Let’s move as far as possible – at least in terms of mainland Europe – to the west of the continent. Lisbon, Europe’s most westerly capital city has a rich and varied history; once an outpost of the Roman Empire, then invaded by tribes such as the Alan and Visigoths, conquered by the Moors in the eighth century, subsumed into Spain four centuries later. Portugal gained independence in 1640 and finally became a republic in 1910.
So where to start? Well, anywhere you like, really, but if you want a feel of the history of Lisbon (and indeed, Portugal), try the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The former is something of a shrine to Portuguese national identity and houses the tomb of the legendary navigator Vasco de Gama among many other notable figures.
While the monastery is large and imposing, it looks tiny by comparison with the national art gallery. The latter has a vast and wide-ranging collection of treasures, so if you want to take a comprehensive look at what the museum has to offer, it is wise to set aside several hours. If you are looking for a quicker visit, make sure not to miss the big prize, the extraordinary three-panelled Temptations of St Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos provides a glimpse of the Manueline architectural style, something even more evident when you see the defensive tower at Belém (Torre de Belém). The style somehow encompasses Moorish, Renaissance and Gothic elements while still managing to look stylish. Originally, the tower stood on an island in the River Tejo, but is now on the land that has been reclaimed from the river. Belém, incidentally, means ‘Bethlehem’ as a chapel, subsequently taken over by the monastery, was dedicated to St Mary of Bethlehem.
As with any city, the best way to explore is on foot. Beware, though, that Lisbon is built on hills and some of them are pretty steep. Help is at hand, however; Lisbon is renowned for its trams and there are many little trams and funiculars to take the strain of aching legs. The city also has a metro system that covers most of the central area, though the west of the city is not so well served.
An easy way to enjoy an aerial view of the city is to use the Elevador de Santa Justa, a Neo-Gothic lift that was designed by one Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard (don’t let anyone kid you that it was by Gustav Eiffel; de Ponsard was, however, one of the Frenchman’s pupils). The harder way is to tramp up to the battlements of the Castelo de Sáo Jorge, which retains the appearance of a Moorish fort although archaeological finds reveal settlements many centuries earlier. There is plenty of history to see and learn here, too, as well as a very good restaurant that provides stunning views if you can find a seat outside.
If you are staying for more than a few days, there are plenty of places for a quick trip. Trains run along the coast to the towns of Estoril and Cascais, departing from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre, which is by the riverside. While the former has something of the tourist beach resort about it, the latter has greater charms and it is easy enough to visit both by the simple expedient of walking along the esplanade. One small point to note; if it’s a windy day and the tide is coming in, be careful you don’t get a quick drenching.
Another trip worth taking is to the Unesco World Heritage site of Sintra. This is also a straightforward trip on a train, this time from Rossio station (readers in Britain may not be altogether stunned to learn that train travel is considerably cheaper in Portugal than in the UK). Sintra has myriad palaces and was the summer retreat for the country’s monarchy. As is typical of this part of the world, expect to see an eclectic mix of architecture, with Moorish styles mingling with Baroque and Neo-classical.
Portugal is, of course, noted for its wine and there is plenty to chose from. It’s easy enough to get decent quality wine without paying a fortune, though here comes another word of caution. Port is a drink for drinking at home, usually on special occasions. While good restaurants may stock port, bars generally do not. If they do, it is likely to be pretty dismal stuff.
All of which brings us to beer. Not much to see here, is the general feeling. There are two main Portuguese beers, Super Bock and Sagres, neither of which is up to much. Rather more palatable, if you can find it, is the Super Bock stout. It is not exactly bursting with flavour, but it is a pleasant enough stout with some nice roasted hints and infinitely preferable to the cold and fizzy lagers.
If you are travelling into Lisbon from the airport, you may well spot the football stadiums of Sporting and Benfica. Both are relatively new, built for the 2004 European Championships. The two grounds are within around a mile of each other and it’s simple enough to work out which is which, Sporting’s colours being green and white, while Benfica are red. Aesthetically, Benfica’s Estádio de Luz wins out. At least there are some soothing curves to soften its appearance while Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade looks like the biscuit tin of an especially large giant.
Situated as it is, Lisbon and its coast enjoys mild weather throughout the year, although it can get rather wet in the winter months. Summers are, naturally, rather hot, so spring and autumn months can be a good time to visit, with less tourist trade and a pleasant climate. Even better, there should be no lack of things to do for all types from culture addicts to the laziest of lazybones.
A footnote: while it would be stretching a point to suggest that Catherine of Braganza, the queen consort of Charles II, introduced tea-drinking to Britain, she certainly helped to speed its popularity. When she arrived into Portsmouth in 1662, she asked for a cup of tea, a drink that had long been available in Portugal through the country’s trade with the East. Unsurprisingly, nobody was able to fulfil the queen’s request and she was given a cup of ale, a rather more traditional British drink. Equally unsurprisingly, she was not entirely enthused by it and courtiers soon ensured that Catherine was provided with a regular supply of tea shipped from her native land. The taste for tea spread throughout the royal court and the craze spread from there. So on behalf of the tea drinkers of this land, a belated thank you to Catherine of Braganza.