Wednesday, December 7, 2011


On a recent Friday afternoon, my friend Jessica and I headed off to our tiny neighbor, Portugal, for a weekend visit to the city of Lisbon.  This was my first trip out of Spain since I arrived in August, and I have to admit, when I went to the Barcelona airport, I had absolutely no recollection of ever being there before! That's what happens when you step off a long red-eye flight into a new country, and traipse through with multiple luggage and ski bags draped all over you, trying to get to your new home.
In Lisbon, we parted Saturday morning from the little apartment we rented outside the city center, and took the train to Sintra.

Sintra is a hilly, forested town 28 km northwest of Lisbon, and has an interesting history.  Its historic center is a Unesco World Heritage site due to the relationship between architecture and landscape.  It has been a popular getaway for Lisbon residents since early Iberians made it a center of cult worship, the Moors built a castle in the Middle Ages, the notorious Lisbon earthquake of 1755 brought monasteries, and in the 19th century, nobility moved to its hills.  Lord Byron even praised Sintra in Child Harold's Pilgrimage: "Lo! Sintra's glorious Eden intervenes, in variegated maze of mount and glen."

Our first adventure was to hike 4km up the road from the historic center to the Moorish Castle (Castelo Dos Mouros). The windy road took us through a mixture of tropical and deciduous flora, and at every vantage point, there seemed to be a little castle tucked into the woods.  Were these actually people's private castles?  

I think I take this same picture everywhere I go. I call it, "Autumn Ivy Clinging to a Stucco Wall Somewhere in Europe."  Look for it in my upcoming Girona blog, too!

The Moorish Castle snakes like a dragon tale on the highest hill overlooking Sintra and the Atlantic Ocean.  It was first built by the Moors, then captured by the Christians, and by the 15th century was no longer in use. If my parents had taken me here as a child, I would have played pretend in it for hours.

In the distance is the Palacio Nacional de Pena, our next destination.
The Palacio Nacional de Pena had been a convent in the 16th century, and then in 1840, when the artist-husband of Queen Maria II, commissioned an architect to renovate and restore it, it turned into a kind of Bavarian-and-something-else style castle. Trippy.

The Moorish influence of geometrically-patterned tiles could be seen throughout it, too.

The cafe had a stunning view of the Atlantic.

Walking back down through Sintra to the train station:

Even beautiful tiles at the train station!

Once back in Lisbon, we hopped the famous yellow tram up to Bairrio Alto, an old neighborhood, for a sunset vista.

Sunset complete with a glass of wine, and great music coming out of our cafe.

Walking through town on our way to our dinner reservation...

We ate at a traditional Fado restaurant that night. Fado is Portuguese for 'fate,' and it is their famous style of music.  It's a series of sad chants performed as a set of three songs, each lasting one minute.  We ate a traditional Portuguese meal, while the musicians came on and performed their sets of three, and then took breaks.  They are sung by one singer who is accompanied by a 12-string Portuguese guitarra. It emerged in the 18th century in Lisbon's working class districts.  It was beautiful! Good food, and an intimate setting to hear this music.

"What song is this, with no beginning and no end, overflowing with virtue and sin and yet freeing itself from both, that has propelled an apparently lonely country towards eternity?  What song is this? It is called Fado and its birthplace is Portugal." - Aldina Duarte, Fado singer

A painting hung in the restaurant of Fado in the old days:

On Sunday morning, Lisbon was asleep very much like Barcelona would be.  

This is the main plaza by the river, originally a center for markets.  Note the color yellow is the theme of Lisbon; that, and the blue blue color of the sky.

We walked up to Alfama, another old district in the city.

A random ball of steel wool hanging in a courtyard. Some kind of modern art?!

Another Moorish castle, overlooking the city.

I loved Lisbon. Compared to Barcelona, it felt unpeopled, relaxed, quaint, a bit run-down, a bit more raw, and people were friendly and full of smiles.  Can't wait to go back!

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