Sunday, 22 February 2015

Porto - the charm of a "crumbling" town

I must confess that my first impression of Porto was not that good: it was raining and cold, and for being eight in the evening the town looked pretty dead... and dilapidated. Moreover, the street where my hostel was located seemed to be abandoned, how could my cool hostel  - rated one of the best in the whole country - be there?
"Dilapidated" is an adjective that fits perfectly for Porto: the town centre is full of crumbling houses, but that's what makes Porto charming. As I learned during my stay there, the town is in such a state not because of poorness, but because wealthy people have chosen to move out of the historical town centre to more chic neighbourhoods, leaving centuries old townhouses in decay.  
Some of the decaying houses of Porto

Plenty of construction works in the historical centre means that something is being done to restore and use these beautiful old houses with colourful iron balconies and red-tiled roofs. Soon they won't be just dusty skeletons with broken glasses, but something more, hopefully a reminder of the history of the town. 

A windowsill in the centre of Porto

In the historical centre of Porto
The best place to experience the charm of Porto is Ribeira, the area along the river Douro with breathtaking views of the famous iron bridge Dom Luis I. I took a walk along the bridge to take pictures of the colourful houses, and then I explored a little bit of Vila Nova de Gaia, the town on the other side of the river, where the famous port wine is made. Even in the fog and with a cloudy sky, it was a very atmospheric walk in a part of the town where the time seems to have stopped.
Porto and the famous bridge Luis

View of Porto from the bridge Dom Luis I

Porto is full of churches whose outside walls are decorated in azulejos, these white-and-blue ceramic tiles that I learned to recognize during my travels through Portugal, Spain and Morocco. In Portugal they are such a distinctive architectural element that you can find them even in train stations - such as Sao Bento in Porto - or in tea houses.
Igreja do Carmo

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

"Porto is an adventure in colours", writes José Saramago in his travelogue Journey to Portugal, and it is true: the colours of the houses in Porto left me speechless. Even the most humble houses have ceramic tiles, intricate and colourful iron railings, and perfectly-fitting windowpanes.

Colourful houses in Porto

A place that I didn't want to miss in Porto was Livraria Lello, one of the most famous bookshops in world. It is really beautiful inside, with an art deco staircase leading to a second floor, and a cosy café where you can sip a cup of coffee while reading something. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed, so I can show you only how it looks from the outside. To be honest, the shop attendants yelling at the customers not to take photos annoyed me a little: nobody wants to spend time looking at books in such a tense atmosphere.

Livraria Lello

The sun finally came out the last day I was in town. Porto looked liked like a completely different town now: without the gloomy skies, the colours of Porto came out in all their glory. I walked on my steps, retracing the spots that had a great potential for nice pictures: the iron bridge and the riverfront in both Ribeira and Vila Nova da Gaia, not to mention the esplanade near the cathedral.  Porto is the kind of town that does not have a lot of sights to visit, but that charms with its views, its colours and with the warmth of its people. It may feel gloomy at times, as if the town had seen better days and is now mostly left to itself, but I think that's what makes it special.

View of Porto with the sun

View of Porto

Backstreets of Porto

View of Porto from the Bridge Dom Luis I

View from Vila Nova da Gaia
Eating a francesinha by the riverside, and of course not being able to finish it, was another thing I was able to enjoy in the sunshine during my last day in Porto. This huge sandwich with many different kinds of meat, melted cheese, a beer sauce and French fries is typical of Porto: not exactly a light meal, but one that you can enjoy after a long morning through the streets of Porto, climbing staircases and going uphill only to go down again.

Not finishing my francesinha. Problems of being in Porto

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sintra - A Thousand and One Fairytales

As you may have gathered by now, I have a sweet spot for places that seem to be trapped inside a fairy-tale. The most common day trip from Lisbon is undoubtedly to the town of Sintra, where I took my dose of fairy-tale dreams during my recent stay in Portugal. Easily reachable by train from the capital in half an hour, Sintra has been for centuries the privileged residence of kings and queens. Because of its beautiful natural surroundings, it offers nice walks in the wilderness, but also charming stone-paved streets where you can soak in a distinctive Portuguese atmosphere. The reason why Sintra is so famous, though, are the castles and palaces that make Cinderella and Snow White look like real tales.

Palacio da Pena on a sunny winter day

From Rossio train station in Lisbon, a 4.10€ return ticket took me to this magical land of moss-covered trees and mysterious woods. The centre of Sintra is within a pleasant 10-minute walk from the train station. Here there are small restaurants, souvenir shops and B&Bs. Lord Byron raved about this small town, and this is why you will find streets and restaurants bearing his name.
A peculiar stone staircase called after Lord Byron
I immediately recognized the Palacio Nacional de Sintra from the pictures I had seen in guidebooks and travel blogs. With its funny conical chimneys, it does not look particularly charming from the outside, but rather a bit clumsy. The combined ticket (Palacio Nacional de Sintra + Palacio da Pena) does not come cheap: 19€. "Whatever", I thought, "you gotta do what you gotta do".
Palacio Nacional de Sintra seen from the outside
The interior of the palace positively impressed me with its distinctive style. I have visited countless royal palaces in my travels, including Versailles and Schönbrunn, but this one had something unique. Maybe it is not as luxurious as others, but it had its own style. Its blue-green mosaic decorations on the walls, the bizarre objects on display (like these decorative hens!) and the vague Moorish style certainly caught my attention. This area was the siege of power since the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus, which controlled most of the Iberian peninsula, but this particular palace dates back to the 15 and 16th century.

Hens as knick-knacks

Interior of Palacio Nacional de Sintra

In spite of the bizarre and underwhelming look from the outside, Palacio Nacional de Sintra is elegant inside. The famous Sala dos Brasões is full of coat of arms on the ceiling and of beautiful azulejos on the walls. I had never seen a room decorated like this in all of my travels!

Sala dos Brasoes in Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Once visited the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, I hopped on a touristic bus that in a few minutes left me near Palacio da Pena. There aren't many other options to reach it, I'm afraid, unless you're up for an exhausting uphill trek. The bus costs 5€ and it's hop-on-hop-off, so you can use it several times, and you can also stop in Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). Palacio da Pena is one of the most eccentric palaces I have ever seen, a sort of Iberian Disneysland that reminds me of another uber-famous 19th-century Romantic castle: Ludwig of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.  Palacio da Pena is located on top of a hill, and it incorporates Medieval and Islamic elements. It was used by the Portuguese royal family until they were forced into exile in 1910. The bizarre colour juxtapositions - blue and yellow, grey and red - make it look like a mish-mash of different inharmonious elements, and honestly it is a bit kitsch.

Palacio da Pena

Palacio da Pena from the outside

Inside it, I found it less interesting than Palacio Nacional de Sintra, but I really loved the central courtyard. Needless to say, it was decorated with beautiful azulejos.

The beautiful courtyard in Palacio da Pena

What you cannot miss - and I hope you'll have a sunny day like mine - are the views: the woods on one side and the plain with countless small towns on the other side. There are gardens to explore inside Palacio da Pena if you have plenty of time in your hands. As for me, I was starving, so I headed down to town for a hearty meal of bacalhau com natas, a real Portuguese treat.
View from Palacio da Pena
A last palace was left to explore, before heading back to Lisbon: Quinta da Regaleira, which was a real surprise. The suggestion to visit it came from the staff at my hostel in Lisbon, Sunset Destination Lisbon. I can never thank them enough for this and many other tips. In spite of being the least famous and the least expensive of the palaces I visited in Sintra (6€), Quinta da Regaleira was by far the most beautiful. You can literally spend hours exploring the park and you'll never get bored. It is Gothic and romantic in style, with paths and views studied to leave an impression on the visitor.

A corner of the gardens of Quinta da Regaleira 

It is located in the historical centre of the town, so unlike the Palacio da Pena for which you have to take a bus, it is easy and quick to reach it. Pinnacles, gargoyles and elaborate neo-Gothic decorations are among the elements of the actual mansion, but the real star are the gardens. Lakes, extravagant grottos, fountains and statues decorate it in ways that are never banal.

Quinta da Regaleria

Quinta da Regaleira - still autumn

The famous "inverted tower", or initiative well, has obvious alchemic connotations. It is an upside-down tower, going deep into the earth instead of trying to reach the sky.

The initiative well
You can actually walk down the tower, and then follow some dark and humid tunnels until you find yourself on the other side of an artificial waterfall.

Seeing a waterfall from behind

Everything here is just perfect, like in the fairytales. Just have a look at this view of the Moorish Castle and of the surrounding hills, for example. I spent about one hour and a half exploring the paths of Quinta da Regaleira, and came out of the estate when  the sun was beginning to set. 
The view of Castelo dos Mouros from Quinta da Regaleira
What I liked the most about Sintra was, however, the atmosphere: the trees (in December it was still autumn), the winding roads and the elegant houses. In Sintra one of the most pleasant experiences is just walking around, smelling the fresh air and letting yourself be charmed.

Along the street in Sintra
Sintra, along the street

A house in Sintra. In the background, you can see Palaco Nacional de Sintra

A stone-paved streets in the back streets of Sintra

Did you like Sintra? Would you let be charmed too?
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