A voyage of discovery in lovely Lisbon

The Portuguese capital Lisbon has an abundance of beautiful buildings that hark back to its golden past. Eoghan Cormican stretches his feet to check out the Tower of Belém, Vasco de Gama’s tomb and many other attractions, such as the old town. 

FIRST of all I have a confession to make. Prior to landing on Lisbon’s doorstep I had never been on a foreign holiday. I know, I know.

There was the first year soccer trip to Manchester, the transition year tour of Milan, the history excursion to Berlin, the debating weekend in Strasbourg, the DCU Journalism Society outing in London, each one littered with agendas, itineraries and curfews. Lisbon was different, however. One man, one city.

Arriving into the heart of Lisbon, one cannot but pause in awe at the distinctive beauty the city serves up. Even in mid-October, the sun strikes through a crystal clear sky to shed an orange gleam on a capital largely constructed of sandstone, accentuated by the terracotta roof-tops stretching into the distance. It is at once enchanting.

Praca da Figueira – the epicentre of the city – seems as logic a destination as any to commence my journey. Sitting on the steps of the statue of King John I, shadowed by the Praca do Comércio with its grand triumphal arch, the map is unfolded, the attractions circled, the route formulated.

There are plenty of transport options to make the short commute from the city centre to Belém – bus, taxi or rail – but with the seafront at your finger tips, complemented by the view across the River Tagus, and the temperature invariably hitting the high-twenties, making the journey by foot is recommended. Moreover, it allows you to experience up and close and personal the 25th of April Bridge, named in commemoration of the carnation revolution.

Belém is an area forever linked with ‘the Discoveries’, the golden age of Portuguese maritime exploration. It was from here that many of the country’s navigators set forth on their expeditions and it is thus fitting to find the tomb of celebrated explorer Vasco de Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery. The Monastery itself stands as Belém’s outstanding example of the late-Gothic Manueline style of architecture.

Across the road is the Tower of Belém; the Unesco World Heritage site played a prominent role in the defence of the city in centuries past. The Moorish turrets, the Venice-inspired open balconies and the two globes flanking the shield of Manuel I by the entrance are all to be appreciated, while the view from the terrace of the Christ the King Statue is spectacular.

The Padrão dos Descobrimentos offers a similar landscape, but be sure to cast an eye downwards to the 50-metre-diameter compass rose executed using various types of marble, encircling the Mappa Mundi which outlines the routes of the Portuguese carracks through the Age of Discovery.

A must for all tourists in a momentary removal from the all encompassing culture of the district is to indulge in some of the famous custard tarts of the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.

Once Belém has been digested, the old town calls. From the Praca da Figueira, one can take the tram up the seemingly never ending hill, but again ambling by foot is advised. En-route to the summit, allow yourself to be distracted by the winding streets of the Alfama neighbourhood, the hugely friendly locals and the quaint architecture – houses emerge from every nook and cranny possible. Not so friendly though are the tram drivers of the single-carriage attractions which rattle relentlessly on the old lines.

At the summit lies the São Jorge Castle and the battlements afford breathtaking views of the city, draped over the seven hills on which Lisbon stands. Walking along the narrow walls it is easy to envisage the settlers who ruled the castle through the ages, peering down at their kingdom below.

Just a short distance away is the almost hidden Sé Cathedral. The two dwellings are among the finest historical attractions to survive the Great Earthquake of 1755.

With so many hotels situated in and around Liberty Avenue, the Eduardo VII Park, greeting the north end of the Avenue, will inevitably cross the radar of those visiting the city. The park, in sum, serves to capture the mellowness and laid-back nature that defines Lisbon. At the northern end of the park are the Estufas (hothouses), squeezed with tropical plants, pools, and an assortment of palms and cacti. Highly recommended is approaching the hill from the bottom of the gradient. Struggling towards the top affords probably the most impressive view the city has to offer.

The Gulbenkian museum is tucked away behind the park and is well worth a visit if Renaissance art interests you.

Naturally enough, after a full day of exploration food is the next port of call. The Garca district is dotted with eatery options and it is the Cervejaria Trindade into which I stray. The building dates back to 1294 where it housed the Trinos Friars, destroyed by the 18th century earthquake and subsequently reconstructed in 1834 as a brewery.

With regard to the menu, I decided to sample an array of seafood starters. Squid, I encourage, though the octopus proved a step too far. For mains it was the traditional Portuguese steak and I would urge all visitors to Lisbon to try said meal before departing. Delicioso.

If keen to escape Lisbon for the day, Setubal, located three-quarters of an hour south east of the city, provides the perfect getaway. While there, the history, scenery and grilled sea bass associated with the Pousada Palmela Castle overlooking the town and the Obidos lagoon are not to be bypassed. Much like the Cervejaria Trindade, prices are relatively modest with none of the main courses above €20.

A good friend, well aware of my reluctance to broaden my horizon beyond these waters, had always told me that the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. Lisbon certainly proved a pleasant second page.

Onto the next chapter.

Getting there

Flights

Ryanair doesn’t operate to Lisbon so your sole option is Aer Lingus. Return flights from Dublin can be snapped up for as little as €150.

When to go

Summer season in Lisbon runs from May to October, temperatures during this period holding in the high-twenties. November is relatively warm, but temperatures thereafter. If sun is an essential, hold off until February at the earliest.

24 hours in Lisbon - the viewing essentials

The riverside district of Belém featuring the Tower of Belém and Jerónimos Monastery; the São Jorge Castle in the city centre; Eduardo VII Park and the Nations Park.

Where to stay

The Sheraton Hotel sits at the pricier end of the city’s hotel spectrum but the view from the Panorama restaurant and cocktail bar located on the top floor justifies the price tag.


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