Portugal really is a fabulous country with fabulous people to match. It certainly ranks at the top of all the countries that I have visited during this current around-the-world trip. Of course, I liked well all of the continents, islands and countries of the Southern Hemisphere but they were very similar to the United States in language, western culture, food, home styles, cars, downtowns and products sold in all of the stores.
That changed during my three days in Istanbul and my three weeks in Spain. Good old Northern Hemisphere Europe. It’s old and it’s very different from home. Spain was suffering from the general heat wave baking the continent, so I hurried on over to Portugal’s Algarve and then up to Lisbon where I hung around less than a week, as it was also very hot. I stayed in Lisbon’s Old Town and that was historically citified, as in massively monumental buildings painted yellow with white trim, large cobbled plazas, and many statues of bronze men. It was clean and dignified and really a likeable place. Just too big for me.
So, I travelled half an hour by train to tiny little Sintra and really fell in love with it. To quote from my journal entry written at an outdoor restaurant, Café Paris. “This is a most unusual place! Full of castles and ancient architecture, lots of hills and curlicue roads….and tourists at the height of this summer season. It IS a different kind of place – spiritual and magical. In the 12th century, the King of Portugal gifted this land to the Knights Templar and many palaces allude to their secret rites and rituals. There is just too much here to take in on a one-day sightseeing trip from Lisbon, riding the train back and forth as some in my hostel planned to do. I’m so glad I’ll stay a few days. Sintra is, by far, the most interesting town of the whole trip!”
I stayed in an eco hostel, the Almaa Sintra Hostel, just on the edge of town so there was plenty of walking back and forth on the hilly roads. That helped to get the kinks out of my back from sleeping and sitting upon the low furniture. Wooden pallets are apparently becoming fashionable furniture, combined with good mattresses and bean bag furniture but it’s not at all my first choice. However, I’d rather that then what the kings and queens of the past had to put up with. My tours of many, many royal residences in so many countries, has shown me that these formal abodes are too cavernous and museum-like to be at all comfortable. All furniture is carved, dark and heavy and are simply objects of decoration so fancy as to be forbidding. Even glassware, porcelain and cutlery must be handled with the utmost respect, spine straight, pinkie finger extended. I always wonder how the royals could ever be themselves…. especially when the king isn’t even allowed to dress himself but has a dedicated room where several servants clothe him as if he were a manikin.
When touring palaces, whether in Bulgaria, Romania, Spain or Portugal, I always ask myself if any of them were aware of how similar their homes looked to each other? They all have the same sort of high ceiling artwork: heavenly visions into the angelic plane; cherubs and Baby Jesus and Bible stories painted by the Great Masters. I’m sure the royalty all thought that theirs was unique unless they were a traveling monarchy. Of course, maybe they merely felt right at home in such similar surroundings.
In Sintra, you can compare at three royal summer homes because this tiny mountainous spot has a rare microclimate where a wide and lush variety of rainforest plants and trees exist in a cool and breezy climate. The spacious gardens are the real attractions. I was happy to stay for six days before traveling on to Obidos, also just a half-hour bus ride from Lisbon. This is a tiny walled medieval town and I stayed in the sweet hostel Argonauta, the home of Concha who took wonderful care of her seven guests, cooking delicious breakfasts and mothering all of us.
Evidence of the beauty of these two unique towns is the fact that I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Every window and door, every labyrinthine street filled with geraniums and bougainvillea, had to be shot at many angles and the light of different times of the day. All shops, cafes, stairs and shining cobblestones were utterly charming and irresistible. My camera has been sorely neglected until now.
Two days ago, I taxied to another nearby coastal town, Peniche, a gritty, fishing town built on a large rock jutting into the Atlantic Ocean and a favourite surfer’s destination. I knew that it was nothing like the other two, though it is a cobbled ancient town. An island filled with beach and birds sits a short boat ride away. What a strange and unsettling contrast I feel here. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as it has found a dubious distinction of being my second-most disliked spot in the world; next to Split, Croatia, where I could still feel the old Roman Emporer Diocletian’s negative vibrations. Peniche is a penitentiary town where political dissidents were imprisoned just down the street in the huge and forbidding old fort. Maybe that’s part of the problem along with a total lack of style and grace in its construction.
But mainly, it’s just too doggone noisy! The Portuguese are talkers, alright…fast and loud and simultaneously. Well, put bunches of them together in a tiny walled town with no soil, grass or trees to absorb the clatter; and six senior citizen husbands and wives can sound like a mob of sixty when they stop to gossip right below your balcony. Add to that, three little boys and a basketball, running and screaming down the lane, plus the motorcycles that regularly rip past, and you have a recipe for a strong desire to get out of town. I haven’t even mentioned how noisy this Welcome Hostel is, in general, and especially, due to a 2 a.m. songfest on our rooftop last night; nor the jam-packed restaurant at noon today, full of Portugal’s finest volume talkers and three kids drinking high-fructose soft drinks. These are the moments best forgotten as quickly as possible.
There are a large number of empty condominiums in the more modern side of Peniche, built just before the recent global recession. I’m sure they are a bargain price right now. My advice: come here in person and make sure you can stand to live in or near this town before signing on. There’s no obvious fix for a distinct lack of charm. Oh yes, I’m only a block away from the offices of the Communist Party of Portugal, red flag and all.
Tomorrow I’ll travel on to Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal, reputed to be the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter school. It won’t be in session yet, so I’m hoping that the town will be quieter than little Peniche has been for me.
“Ya win some, ‘ya lose some,” and to be fair, Peniche isn’t trying to be a tourist town. Surfer Dudes like it just fine.