Travel 2007 – Lisbon, Days 3 and 4

Sunday, 21st/Monday, 22nd October 2007 – Lisbon, Days 3 and 4

Sunday morning was just as sunny and we duly set off for the suburb of Santa Maria de Belém (known as Belém), to take a look at a variety of things. The day’s entertainment started quite early when about 300 people all tried to cram onto the number 15 tram. Now I don’t do well in crowds, and I’m not the only one, but as we managed to get seats by virtue of being faster and meaner than most tourists it wasn’t too bad. At least I was sitting next to a window so I could look out rather than at the crowds hemming us in on all sides. However, we got as far as the depot and the tram museum and then the driver got out and told us all to get off. He couldn’t explain why, so none of us knew what was going on. We would eventually find out, but not right now. That left a whole crowd of confused tourists wondering why we weren’t being taken to our desired destination. And most of them promptly decamped to the bus stop. As we didn’t have a bus map (the Tourist Office had run out), we decided to grab a cab (or two) and complete the journey to the fabulous Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. That plan didn’t quite work either as the cab driver suddenly found himself face to face with a police-induced jam in the Praça Afonso de Albuquerque in front of the Palacio de Belem, which these days is the Presidential Palace. This turned out to be the monthly ceremony of changing the guard (held on the third Sunday of every month apparently). There were men in uniform blowing trumpets, and others with dogs (one of which was taking serious exception to the music and barking wildly), and then a troupe of horsemen came down the steps at the side and paraded along the road. As Lynne said, it was very nice of them to welcome us, but they shouldn’t have bothered, really.

Anyway, that excitement over with, the five of us finally made it to the monastery, which is overwhelming in its decoration. I can’t now recall why Lynne and I coined the term “lunatic Gothic” to describe some of the more elaborate architecture of the period. I have to say this takes it to a whole other level, and can probably be best described as “certifiable Gothic”. The building – inside and out – resembles nothing so much as a massive white wedding cake, over-decorated to the point of meltdown by a confectioner who simply didn’t know when to stop. They say less is more. Not here it isn’t. Here, more is more. I can’t recall seeing anything like it anywhere, and I simply wandered about gob-smacked, not knowing which way to look first. It’s like walking into a forest of fantastical trees, and, as intended no doubt, the eye is drawn irresistibly upwards by the pillars in the nave. The first thing you come up against is the tomb of Vasco da Gama, and it gets better and better from there. It also helped that a choir was singing, the voices soaring into the glorious roof space. It was brilliant and I couldn’t help but take dozens of photos of the details. Mass was about to start so we had to shuffle back out, and thus wandered into the Museum of Archaeology next door, which is free on Sundays before 14.00. I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of the Treasures of Portuguese Archaeology, which had some fabulous gold jewellery, including a marvellous torc that I wanted to take away with me. I didn’t, but it was close! Once we’d explored the museum, we made our way to the monastery cloisters, which are lovely, in an overwrought sort of way. Some of the gargoyles are amazing, and I was taken with the one in the shape of a cricket.

By now in need of sustenance, we staggered the few yards to the rabbit warren of a building that houses the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where we skilfully found a table in nothing flat and proceeded to order and down ten (two each) of the delicious little pastéis de Belém (custard tarts) that they have been making there since 1837, a cup of strong coffee each and some water. Apparently on a daily basis they make around 10,000 tarts, and at weekends that doubles. So, 90,000 custard tarts a week. That’s a lot of custard. And very good they were too.

Suitably fortified, we headed off through the park, over the railway line and along the road to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which was put up as a temporary monument over fifty years ago but is still there. The statues on the outside are of the various Portuguese navigators and others involved in the Age of Discoveries. They had seagulls on their heads, of course. They also look out along the River Tagus in an excited way, and are massive. There’s something very Soviet bloc about them, which is not that surprising given that they were built under the Salazar regime. The monument itself contains a couple of exhibition spaces, and has a lift to the gallery at the top, which affords some superb views both of the monastery and it’s surroundings, but also of the river and the statue of Christ on the other bank, making you think you might be in a scaled down version of Rio de Janeiro, which of course is not that far from the truth in some ways. Four of us went up to the top in the lift (Lynne refused, predictably enough), and then after “oohing” and “aahing” at the views, made ourselves dizzy by walking back down the stairs because we couldn’t be bothered to wait for the lift to empty. There we go with the up and down again.

From there we wandered finally to the Torre de Belém, which is as fanciful as the monastery, despite its utilitarian purpose. It was originally used for defence, being matched by a second tower on the other side of the Tagus. The idea was that anyone attacking by river would be caught in the crossfire between the two towers, which seems like a pretty effective idea to me. The tower itself is in pretty good condition now after a great deal of renovation, and is one the prettiest fortresses I’ve ever encountered. The steps leading to each floor are a bit of a bugger though, and I’m damn glad I’ve lost weight because if I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d have been able to get up there, and I certainly don’t think anyone would have been able to get past me going the other way. It wasn’t easy as it was. Finally, exhausted, we retreated to sit on a bench in the park and watched as a number of small boys were prevented from investigating too closely the lethal looking jellyfish that were floating in the shallow water like an ethereal flotilla. Very pretty – very dangerous.

Worn out now, we got the tram and metro back to the hotel, changed and got ready to head out to Estoril to have dinner with our friends Andreas and Esther (of Jenzer Motorsport) and Elaine, Bill and Lorna, all of them in town for the World Series by Renault race meeting at Estoril circuit. It proved to be rather more difficult than we expected, because the Metro was having some sort of technical breakdown and we were already running late for the train for Cais do Sodre to Estoril. We gave up and headed back to the hotel, where they managed to organise us a taxi to take us all the way there. As a result, instead of arriving late, we got there early. After a drink in the American Bar of the Estoril Casino, we had a splendid dinner in the Mandarim Chinese restaurant, with a fine selection of dishes, and plenty of wine. The evening wasn’t done with us either – as we were getting towards the coffee stage, the maitre d’ came over and told us that “The gentleman in the black shirt on the next table wants to pay for your drinks.” We said a very polite thank you, discovering that the “gentleman” was Jonathan Lewis, owner of the Comtec race team, and long-time friend of Bill and Elaine. Then Andreas picked up the after dinner drinks bill, so all in all it was quite a cheap night out! We then gave up on getting a single cab back to Lisbon and headed for the railway station, getting the last but one train back (the 01.04 I think it was), which cost us the princely sum of €1.60 each, and felt incredibly safe. A slight misunderstanding with the maniac cab driver at the other end nearly saw Lynne and I dropped off at the wrong hotel, with the driver blaming us for not speaking Portuguese, even though we’d shown him the print out with the hotel’s address on before we set off. Still, we got back, shared a bottle of Champagne and finally fell into bed at around 02.30. It had been a good – if tiring – day.

On Monday, we got up late, packed and Lynne, Janice and I went out to buy some port. Well, it would have been churlish not to, when there’s so much of it about. A bottle of vintage port, a late bottle tawny and a bottle of white later, we needed a final coffee and a custard tart, so we retired to the café Martinho da Arcada, one of Lisbon’s oldest cafes. We also stopped and took photos of the Elevador de Santa Justa, and then we headed for the hotel, the airport and home.

So now all that remains to do is decide where we’re going next year.

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