Moorish Castles and Wheelie Bags

Ostensibly, I was in Portugal for a wedding. A friend from San Francisco had invited me to be her ‘plus one’ at what turned out to be an exceptionally indulgent wedding in Sintra, a small, historic town just outside Lisbon. We dipped in to check out Sintra’s attractions on our way to the wedding venue from Lisbon and again on our way back. Being in transit, we found ourselves accompanied both times by our wheeled suitcases. On the way, we satisfied ourselves with surveying the quaint, sun-drenched stone buildings of the town and sampling the local specialty pastries, travesseiros (pillows) and queijada (cheese cakes). So our unwelcome guests weren’t too intrusive, although to be honest, the cakes didn’t really live up to expectations.

 On the way back though, we wanted to see some of the sites that perched above the town itself. Try as we might, we couldn’t manage to ditch these heavy hangers-on. Left-luggage office at the station: unavailable. Informal storage at café bar opposite the station: closed on Sundays. Tourist information office: unwilling. Ticket office at the 9th century Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle): no deal. The latter did hold out a slither of hope by directing us to the ticket checkpoint at the castle gate, a mere kilometre away over a rough dirt track. Luckily for my friend, whose tightly stuffed bag was almost as big as she was, and probably heavier, our select sightseeing group included, along with one of the bride’s sisters, Geert, a laid-back, helpful and strong South African, who offered to carry her bag. We were all mildly hysterical at the spectacle of us carrying these city bags through the quiet forest paths and it added a certain surreal twist to the afternoon.

 Luckily, the ticket checker was happy for us to leave our bags with him. And the castle was worth the effort: it was like something out of a children’s fairy tale book. Steep cliffs fell off below the thick stone walls, topped off with a serrated frill of rectangular slots scooped out along the edge and squat turrets rising above them. Rambling around the ruins, which on a clear day also have views out to the Atlantic, it was easy to imagine the castle’s inhabitants peering out at their enemies, and readying their bows and arrows and their boiling oil. We also took advantage of having temporarily abandoned the bags to visit the Palácio da Pena, built as the summer residence of King Dom Fernando II. The interior designer, one Baron von Eschwege,  must have overdosed on sugar from the local pastries when he styled this place, as the rooms are a riot of different styles and are crammed with furniture, ornaments and an incoherent mix of decorative pieces from all over the world.

 Back to the wedding, which after all was our reason for being there. It was held at the glorious Penha Longha Hotel (http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/PenhaLonga/Default.htm) and consisted of not one but two evenings of celebration. It seems this is common in the US, where the groom had lived and worked, but this was not an American wedding: it was the most international event I’ve ever attended. The bride’s family was from Ethiopia, the groom’s from Nigeria, and it seemed that the great and the good of the African continent was present, along with a smattering of guests from Europe, Australia, Asia and South America. Indeed, to quote one of the after-dinner speakers, there were guests from every continent, except Antarctica.

 The ceremony was held in the 16th century chapel in the hotel’s grounds and was a jolly affair, with a very joky Portuguese minister and a lively gospel choir. Afterwards we sipped champagne and nibbled on canapés – the juicy prawns were to die for! – in the courtyard of the 14th century palace which is also part of the hotel. Then we dined on a wedding feast of enormous proportions. Delicate pumpkin soup, freshly-seared scallops with truffle purée, a trilogy of desserts – the courses went on and on. The waiting staff were almost scary in the efficiency with which they swarmed in and out, laden with plates and bottles. In between courses we were entertained by a superbly energetic Ethiopian dance troupe. The couple were both glamorous, successful and wildly happy. It was a joyful event, a truly auspicious start for the newly-weds. And I needn’t have worried about feeling out of place as a ‘plus one’ guest who didn’t know anybody, as without exception everyone was open, friendly and interesting. I met some fantastic people.

 So, ostensibly then, I was in Portugal for a wedding. And it was well worth the trip. But I also had a hidden agenda of my own: to taste once more the unforgettably good pasteis de nata at the Café Pastéis de Belém. I’d first tasted these traditional Portuguese tarts more than a decade ago, when I lived in Vauxhall, the centre of London’s Portuguese community. Not a fan of the English custard tart – heavy, solid, eggy – it took me a while to bother to taste these Mediterranean versions, but once I did, I was an instant convert. Properly done, the pastry is light as an angel’s wing, crisp, flaky, layered. And the filling is smooth, creamy, sweet but with the sweetness delicately cut with vanilla. Delicious. And nowhere does them better than Café Pastéis de Belém. (http://www.pasteisdebelem.pt/en.html) I’d been there a few years ago, and now I wanted to go back.

 Located a tram ride from Lisbon, and set just back from the wide promenade along the edge of the River Tagus, Café Pastéis has been baking these remarkable confections since the mid-1830s, following a closely-guarded secret recipe from the magnificent Jerónimos Monastery next door. So on the Monday after the wedding we took ourselves out to Belem to sample these tongue-tingling goodies, and were not disappointed. In the cool, blue and white tiled interior of the café, behind the dark wooden shopfront where you can buy these marvels to take away (I was only restrained from buying several dozen by Easy Jet’s inflexible hand luggage policy), we ordered several tarts. And then ordered more, savouring the incomparable contrast of the snappy pastry shell with the dreamy filling along with cups of steamingly strong local coffee.

 After the pasteis, we visited Castelo de Sao Jorge, high up on one of Lisbon’s seven hills and wandered the battlements drinking in the sunshine and admiring the sweeping views of the city’s squares below. Well worth doing, and Lisbon is a laid back city with a terrific atmosphere. But its highlight for me will always be those tarts. I can’t wait to taste them again, so if anyone ever needs a companion for a wedding in Portugal, I’m your girl!

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