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Holidays from the Island

When the weather is clear, flying into Lisbon is terrific. Down below, there’s a magnificent view of the Vasca de Gama 17-kilometre bridge that links the north Lisbon suburb of Sacavém to the south bank of the Tagus near Montijo. And you can also see what, to all appearances, is the famous San Francisco Bridge but is actually the 25 De Abril Bridge, built by an American company. The approach to the airport depends on the prevailing winds. The day we flew, it seemed as if we were heading way out over the ocean, beyond the city. Then, with a swift left turn, we were around and over the high-rise buildings of Lisbon.

But when you get to walk around the city, it’s far from high-rise buildings that are visible. In fact, Lisbon is a curious mixture of old and new. There are new developments around the port area. Bu just a few hundred metres away, there are old-fashioned trams (again, very reminiscent of San Fran). These trams chug along on the narrow tracks all over the city. Narrow tracks on narrow streets. On some of the streets, there’s barely space for the track and pedestrians have to practically pin themselves against the wall to avoid being under the wheels. If you put your hand out through the open window, you could touch the hall doors of the houses. And as well as being narrow, parts of the old town are very hilly. For the female driver of my tram, it seemed to be a tough task to steer this vehicle. Driving these old trams is unlike a bus or a new tram. You steer them with a series of levers and going around sharp corners looks very tricky.

Of course, Lisbon is not just trams, though it is a city full of history. Up at the Castelo de Sao Jorge, which dates back to the 5th century, we look out over the red-tiled rooftops of the Baixa quarter below. Baixa is the heart of the city’s downtown area. This is where it all happens. With restaurants, bars, clubs, discos, the place never stops. We had a cocktail on the roof terrace of one of the hotels, with a view of the city spread beneath us.

If you’re a shopper, there are plenty of shops on pedestrian streets. As well as all the usual outlets we’ve come to expect everywhere, you’ll find small boutiques and some great show shops. There are outdoor cafes and restaurants where you can sit and rest your weary feet.

When you’re tired of shopping, you can head out along the Estoril coast.

This area is about 40 minutes by train or car from the city. And as you drive along the coast road, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular, with locals and tourists. On the left side, the sea sparkles and small waves lap the white sandy beach. We stayed in Cascais, just one of the resorts along this coast. From here, it’s easy to get around to see this western area of Portugal. Originally a farming area, there is very little farming done now, as it’s not profitable.

 

The old farmhouses (quintas) are now either summer homes for the rich from Lisbon or have been turned into small B&Bs.

On the road to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we turned down to the coast, with its dramatic cliffs and churning sea. The Cabo de Roca is windswept and, apart from the tourist office and café, desolate. This is the most westerly point of Continental Europe (though we had a debate as to whether it’s the most westerly point of all Europe. A quick look at a map proved that this particular honour falls to Kerry, as we knew it did). Looking out from the cape, there’s nothing but a dark sea between America and us. There’s a monument stating all this and you have to walk out as far as this to get your certificate that proves you’ve been there.

 

Byron’s ‘Glorious Eden’

Back on the main road, we drove towards the mountain village of Sintra. Unexpectedly, the land is green with a rich variety of growth and vegetation everywhere, including exotic species from other countries. Apparently, the area has it’s own micro-climate and it rains frequently. On one side, a narrow gauge railway track keeps us company. In summer, this takes the Sintra residents down to the coast, a journey of about an hour.

The rich and not so rich came to Sintra in summer to get away from the stifling city heat and give the children some clean mountain air.

The Sintra National Palace, also called the Royal Palace, is right in the centre of the village. This has two curious chimneys that appear odd against the castle background. The cobbled hilly streets are a maze of shops and cafes.

 Architecture is 19th century, with a mixture of styles, ranging from the fashionable Romantic period to the Oriental and the decorative from North Africa

Lawrence’s Hotel, beloved of Lord Byron, who spoke of Sintra as ‘Glorious Eden’, remains a popular haunt, particularly for fans of the poet.

The jewel in Sintra’s crown is the Palaccio de Pera, high on the mountaintop. This 19th century castle was built on top of a 16th century convent, with parts of the original building incorporated. In other parts of the building, it’s evident that the palace has been built on sheer rock. When you finally finish driving the hairpin bends that take you some of the way up the mountain, the castle appears from nowhere. And at first glance, it seems as if we’ve been dropped into Disneyland.

There are towers and turrets of bright, vivid colours. The views are magnificent, as you would expect. Inside, we’re not allowed take photos of the original cloisters. But there’s no problem with the Royal rooms – all are extravagantly furnished and decorated. The room that really took my fancy was the huge kitchen. There were tables of burnished copper utensils.

 

Although Sintra is full of tourists, it’s one of those places that you’ll regret not seeing. The town and area is delightful; the Sintra Mountain Range, one of the largest parks in the Lisbon area, is also a major tourist attraction.

Jeanne Quigley travelled to Lisbon and the Lisbon Coast courtesy of Sunway Holidays (Ireland). Sunway offers a selection of one and two centre holidays to Lisbon City, Cascais, Estoril and Sintra from Ireland. Seven nights on the Lisbon Coast starts from €528 per person including flights, transfers, accommodation and all taxes and charges. Book online at www.sunway.ie.

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