London or Paris is where you go for a weekend break. Portugal’s where you go for the full-on summer holiday — it’s too far away to venture for anything less than a week, writes
I confess that was what I was inwardly thinking when I rocked up to Cork Airport to try out the new Aer Lingus Cork-Lisbon route for a three-day trip.
Also, they eat a lot of cod and sardines in Portugal, don’t they? I don’t like cod and don’t even start me on sardines. Yes, I was living up to my happy-go-lucky reputation.
Three days later, one of my fellow travellers actually caught me unawares smiling on camera — I don’t smile... full stop. Lisbon had got to me — I had fallen in love with it — hills, cod and all.
First of all, the distance from Cork — within the sum total of three hours we had checked-in at the airport, flown to Lisbon, and been transported to our hotel. If the M50’s a bit bunged up, you struggle to get into the heart of Dublin so quickly from Cork.
Lisbon is one of those cities that has its airport right on the edge of the city — so much so that in the rooftop pool of our hotel I was able to watch the planes darting up into the sky (OK, I may have thrown that line in to boast that I actually went in the cold pool in the middle of winter…).
Let’s get one thing straight though: I may have been right about the week thing in the first paragraph of this article. Because there is just so much to do in and around this city that a long weekend will only give you a taster. But hey, it’s so close you can always come back.
Lisbon before the earthquake, tsunami
Lisbon was hit by an earthquake and a tsunami in one terrible day, November 1, 1755. Around 40,000 people in the city died and 90% of its buildings were destroyed — some catastrophe for one of Europe’s major cities to absorb. That desperate but momentous time in its history is ingrained in the city’s psyche — the Lisboa Story Centre in the beautiful Praça do Comércio has an excellent display of the city’s history which includes a vivid, interactive recounting of the day of the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent re-build.
However, the tragedy is still only a part of a rich tapestry of Lisbon, the memory of whose monarchy and globally famous residents are fascinatingly commemorated in castles, monasteries, cathedrals and other cultural points around the city.
One of those globally famous residents is Vasco da Gama, whose final resting place is in the beautiful Belém, easily accessible 6km from the city centre.
Belém takes you back to Portugal’s Golden Age when Portuguese explorers like da Gama ruled the seas. It was from there that many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyages to discover the unknown world. The Jerónimos Monastery in Belém is where Vasco da Gama is buried. Revered as he was, he has been laid to rest among kings in the most beautiful of settings. Thankfully the ornate building is big enough to cater to the thousands of tourists who visit every day.
While in Belém, it is well worth a visit to Espelho d’Água, where we had lunch. It has a beautiful menu and the view from the dining room is of the myriad of boats and pleasure craft making full use of the River Tagus.
Going slightly further afield to the Mafra Palace, one gets a vivid depiction of the life of a royal family at the height of the Portuguese monarchical period.
The north turret of the Royal Palace was occupied by the king and the south turret by the queen. The turrets are linked by a 232-metre gallery with much of the life of the castle in rooms off that long gallery. Every room (there are 1,200 in the whole building so bring your walking shoes!) along that gallery is fascinating, if not a little intimidating — especially the trophy room where, as well as festooning the walls, even the furniture is made out of antlers.
Maybe it was the weather that day (it was raining, making the countryside look distinctly Irish) but if I’m honest, for all the beauty of the interior, the outside of the Mafra Palace left me slightly indifferent.
The same could definitely not be said for the Pena National Palace — the nearest I have ever come to a fairytale palace.
Dating back to 1840, the castle was built 500 metres above sea level by King Ferdinand II of the Saxe Coburg-Gotha Dynasty. The dodgy weather (it was the same day as the Mafra Palace visit) was actually to the Pena Palace’s advantage because it rose over the clouds, making it seem even more mystical.
Inside, it was infinitely less formal than Mafra, with beautiful architecture that typifies the romanticism of the 19th century (that may have been lifted from the guide - I just thought it looked really, really nice…).
It doesn’t hurt the attraction of the palace that a couple of hundred metres lower down the mountain is the bite-the-back-of-your-hand beautiful town of Sintra, which in and of itself is worth a prolonged visit.
As a by-the-way, we travelled to Caiscais for dinner on the way back to Lisbon. Cascais is probably better known as a bustling holiday resort in the summer and there is no doubt that it would be a great coastal place to be when the sun shines and the sea is inviting. We were there in winter and it was dark around the town when we arrived. Even then though we could see just what an attractive town it is, just half an hour from the centre of Lisbon.
We had dinner in the beautiful five-star Farol Boutique Hotel which is literally built on the rocks of the shoreline.
This is luxury to the nth degree, boasting only 33 rooms, each created by famous designers, two restaurants offering either Mediterranean and traditional Portuguese cuisine or sushi. Overwhelmed by the splendour of it all, one of our number got onto the trusty Google to find out how much a room might be — a smidgeon over €200 for two nights’ B&B in November (though infinitely higher in the summer).
The vibrant Lisbon post-earthquake
Back to the city and it’s a case of whatever you’re having yourself. Tradition in the many beautiful cathedrals and streetscapes? Shopping? 21st century-leading innovations such as the spectacular cable car and the state-of-the-art aquarium? There is a lot to pack in.
For our part, we spent portions of two days seeing what the areas around a few of the city’s seven hills had to offer.
On the first hill, we ended up at the “Ladra” flea market. While visually impressive from a distance, I have to admit I was left somewhat cold by what was actually on sale — it literally looked like people had cleared out the unwanted tat they found in the back of their cupboards and garages and put it up for sale.
However, from there we went to the Alfama district, one of the oldest districts of Lisbon which is a beautiful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses through which passes the famous Number 28 tram.
An old lady in one of the old houses had a stall in her front window with a sign telling us that a small glass of port was available for €2.
A glass of Ginja (a cherry liqueur) was just €1 — but for €2 you could have it in a glass made of chocolate. We duly obliged before a trip to the Lisboa Cathedral, which is well worth a visit.
The second portion of the city tour took in the more commercial but still suitably cobbled and ornate areas in and around the Bairro Alto, the city’s main restaurant and bar district. It has some of the best restaurants in Portugal — all grouped together. If you don’t feel like taking the steep walk down to a lower level of the city you can always opt to be brought down in one of the city’s famous funiculars. As our guide Carmo pointed out, the funiculars that “sleep” indoors at night at bright and sparkling yellow — those that “sleep” outside are liberally graffiti-ed though in a much more artistic way than one would normally see.
We meandered onto the Comércio square for a beautiful lunch at the restaurant Populi. The square is considered by the people of Lisbon to be the jewel in the crown of the city. The arcades and splendid façades that make up the four hectares look out onto the Tagus. A good place for a holiday snap or 10.
Oceanário de Lisboa was considered the Best Aquarium in the World by TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice: https://t.co/z9ZC1NPLrH @OceanarioLisboa #travel #bestofportugal #lisbon #portugal pic.twitter.com/oG6R4AQC4O— Best of Portugal 🇵🇹 (@Best_of_PT) September 4, 2018
Now, many people who visit Lisbon are going to have children with them. And while the small people will be enthused and enchanted by the beauty of the place (particularly the Pena Palace), they are going to want a bit of excitement. The cable car along the riverfront will definitely earn parents a few brownie points, but not nearly as many as the aquarium.
Oceanário de Lisboa is reckoned to be the second biggest in Europe and it is certainly the best I have ever seen. Often I wonder how people can make looking at fish (OK, and mammals) last more than 40 minutes or so, but the main pool — which is the height of two storeys and the size of five Olympic swimming pools — could enchant a person for that time on its own, with some of the most impressive aquatic creatures imaginable. Add in the different climatic areas with otters, penguins and all sorts of deep-sea creatures and it’s an afternoon’s entertainment all by itself.
All in all, Lisbon is a perfect place to visit as a tourist — while sunseekers may head further south, this city is, I think, probably better off-season because the climate will be good anyway.
A two-hour flight away from Cork, it is somewhere I will definitely be visiting again.
Need to know
We stayed at the four-star Jupiter Hotel on the iconic Av. da República. It was a great base from which to see the city — the buffet breakfast had a fantastic choice of tasty food and the rooms were exceptionally comfortable.
Aer Lingus operates a twice-weekly service from Cork to Lisbon, year-round. Fares start from €39.99 one-way including taxes and charges. For further info, visit www.aerlingus.com.
My best advice is to get the Lisboa Card. For €40, it gets you 72 hours of free access to 28 museums and monuments as well as travel on trains to Sintra and Cascais, as well as buses, tramcars and the underground.