De Mirandela and had the most cultured sausage, egg and chips that I have ever had. The sausage itself was mushy on the inside. As in it felt like it was very freshly made (rather than processed) where you could appreciate the textures of the meat and how the smokiness of the meat changed depending on the closeness of the texture.

The sausage itself has an interesting history and dates back to the days of the Portuguese Inquisition. Jews would make these sausages with chicken and hang them up in their smokehouses. By doing so it would like they were eating pork and, as such, had converted to Christianity. Such a clever, yet simple, idea.

img_3960Food item: Gilthead Bream
Progress: 581/751

Hub did me the favour by having the ‘dourada’ or gilthead bream. The skin looked a beautiful golden colour, I guess to match the name which comes from the Portuguese word for ‘gold’. My husband was a little bit taken aback with the toothy fish head that had been nestled underneath some green beans, but he made the best of it.

I lack the fish vocabulary to discuss this properly. It was close textured whitefish that tasted very fresh and still had remnants of the seas saltiness in its flesh. The taste was more on par with richness of trout and mackerel than something like cod.

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We ended the day as I think we are going to end it whilst we are here – with a clutch of Portuguese egg custard tarts. I’m so looking forward the next few days and seeing more of this city