One month in Portugal. Three weeks of cycling through medieval towns, valleys of vineyards and granite strewn mountains. A wonderful country for cycle touring; quiet country roads, pleasant people and plenty of excellent coffee and pastry to fuel it all. We began our adventure in Lisbon, the country’s laidback capital, with a week to explore the city and familiarize ourselves with the sights and sounds of the country. There will be 5 posts posted over the next few weeks describing our trip through the different regions of the country including Lisbon, The Beiras, The Douro, Tras-Os-Montes & The Minho, and finally The Coast.
Part 1: Lisbon
Spread along the Rio Tejo and just around the bend from the Atlantic Ocean, sits the colourful city of Lisbon. This bustling city is full of brightly painted buildings, rambling old trolleys and tightly knit neighborhoods with narrow cobblestone streets lined with cafes and pastelerias. We found Lisbon to be a great walking city (we were a little nervous to take the bikes out here) with a fantastic metro system to take us to further corners. Our week was spent exploring the hilly old quarters that line the river; Alfama, Chiado, Baixa, Bairro Alto and Belem.
One of our favourite neighborhoods, The Alfama, seemed to ooze old world Portugal. A labyrinth of lanes and red rooftops, we happily lost ourselves here discovering hidden cafes and the magical music of Fado.
We spent a day exploring the area of Belem-one of only 3 neighborhoods of Lisbon to survive the 1755 earthquake. Four miles west of downtown Lisbon, this was the place that would see off the sailors and explorers as they left to discover new lands and trading routes. The area is now filled with sights that commemerate Portugal’s Golden Age, the 15th and 16th centuries when the country was the leading European power.
A favourite Belem sight of ours was the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum) which houses ornate carriages as old as the 17th century.
And of course a visit to Belem wouldn’t be complete without a taste of the famous pasteis de belem made at the Casa Pasteis de Belem. This pastery shop has been making these little flaky shells filled with a delicious, subtly sweet egg custard since the 1800’s. Throughout the rest of Portugal this treat is known as the pastel de nata and we would continue to seek them out throughout our trip.
A visit to Sintra ended off our week in Lisbon. Described as “…a page torn from a fairy-tale” (lonely planet), we were excited for a little getaway from the city.
Sintra was magical with its brightly coloured turrets, labyrinth gardens and deep caverns. Our favourite sight was the Quinta da Regaleira. Built in the early 1900’s by an Italian opera-set designer for the Brazilian coffee tycoon, Monteiro dos Milhoes (Moneybags Monteiro) the estate is comprised of numerous turrets, deep spiraling wells and a maze of gardens and underground caves to get lost in.
Sintra was also bustling with tourists. A day was long enough for us here and we were happy to jump back on the train to Lisbon, where one can easily duck into a narrow winding street to escape the crowds. The next day we began our 3 weeks of biking adventures starting in the Beiras: mountains, medival villages, castles and more!
Real Residencia Suite Hotel Lisbon (at the beginning of our trip)-apartment style accomodation great for a longer stay. Excellent location just outside the busy city centre and steps away from a Metro station.
Lisbon Old Town Hostel (at the end of our trip)-clean, awesome central location , big private rooms. We found it a little noisy but we also don’t keep the same hours as the all night partying Lisboetas!
Getting Around: Lisboa Card-probably one of our best purchases of the trip. Free admission and discounts on dozens and dozens of sights and free transport-Metro, Buses, Trams!
Favourite Restaurant: Terra-not exactly authentic Portuguese but we loved the huge vegetarian buffet and delicious ginger infused juices.
Lonely Planet Portugal-of course the trusted LP
Rick Steves’ Portugal-lots of little hidden tips and walking routes
www.golisbon.com-great website and blog of city sights and event happenings
travel.nytimes.com-different articles about the city