16 October 2010

From the high views to the low wall

In about 1995 my friend and were in Lisbon on a well deserved break and decided it would be good to visit the Palacio de Pena, which had been used on a tourist poster for Portugal and looked rather bizarre.  Stupidly we went the day after a rather excessive night and early morning out in the restaurants and bars of Lisbon.  We took the train from Rossio Station, which at that time had not been fully restored to its current beauty.

The journey takes about 40 minutes through the suburbs of Lisbon and up to Sintra.  When you get out at the station and start to walk up to the old, historic centre, one of the first things you marvel at is the Town Hall which would not have looked out of place in an episode of The Prisoner.

Then you start the walk up to the centre along a statue-lined road with a park on the left and on the right a view down into the valley bottom and a glimpse of the imposing Royal Palace in the main square.


At this time the transport and promotion of the beauties of Sintra had not yet begun, so you hired a taxi to take you up the mountain and return after an hour.  We had a reasonably scary taxi ride up and were deposited at a set of iron gates where we got a ticket to visit the palace.  I remember being very sad that the gardens to the side were neglected and overgrown and had been full of roses.  We set off to walk up to the Castle, wondering if it was a good idea with the vague lingering hangover and the heat.  Well by the time we got to the entrance, it had definitely been a mistake!  The castle was looking pretty good as it had been recently repainted but the inside was dark, damp and very gloomy and left an impression of sadness. 

Visiting it again this week was a pleasure.   Our friends had been bored witless by our countless "there's the castle up there" as it is possible to see it from every part of the area sitting on the top of the mountain range as if it is watching the world.

The closer you get the more amazing the structure becomes with towers and turrets and different colours.  Now, instead of the walk up to it (although if you are fit and not hungover and enjoy walking, please do it), you catch a shuttle coach which grinds its way up the mountain to the entrance.

The changes have been immense within the palace although it is crying out for a new paint job as the climate of Sintra is pretty harsh in the winter.  The rooms have been protected with plastic screens to stop people touching, there are 'guards' in each area and some of the floors are now carpeted.  The atmosphere is much better too as although the lighting is low to protect things, there are now proper descriptions of each room - previously it was a bit of guesswork to work out what each room was.  The palace has been created on the remains of a monastery and some of the rooms are actually the old cells of the monks so they are very small and very unusual.  The furniture is very interesting as it is quite simple in some rooms - very unlike our palace counterparts in England.

To see more about the interior and its history please have a look at their website: http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/

After leaving the palace and taking in the breath taking views out to the Atlantic and realising another visit is necessary to take in the restored gardens, we went off for a late lunch in a great restaurant near the village of Manique.

I love taking visitors to the true portuguese restaurants or tascas and introducing them to the fabulous home cooking.  If you visit another country, don't stay safe and eat at fast food chains but search out the small, individually owned places that, even if the clientele does not look very sophisticated, are usually the best value for money and the best flavours.

Our friends have been very impressed with all the meals they have had, and been in raptures over the red wine.  Portuguese wines are not widely known out of the country - they like to keep them for themselves!  They giggle about the British loving (years back) Mateus Rose, a bit like the French being rude about the British and their love of Beaujolis Nouveau.  The other 'hit' was cheese.  The range of cheese is huge and you often get a choice on the table.  Goat and sheep are very popular and come in a variety of sizes, strengths and texture.   Some of the most expensive are round and plump and after you carefully slice off the top to make it a lid, you scoop out the inside and spread it on bread or toasts - divine.

So after a super day and supper of fresh bread, tomatoes and cheese, we set off for home.  I managed to lose my footing on the slippy cobbles and unable to right myself as it was on a steep hill, careered inelegantly across the lane and head butted the dry stone wall opposite.  After a very traumatic few minutes trying to regain my senses, I was assisted home and covered in Savlon and retired to bed only to wake up yesterday with one eye shut and looking like I had done about 6 rounds with Mike Tyson, a twice-the-size right forearm and elbow and scrapes on hands, nose and very dodgy looking eyebrow.  Needless to say our friends could not contain their laughter when they came for a farewell lunch yesterday and took photos.  I am now confined to barracks until such time I can appear in public without laughter! 

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