Travel: Retracing Vasco da Gama’s footsteps in Portugal
A few centuries after the discovery of the sea route to India, we decide to discover homeland of the Portuguese explorerUpdated: Feb 10, 2019 00:48 IST
A few centuries after Vasco da Gama’s ‘discovery’ of India, we decided to trace his steps, albeit in reverse. Portugal has everything a traveller could wish for: scenic views, history, fantastic food and drink, and of course shopping. The people are friendly and more than glad to stop for a chat. It is not as expensive as some other European countries. There is a saying among the locals about the weather: If you don’t like it, wait for five minutes, it’ll change. Sunny skies could be replaced by storm clouds in a matter of minutes. This means you must dress in layers and always carry an overcoat and an umbrella.
We let the melancholic trill of the fado guitar follow us from Manueline Lisbon to Baroque Porto and the sun-soaked beaches of Vilamoura. We wandered through the medieval cities of Óbidos, Évora and Guimarães, and visited the religious landmarks of Fátima, Batalha and the dramatic Hieronymite Monastery, enjoying a delicious Pasteis de Nata (pastries traditionally made at Christmas time, but available year-round) or two along the way.
Bem-vindo a Lisboa. A sea of pastel pinks, yellows and blues dot the seven hills of the romantic Portuguese capital. We delved into Lisbon’s centuries-old seafaring heritage today, and paid tribute to the brave men who set off from these shores to discover a new world. We admired the shimmering white Monument of the Discoveries, the iconic suspension bridge spanning the River Tagus, and Belém Tower, built to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s expedition. Lisbon’s 25th April ‘Golden Gate’ bridge reminded us of the one in San Francisco, often called its twin sister.
We saw the Unesco World Heritage Site of the Hieronymite Monastery, an exquisite testament to 15th century Manueline architecture (Portuguese late Gothic style of architectural ornamentation of the first decades of the 16th century) and art. We spent the rest of our day meandering through the cobblestone lanes of Bairro Alto.
We took a half-day trip to the historic towns of Cascais and Queluz and returned to Lisbon to enjoy a traditional Portuguese dinner. You could try some Portuguese favourites, the bunless burger, Azorean steaks, croquettes or vegetable soup. Portugal being mostly coastal, the natives’ love for the ‘frutos do mar’ or fruits of the sea is on another level. One of the favourites is bacalhau or dried salted cod.
The Portuguese love their sweets and pastries and it is perfectly acceptable to have a pineapple upside down cake at breakfast!
We visited the Rococo-style Palace of Queluz before passing through the fashionable resort of Estoril. We felt like explorers of yore, travelling through the fishing village of Cascais with its beautiful mansions.
Across the river
We journeyed across the Tagus one morning and drove south towards the Serra da Arrábida Mountains and to the golden pastures of the Alentejo. The hearty aroma of Portuguese chicken filled the air as we shared a traditional lunch with the owners of a stud ranch. Meandering further south, we arrived on the sun-kissed shores of the Algarve. We had an authentic local dinner, with dishes cooked in a traditional Cataplana.
The dramatic cliffs and beautiful beaches of the Sagres Peninsula, at the very edge of Portugal, provided the most stunning backdrop for our morning coastal drive. We admired views across Baleeira Beach before continuing along the coast to Cape St. Vincent, the site of many sea battles centuries ago. We ended our excursion with a visit to the resort town of Lagos – once the home of Prince Henry the Navigator, today a picturesque seaside retreat of winding cobblestone roads and quaint squares encircled by 16th century walls.
We then headed to Faro, the historical capital of the Algarve, to visit the old-walled town. The marzipan, available in different shapes from carrots to bunnies, and everything in between, is not to be missed.
Meandering north, we travelled across the Serra do Caldeirão to the ancient Alentejo city of Évora. We visited the elaborate cathedral, Roman temple and the Chapel of Bones and spent the rest of our day delving into the medieval history of this enchanting city.
Port and porter
Next was a visit to the village of Monsaraz set against the backdrop of golden olive groves. The drive was picturesque, passing through the vineyards and groves of cork oaks to Monsaraz, one of the most famous and beautiful ‘white villages’ of the Alentejo. We admired the castle, which overlooks neighbouring Spain and saw views of the largest artificial lake in Europe.
Our first stop was the quaint hilltop town of Castelo de Vide with its charming white façades, narrow alleys and fascinating Jewish Quarter. Travelling north towards the Serra da Estrela mountains, we arrived later in Viseu, set high on a plateau near the famous Dão vineyards, where we explore the city’s rich art and architectural history and visited the 12th century Sé (cathedral)standing overlooking the city. We went to a spectacular 18th century manor house and estate, and enjoyed a gourmet experience matching local food with local wines.
Vineyard-clad hills provided an enchanting backdrop for our journey through the Douro Valley where port wine is produced. We explored the magnificent gardens at the baroque Palácio de Mateus, depicted on the label of the Mateus wine bottles. We then continued via Guimarães for views of its 10th century castle before arriving in the seaside town of Vila do Conde.
Our day trip to Porto took us past Baroque churches and along the winding cobblestone lanes. We saw the Gothic Church of St. Francis. You cannot miss a visit to the Palácio da Bolsa or the Stock Exchange Palace.
Porto is home to Livraria Lello, one of the most beautiful book stores in the world. J K Rowling lived in the city and taught English while writing Harry Potter. The arches and panes take you back to Hogwarts.
Back in time
Enjoying a relaxing and leisurely cruise along the Douro River, we saw two medieval world heritage cities and bridges, one of them the famous Unesco-listed Eiffel bridge.
We soaked up the atmosphere of one of Europe’s oldest universities and meandered the ancient streets of Coimbra the next morning. Then, we explored the Knights Templar city of Tomar to visit the Convent of Christ, originally built as a Templar stronghold in the 12th century.
Arriving in the pilgrimage centre, Fátima, we rubbed shoulders with pilgrims who journeyed to the shrine where three young shepherds saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary. Enroute Lisbon, we stopped at the monastery of Batalha – the best example of late Gothic architecture in Portugal. Our last night in Portugal saw us toast to an incredible journey, one which came to an end much too soon.
(Alison and Sumanto Ray are intrepid travellers and professional bloggers, who were also on the HT Brunch Best Food Bloggers List in 2018. Follow them across social media @twomouthsfull)
From HT Brunch, February 10, 2019
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First Published: Feb 09, 2019 22:12 IST