Sunrise illuminates Cascais Bay
BELÉM is a short ride from the center of Lisbon on Tram 15. Visit the Belém Tower, a four-story fortification that sits on the bank of the Tagus River and was an element of the city’s defenses. From this site, Vasco da Gama and other navigators ventured out to find new worlds. It’s a meticulous 16th-century fort in the Manueline (late Gothic) style which, as you climb the stairs, makes you imagine how difficult it would be to dislodge its defenders. A short distance away is the Monument to the Discoveries, erected in 1960, which features Prince Henry the Navigator with his eyes fixed on the sea, and other explorers kneeling behind him. Down the street is the Jerónimos Monastery, one of the most spectacular buildings in Lisbon. It was constructed to honor da Gama’s travels to India and contains an exquisite church. Again, the Manueline style is in full flower, and the effect is breathtaking. A short walk will take you to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where you should try pastéis de Belém, custard confections whose secret recipe has remained unchanged since 1837.
It’s 40 minutes by train from Lisbon to the village of SINTRA, which Lord Byron described as a “glorious Eden” in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The Pena Palace, perched on a hill (and accessible by bus), was the summer residence of a slew of Portuguese royals and is a yellow, pink, and purple fantasia built improbably into the rock. It is Portuguese romanticism just barely tempered by royal restraint. From its turrets you’ll find commanding views of the lush countryside and the remains of the ninth-century Moorish Castle. Once you get down the incline, it’s a short walk through town to the Quinta da Regaleira, the neo-Manueline summer residence of the Monteiro family. It is opulence on a domestic scale, adorned with wonderful grounds with circuitous paths leading to hideaways, gardens, grottoes, and towers.
North of Lisbon is MAFRA, a modest village that shares its name with a grand palace/convent. The palace, which was started in 1717 and completed 17 years later, was for a time the center of artists and craftsmen who formed the School of Mafra. Its construction was the background for Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda. The building is 720 feet long and features a church with two tall towers and a stunning portico. Of special note is the library, which contains 35,000 volumes and several bats. My guide explained that the bats were welcome, as they ate the insects that fed on the precious early editions of Homer, Newton, Camões, and others.
ÓBIDOS is a walled Roman village with a high concentration of beautiful small churches, shops where artisans ply their ceramic wizardry, and many pousadas, including the Pousada de Óbidos, a deluxe accommodation with 17 rooms built into the 16th-century castle. A first-rate restaurant has a table for two that overlooks a rippling hillside that changes with the light, and with the flight of wines that accompany your meal. Óbidos is the place to relax for a few days after enjoying the other sites of Lisbon and Portugal.