On Friday I returned from a ten day trip to central Portugal. It was my first time visiting the country, and the first time since 2011 going abroad together with my parents. We hired a car and after staying in Lisbon for a few days we moved to the little fortified town of Óbidos. From our quiet B&B we visited a different town every day. We visited monasteries and went to the beach, saw castles and peered over the edge of daunting rock cliffs. Wherever we went little white houses with red roofs lined the green hills. The walls of both simple houses and amazing cathedrals were covered with many varieties of azulejo tiles. A beautiful setting usually accompanied by the sun and a cool breeze coming in from the Atlantic.
When we first walked around the cobbled streets of Lisbon it didn’t really appeal to me. I felt like the city was crowded with tourists and the only locals we saw were people who tried to convince us that their restaurant had the best Portuguese food around but we could also just have a sandwich or pasta if we wanted to. They would even ask where we were from and then offer us a menu in Dutch. In some parts of the city it seemed like the entire place was designed around tourists, resembling a big theme park trying to get as much money out of you as possible. Yes, the sights were gorgeous, the food was great and the views were amazing, but the city as a whole was lacking in atmosphere.
Luckily, Lisbon started growing on me after a while. We found some quieter places and even around massive tourist attractions I enjoyed the laid back attitude of locals and visitors alike. There may have been a lot of people, but they were all happy and that was contagious. If I have to choose my favourite place in the city it must be the Jardim da Estrela, a park right across a basilica of the same name. The garden is a popular place for locals to have a coffee with friends or just sit down with a book and enjoy the shade of the many trees. When we stopped at a little cafeteria next to a pond I felt like this was the place I’d often go to if I lived in Lisbon. The tranquillity and quiet of the park offered a perfect break from the hustle and bustle down the hill.
Because my uncle and aunt were staying in Sintra (and because it’s a beautiful place) we went there for a day trip from Lisbon. The entire village is on the UNESCO World Heritage list and it deserves to be. There are several palaces and castles on top of hills and between tall trees, resulting in that the entire region feels like the setting of a fairytale. Especially worth a visit is the palace of Pena, near the highest point of the natural park surrounding it. From the terraces around the buildings we had an amazing panoramic view over the park and the many villages below all the way to the ocean, but the place where we were standing was even better. The brightly coloured and decorated palace with its many layers measured up to all my expectations of what a medieval palace and its surroundings should look like. While walking up the winding cobbled roads we could easily imagine how the ladies in their long dresses would stroll around there hundreds of years ago.
We spent the rest of our ten days in the area North of Lisbon. Many tourists visit the region for the surf or for the beach and although the water was cold there were still people swimming in the many lagoons around. A short drive brought us to steep cliffs where the waves try to cave their way into the land. Standing on top of those jagged rocks and seeing the rough sea below on really made it feel like I was standing on the edge of the world.
But of course there’s more to the area than just the sea. The countryside is dotted with cute little villages, of which most seem to have a monastery or at least a church (or three). These baroque and gothic buildings with their colourful stained glass windows are open for visit and are beautiful even for people like me who don’t know a lot about architecture. Alongside the religious buildings every village also has at least one pasteleria, where you can get Portugal’s most famous pastry ‘pastel de nata’ or some other sweet treat. Sitting down in the mid September sun with said treat and a drink definitely turned into a favourite pastime. I miss it already.