Navigating our way around Portugal

I said previously, when talking of the Algarve, that Portugal isn’t our favourite country. This time my thoughts are on non-resort places, including Lisbon.

Starting with Coimbra once Portugal’s capital and home to one of the world’s first universities, its biggest attraction.

Our hotel had spectacular views of the old town. Coimbra stands on a steep hill and in the narrow streets are plenty of cafes, shops, and numerous historical sites. There is an old and a new convent, not satisfied with that, the city brags two cathedrals, the old “Sé Velha” and the new “Sé Nova”. However, the name is a bit misleading, since the new has been around since 1598. Close by, are the ancient houses called “Republicas” where university students live, just as they did centuries ago.

After climbing the hill, we needed a coffee in what was once a chapel. It is a great place to absorb the atmosphere, with its vaulted ceiling, stained-glass windows, and wood panelling. Behind the café, a delightful garden and lake, ‘Santa Cruz Park’ (easy to remember). I imagine, the peace and quiet in the midst of the city, makes it great for a picnic. We had lunch at a popular hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a back alley. It had only a few tables, but the walls were plastered with numerous messages from visitors from around the world.

Coimbra although a provincial town is big on history. We spent two days there but coach parties can take in the highlights in just a couple of hours.

We continued our journey to Fatima by way of the Gothic masterpiece Batalha, built in the 15th/16th centuries. The outside is covered in gables, pinnacles, buttresses, and small columns. The interior justifies a visit in its own right. It is vast and the stained-glass windows exceptionally beautiful. In the Founder’s Chapel are several tombs including that of Prince Henry the Navigator.

Naturally, this ex-convent girl knew about Fatima, a shrine for those who believe the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. It attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world. On one side of the plaza the basilica, with the tombs of the three children, two died in 1919 and 1920, and Lucia dos Santos, died in 2005.

Across the plaza an ultra-modern chapel and a number of shops selling religious articles. We bought a Jesus, when next seen, he’d been converted into a pilot complete with goggles, and flying helmet, well he was the right size for the model plane.

Having visited Lisbon before, the grim exterior of our hotel, although clean and modern inside, surprise us. The area is supposedly good, but what it lacked in simple charm was made up for by ´scruffy´ apartments; however, we slept well and forgot the tat beyond the door.

Lurching and rumbling across the hills on which Lisbon stands, our city tour took us to St George’s castle, for a bird’s-eye view over Alfama, the city’s medieval neighbourhood. Then by sharp contrast, to Parque das Nacoes, with its contemporary architecture, and Europe’s longest bridge.

No visit to Lisbon is complete unless it includes the impressive monument to Henry the Navigator, and the Belém Tower. Like many places visited by coach parties, we didn’t have to walk far, and being a Sunday it was quiet when we were dropped at the waterfront and Portugal’s “Age of Discoveries”.

Our first stop was the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Built in the 1500s it is huge, and while built in honour of Henry the Navigator, it is also the resting place of Lisbon’s second favourite explorer Vasco da Gama. Its cloisters are considered among the most beautiful in the world no surprise it is a World Heritage Site.

Across the road is the Monument to the Discoveries, that depicts Henry gazing dreamily across the Atlantic, at its base a mosaic compass showing routes sailed by Portuguese explorers. Mythical beasts, ships, and mermaids add colour and a little fantasy.

Next the iconic Torre de Belém. This squat tower has had a mixed past, having been a prison, a customs house and a lighthouse.

The final stop in Belém and a different kind of journey. Statue of the Santa Cruz Seaplane used by Coutinho and Cabral in their attempt to be the first to fly across the South Atlantic.

For us a day was enough to experience Belém. We had been inside the Monastery viewed the Torre, taken the obligatory photos of Henry’s monument and were totally cultured out. Despite the old terracotta tiled buildings that line Lisbon’s maze of streets, we found the city timeworn and lacking charm. We like ‘old’ and Lisbon is one of Europe’s oldest cities, nevertheless, for us something is lacking and three days was just one too many.

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