Lisbon – London
I arrived in Lisbon at 7am, following a notably restless night train from Madrid. I’m not sure where they took us on that train, but the drive lasts half as long, we were stationary for several hours, and the intense ear pain that woke me up in the early hours told me we underwent a rapid increase in pressure. Not your typical train journey, but it got me here in one piece, and I saved paying for an extra nights’ accommodation.
Unfortunately, check-in wasn’t until 2pm, so I had a whole seven hours to kill before I could sort myself out. I’d like to say I did something interesting with this time, but I’m afraid that isn’t the case. I spent an hour sat by the waterfront reading, before I got so cold I had to seek refuge in a local Starbucks – apparently the only place that opens before 10am on a Sunday here. By the time I had checked in, showered, and gained my bearings, it was early evening.
Not being one to waste time, I headed straight up to the Castelo de São Jorge – an ancient Moorish castle overlooking the city. It is quite a trek to get to, atop one of the largest hills in the area (Lisbon is a very hilly city, but thankfully the last three years spent in Bristol had prepared me for this challenge), and by the time I passed through the gates dusk had set in. As it would turn out, my timing couldn’t have been better: the views are spectacular from up here, right across the tiled roofs of the city to the bay behind, and on to the far side of the river. The castle itself is beautiful, too, with towering stone turrets, a romantic little garden of ruins, and an archaeological site where you can see remnants of the castle from three time periods over the last millennium.
On my second day here in Portugal, as a treat to myself for making it to the end of my trip without any major disasters, I signed up to do a tour of the nearby area of Sintra with my hostel. There were eight of us on the tour, and we set off at 9:30, prepared for a very full day ahead. Our first stop was Guincho beach in the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, about a half hour drive out of the city. The beach itself is beautiful, and big, lined with tall rock faces and backed by sand dunes dotted with windbreakers. These are needed here – with nothing between us and America, the wind has plenty of space to pick up some serious strength before it reaches the beach. The water is freezing, too, with large waves crashing down on the sand. Perfect for surfing; not so much for swimming.
From here, we drove on to the westernmost point in mainland Europe – Cabo da Roca. Ireland still has the edge for Europe as a whole. Wandering down the rocky pathway to sit on the rocks overlooking the ocean here was treacherous at best, as the wind was intent on blowing us off course. Scrambling around in Birkenstocks with a camera swinging from my neck was probably not my wisest move, and at times I found myself being so strongly battered that I was walking just to stay still. Fortunately we weren’t here long, and soon moved on to a traditional Portuguese cafe for lunch.
Bellies full, our next stop was Quinta de Regaleria, a UNESCO world heritage site and palace with former Freemason connections. Nowadays, the gothic building and surrounding grounds exude a romantic, mystical vibe – you could get lost here for days. Winding paths lead you to caves, caves to secret tunnels, tunnels to wells deep underground, with stone staircases wrapped around them and a circle of light shining down from above. There are grottos with statues of mythical beings, ornate fountains, waterfalls, and stepping stones that you can tentatively hop over to explore what lies beyond. As my fellow tour-goer Natalie pointed out, at times you have to remind yourself that you’re not in a theme park – once upon a time, people actually lived here.
We didn’t have long here, though, as we were running late for our next stop – wine tasting. Personally, I’m not normally one for red wine, much less port, but the portions we were served here pleasantly surprised me. It was sweet, and not too strong-tasting for 20%, and free, so really I have nothing to complain about. We learned a fair amount about the history and types of port here too, so if anyone needs any port-related advice anytime soon, I’m your girl.
Next up was the Moorish castle, an eighth century palace that sits opposite the National Palace of Pena. Our day had overrun considerably by this point, so having purchased our tickets with two minutes to spare, we ran up to the castle doors and made it in with just 22 minutes to explore all we could (the grounds remained open for a further hour). The castle itself is small, so we didn’t have an issue seeing it all, but we did miss out on the museum exhibit that lies beneath it. Starting in the middle, we ran along the castle walls to the turrets on one side, before hurrying back across to those on the other, scurrying along the ancient stone walkways and up the steps as quickly as we could. We had hoped for a fantastic view of the National Palace from here, but as per usual the weather was against us, and instead all we could see from the highest point here was a large, grey cloud. We headed down, passing back through the gates 21 minutes after we entered.
We arrived back at the hostel 11 hours after we left it, exhausted, hungry, and having had a fantastic and fulfilling day. I would reccomend this tour to anyone – Sintra is renowned for being littered with natural beauty spots and amazing castles and palaces, and this was a fantastic way to see as much of it as possible in a short space of time. I would love to return and visit the places I didn’t get to see that day, but for now, Sintra is a box well-ticked.
The next day in Lisbon was my last, and thus the last full day of my travels. I decided to spend it the way I usually do: on a self-guided tour of the city. Starting in Praça do Rossio, I moved up to Praça do Marquês de Pombal, built to commemorate the man that orchestrated the rebuilding of the area following the devastating 1755 earthquake. Behind this sits the Miradouro do Parque Eduardo VII, a viewpoint that overlooks the whole city, just a short walk up a gentle hill.
From here, I wandered on to the Basilica some two kilometres from the city centre. Once again, I was barred from entry (had I planned the day better, I would have worn longer shorts), but the small park opposite was a pretty place to stop for lunch and recover from the uphill journey. I then decided to catch one of Lisbon’s famous trams back down, tram 28, which I rode straight across the city to the Church of São Vincente of Fora, before strolling back down this hill via a couple of beautiful viewpoints positioned along the way.
An hour or two sat in the harbour side admiring the sunset later, and I was once again packing my bags, only this time for the last time. It’s weird to think that it’s now been five weeks since I first stepped off my flight in Norway, but here I am, sat in Lisbon airport and waiting for my plane back to London. I don’t want it to end – I’d much rather stay gallivanting across the continent for another few weeks – but graduation is waiting for me and I’ve got to find a job at some point. Plus I’ve missed my dog. A lot.
I really hope that you’ve enjoyed following this blog as I’ve documented my experiences, and I can’t thank everyone enough for taking the time to read each instalment (to be honest, I’m amazed anyone still reads it!). Throughout the last five weeks I’ve been busy filming a lot of what I got up to, and hopefully I’ll be compiling all those hours of fototage in to a short series of videos that I’ll publish on my other blog. You can also keep an eye on that one if you fancy seeing what else I get up to with my camera when I’m not travelling, although I’m sure I’ll be hopping on to another flight soon enough, and I’ll be straight back, typing away on here when I am.
So, once again, thank you. And to anyone thinking of following in my footsteps – do it. Book a flight, or indeed a train ticket, and go. Because it’s been the best five weeks of my life by a mile.
Europe, you’ve been unreal. For now, though, I’m going home.