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April - May 2008
Pleasures and Places: Portugal
Portugal is the most south-westerly country in the mainland Europe with its entire coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The country has eighteen regions, together with two autonomous regions – the islands of Madeira and Azores. My impression of Portugal was dominated by the past great navigators including Vasco da Gama who sailed to the shores of Africa, Brazil and India. I also associated Portugal whilst drinking Port and Mateus Rose wine. However, I found much more: of art, architecture in small and large towns, stunning scenery of its sun drenched coastline, hills and valleys covered by vineyards, groves of olive, oranges and cork. In this article I take you on a circular journey of Northern Portugal starting from Lisbon to Sintra in the west, then heading up north to Fatima, Coimbra and Porto then turning to the east through the Douro Valley and returning to Lisbon via Evora.
Lisbon is buzzing, vibrant and an impressive capital city with great surprises at every corner. The city is spread over seven hills, overlooks the expanse of the Tagus estuary and offers several awe-inspiring vistas. The architectural look of Lisbon is essentially a mosaic of many contrasting styles. The large district of Alfama, developed by the Moors, still retains the medieval street plan and much of the original citadel. Some of the lanes and alleys are so narrow that its buildings are only accessible on foot. A ride on the classic tram through the streets of Alfama gives the opportunity to experience the traditional ways of living.
The western suburb of Lisbon – Belem is the cultural attraction and imperial splendour of 15th and 16th centuries. The University buildings, Monument of Discoveries, Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery are the prime places. The later two are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Baixa area in the centre of Lisbon is an impressive, mid 18th century attempt of city planning with parallel streets on grid iron pattern. This down town was completely rebuilt by the ‘Marques de Pombal’ after an earthquake.
Lisbon at the same time boasts some ultra modern and sophisticated buildings on the outskirts, constructed in concrete, steel and glass. A very good example of such a development is Oriente (Parque Das Nacoes), former Expo 1998 development. The grand designs of Oriente Station, Vasco da Gama Shopping Centre, Pavilion, Conference Centre, and Oceanarium are noteworthy. There is a Cable Car route along the Tajus River providing spectacular views of the entire site.
Sintra is a hilly town and famous for its Palaces, large country houses, museums, parks, gardens and some vantage points. One of these is Ferraria from where a fabulous panoramic view of historic Sintra’s centre and the beautiful surrounding landscape are visible. The most interesting palaces are Sintra National Palace – formerly the Royal or Town Palace and the Pena National Palace – a specimen of Portuguese romantic architecture which was constructed on top of a hill.
Fatima: The settlement of Fatima was developed during the Arab occupation. It is now a centre of Catholic faith in Portugal and pilgrims from all over the world come here to pay their homage. 90% of the population of Portugal is Catholic. The importance of the religion can be judged by the fact that in the one region of Minto alone, there are some 4000 shrines of ‘Our Lady’. However, the most visited shrine is Fatima’s Basilica which is erected over the spot where the Virgin is said to have appeared. Coimbra is a beautiful town, home to the county’s oldest university which was founded in 1290. The city has many historic buildings including monasteries, churches and museums. Mondego sometimes called ‘river of the poets’, winds through its centre.
Porto: is a dynamic metropolis and second largest city, situated at the mouth of River Douro. It is this city which has given name to the country. Porto is fascinating place full of churches and museums, but the main attractions are along the riverside e.g. the port wine houses, which are open to visitors for tasting the port.
River Douro: The river flows some 200 k’m from the Spanish border to the sea with tiny helmets, villages and vineyards dotted all over the valley and the hillside.
Braga is the ecclesiastical capital with its famous church of Bom Jesus. The church was constructed in most extravagant Baroque style, in granite and white washed plaster. The church is set in the woods high above the city. Its unique feature is the glorious ornamental, external, dual stairway with half and full landings.
Palacio de Mateus: is the most typical and fantastic of the country houses in Portugal and is situated near the town of Vila Real. It is also one of the most familiar houses in the world, as it is reproduced on each bottle of Mateus Rose Wine. The shape of the bottle itself is so different and attractive. The gardens in the front and rear of the house are delightful and full of box hedges, conifer trees, various varieties of flowering shrubs and plants. A large lake in the forefront reflects the house, and contains variety of aquatic plants and a seductive, and enticing sculpture.
Evora: is also a university town which has influence of Roman and Moorish occupation. The Romans have left impressive ruins of a Temple in the city centre, whilst Moors are characterised by the network of narrow lanes and whitewashed houses. The hub and the historic area are within the medieval walls.
Lastly, I must mention ‘Fado’ – unique Portuguese music which is played at night in the bars. It is the lyrical and sentimental expression of solo a singer, and is generally accompanied by two instrumental players, one playing the guitar and the other the violin.