#19 Portugal: Moorish castles and custard tarts

“I am traveling less in order to be able to write more. I select my travel destinations according to their degree of usefulness to my work.”

Jose Saramago, Nobel prize-winning author

Portugal has some amazing places to visit. Long popular with Brits for its beautiful beaches, this narrow slither of a country to the west of Spain has way more to offer than the Algarve and the Atlantic coast, stunning though it is.

The home of port, the city of Porto for instance is charming. Laid out above the banks of the River Douro, Ribeiro, the medieval town district, is full of cobbled streets, former merchant’s houses and of course, countless cellars where wooden barrels of fruity, comforting port are stored and offered for sampling. The city’s hilly streets are lively with bars, cafes and restaurants. Just writing about the place is making me long to go back! Coimbra, another well-preserved and attractive medieval city, in central Portugal, is most famous for its historic university. This venerable academic institution moved to the city in 1537 and is now one of the world’s oldest universities in continuous operation.

I’ve been to Portugal’s wonderful capital city Lisbon, which somehow manages to be simultaneously grand, accessible, historic, modern and fun, several times. So when a friend from San Francisco 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, I didn’t hesitate to accept. We dipped in to check out Sintra’s attractions on our way to the wedding venue from Lisbon and again on our way back. 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).

On the return leg, we wanted to see some of the sites that perched above the town itself. The Castelo dos Mouros was constructed by the Moors in the 9th century as a fortified observatory and was well worth the effort of the upward climb through wooded hills to reach it. The castle is like something out of a children’s fairy tale book, with steep cliffs falling off below thick stone walls, topped off with a serrated frill of rectangular slots scooped out along the edge, with squat turrets rising impassively above them. Rambling around the ruins, which on a clear day have views out to the Atlantic, it was easy to imagine the castle’s inhabitants peering out at their enemies, readying their bows and arrows and their boiling oil. Nearby, the Palácio da Pena, built as the summer residence of King Dom Fernando II in the nineteenth century, and a vivid concoction of varied architectural styles, is also worth a visit. 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.

But it’s Lisbon that has truly captured my heart. I love the open sweep of the central square, Praca de Comercio, the winding streets up to the Moorish Castle São Jorge, with its glorious views out across the city’s squares to the sparkling blue Atlantic. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was built in the fifteenth century to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s ‘discovery’ of India and its colonnaded courtyard is wonderfully evocative. Standing guard over the city at the mouth of the River Tagus, the breezy Torre de Belem is a solid stone and wood construction with great views and a refreshing salty tang. It’s fun to rattle around the city on the old wooden yellow trams and to wander up and down the steeply banked streets in the sunshine. At night the place is alluringly atmospheric, the streets crammed with funky bars and the strains of traditional Portuguese guitar music, or fado, drifting through the air along with the tempting smell of frying fish and the savoury aroma of herbs.

As a self-confessed foodie, one of the most mouth-watering attractions of Lisbon for me is the unforgettably good pasteis de nata at the Café Pastéis de Belém. I first tasted these traditional Portuguese tarts many years 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. Located a tram ride from the centre of 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. 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), you can savour the incomparable contrast of the snappy pastry shell with the dreamy filling along with cups of steamingly strong local coffee.

Laid-back, interesting, sunny and lively, Lisbon is a great long weekend destination and also a gateway to other parts of this delightful country. The custard tarts are not the only reason to visit – but they will definitely be on my agenda next time I go there!

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HIGHLIGHTS

Natural highlights – has to be those sweeps of golden beaches! The most popular destinations for holiday-makers are on the Algarve but there are also beautiful and quieter beaches further north

Cultural highlights – the architecture in many of the cities and towns is captivating. In Lisbon, the Gulbenkian museum displays art from a vast time period, from 2000BC to the 20th century, and is regarded as one of Europe’s leading fine arts museums.

Food & drink highlights – those custard tarts! And of course, port – I love both the traditional ruby red port, the rich tawny port and the lighter, crisp white port, usually served chilled.

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