Friday, 21 November 2014

The best of Portugal

Amy Fernandes tells you about the allure of this mighty little country and how to make the best of your stay at Lisbon, Porto and Sintra.

If there’s something like living languidly on the edge, then Portugal is the place where people live it. 
But give it time and slowly you’ll see the edge making itself felt, gently but surely, to ensure that this small, linear country stands out against the weight of the rest of mighty Europe. So what is it that sets Portugal apart from the others? Is it the old fashioned monasteries made new in luxury chic resorts? The stories it tells through its seas and oceans? Or its historic cities that are modern yet quaint? 
Palaces of Romance

Castles peeping out in Sintra
Sintra is a good place to start. Actually, the fabulous luxury resort Penha Longa Ritz Carlton is a great place to start. History begins on the plush grounds, where a 13th century monastery was built by the Hieronymite monks in 1355; today, it houses a beautiful chapel, and dining halls which, we hear, are super places to host weddings. Not to forget its vast golf links and rooms to lose yourselves in, if you have the time that is, because Sintra calls. This little town is an oasis of medieval grandeur. It stubbornly refuses to step into the modern world. No wonder then, that it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995. A host of palaces beckon. The Moorish Castle, the quizzical Penha Palace, which when you look at it, makes you wonder whether it’s Moorish, Arabic or Roman. It’s like walking into a fairy tale book and trying to figure out whether Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White lived here. Here’s where you’ll  hear of the romantic, King Ferdinand, who left a lasting legacy of fine taste and culture. A 20-minute drive from Sintra to Cascais reveals a panoramic view when you visit Cabo da Roca, described by Portugal’s pet poet Luis de Camões as, ‘the place where land ends and the sea begins’, which probably sounds more romantic in Portuguese. It’s the westernmost point of mainland Portugal and continental Europe, and offers an unending view of the ocean, which could induce motion sickness, suicidal thoughts or the realisation of how much of a dot you are in the universe.
Porto and the  golden river

The Douro River
Porto, the place where the world famous Port is made is a ‘must stop’. If you have just a day, go backpacking and lose yourself in the streets; don’t worry, people will help you find your way around. Or take a boat ride on the Douro river (meaning gold) where the city flanks you from both sides and you can glimpse its former glory.

Lovely Lisbon
But if it’s the rush of the city you’re looking for, Lisbon (or Lisboa as the Portuguese call it) is the place to be. We were lucky to be there right in the middle of the 2nd Fado Festival in Alfama, one of Lisbon’s oldest and most charming districts. A tip: wear flats and discover the up and down narrow and winding streets of the city. The evening of Fado (listed as World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO) seemed to have the whole of Portugal and fado-singing countries descending on its streets. Pubs, bars and restaurants were brimming over with music and loudspeakers blared in competition with fadistas outdoing each other with their music. A festival of mournful music? You’ve got to be kidding! This was fun and fado, like we’d never seen. We chomped on beefana (sausage-laden sandwiches), chorizo-stuffed bread, cheese toasts, which seemed to go down well with soulful music and of course the local beers, Super Bock and Sagres. 
Short days, long nights

Lisbon's amazing night life
Like in neighbouring Spain, the nights here are long and loud and the residents who live cheek by jowl on these happy streets don’t seem to care. They egg people on to enjoy themselves, while a few bring their armchairs out on the streets at 10.30 am living vicariously through the party animals. Bars overflow into streets, cabs (easy to find even at 2.00 am) are happy to speed you to your next night spot. And the choices are plenty: from the cafes in Chiado to the bars in Bairro Alto, wherever you decide to go, people are warm and welcoming; you will feel at home.      

Lisbon's famous Jeronimos Monastery's Gothic acrhitecture
The days are different and offer you two choices: the chic downtown Lisbon with its European Union offices, corporate HQs, KFC and broad avenues with high-street shopping or the quaint Mario Miranda Lisbon that lives in the old city where you will also find the Belém Tower and the Castle of São Jorge with a breathtaking view of Lisbon. Sit at a cafe and listen to Portuguese music or visit the magnificent JeronimoS Monastery with its fascinating Manueline and Gothic architecture. Shop at the cobbled streets of Bairro Alto where the imposing statute of Camões will greet you at the top of a steep avenue.  Don’t forget to try Ginjinha, a delicious cherry liqueur in an edible chocolate cup.

Inside the Jeronimos Monastery
–No place in Lisbon is too far from another. We stayed at the very efficient and luxe Four Seasons Hotel Ritz, which is a five-minute walk downtown, which in turn is another 10-minute walk to the hotspot Chiado or the Bairro Alto. The service is super, the location is central and it allows you to enjoy the city unhampered
by distance. 
–Portugal does not have its own international airline although TAP serves Europe and domestic destinations. However, pick Turkish Airlines as we did. The flight is smooth, the food delicious and if you’re travelling Club, you cannot afford to miss the lounge in Turkey. Stay a day or book yourself a later flight to bask in the two-storey luxury here.

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