Travel: Charmed by castles and tempted by the tarts
It could, for all the world, have been one of those team building exercises that the United Nations or Facebook might organise: Belgians, French, Germans, Irish, English and Russians all let loose in a forest in Portugal, with only a rudimentary map, and told to find their way out.
Except, we were all tourists, visitors to Lisbon, complete randomers who decided to explore the Parque de la Pena in Sintra which houses the last castle built by the royal family before Portugal became a republic, and only ended up consulting each other when the map and the bizarrely few signs in the forest failed to help.
But hey, we were on holiday, it's a gorgeous forest with lakes and ferns and follies and duckhouses and temples and the sun was splitting the stones. It was a laugh, being lost.
Three days earlier, when we hit Lisbon, neither the weather nor our disposition was as sunny – what started as a dull day turned into a wet one and suddenly the rainfall was epic. What to do on a city break when the streets turn sodden and the traffic comes to halt?
As it turns out – lots in Lisbon. It has great shopping – and not just all the usual high street fashion shops and designer outfits like Marc Jacob, Hermes and Cartier, but lots of quirky little shops. We came across specialist shops for leather bags, for products made out of cork including iPad covers, and for antique tiles. There are shops for customised perfumes, and shops that sell local specialities like custard tarts and a myriad variety of tinned sardines.
It also has many museums – there are military and maritime museums, a coach museum, a puppet museum, a fashion and design museum, a tile museum...
There is even a museum called the Lisboa Story Centre which does exactly that – tells the story of Lisbon. Apparently it's one of the oldest cities in the world – legend has it that it was founded by Ulysses after the battle of Troy. It was frequently invaded and a crowd who made a big impression in terms of castles and other buildings were the Moors who captured the city in the 8th century.
The Moors were ousted in the middle ages by the Crusaders and it's been deeply religious ever since. Needless to mention, some of its most important buildings are churches and monasteries.
Because of its position, Lisbon became the gateway to new territories including South America, Africa and India and thus became extremely wealthy.
A devastating earthquake destroyed half the city in 1755 but they were able to rebuild the streets and buildings with money no object. Wide airy avenues down around the port and the districts known as the Baixa and the Chiado, all lined with elegant rococo buildings were the result and they are still there to be admired, a little shabby now but charming nonetheless.
By way of complete contrast, the rest of the city sprawls upwards over seven hills and much of it is made up of tiny narrow streets dating from the middle ages – not only are the streets cobbled, the footpaths are too. On every hill, there are stunning views over the city and port.
Just as you might be getting fed up with the uphill struggle, you come across what's called a Miradouro, a viewing spot complete with benches and often a coffee shop, and you marvel at the vista spread beneath you.
A cup of coffee, by the way, averages one euro; often, coffee and the irresistible custard tarts for two came in at around a fiver. We did a lot of admiring of views over coffee and tarts.
We stayed in a friendly hotel called the Hotel Príncipe Real Lisboa in Rua da Alegria, very near the area known as the Bairro Alto, meaning high quarter. Think Temple Bar only way more higgledy piggledy and authentic and infinitely safer at night.
It was within thigh-toning walking distance of many of the major tourist spots. But if you're not into walking, there is a huge variety of transport, all very reasonably priced. The choice includes the usual buses, trains and trams, but there are also funiculars bringing passengers up the hills, and even public elevators built into the hills.
We tried them all, including the elevator that brought us to Castello de S. Jorge, the eleventh century castle that dominates the city and can be seen from every vantage point, but our favourite mode of transport was the number 28 tram which brings you on a bone rattling ride up through tiny streets and alley ways to the oldest part of the city, including the Castle. Tram 28 is popular with both tourists and locals and they cram the passengers on. Don't get on unless you're going to get a seat; standing, you miss the charming sights en route to your destination, not to mind the risk of injury as the tram hurtles around corners.
We got off at the Feira da Ladra in the Alfama district; literally translated as the thief's market, it's a bustling Saturday flea market selling vintage china, angels and religious statues from old churches, furniture, war medals, records and tiles salvaged from old buildings with the plaster still stuck to the back – probably for authenticity.
We happened upon a delightful café there – As Marias Com Chocolate – and enjoyed the cakes, the hagglers and the nearby buskers who played a modern form of Fado, the melancholic music of Lisbon – often described as the reflection of the city's soul.
Designated an intangible world heritage by Unesco, it's played all over the city with many eating houses specialising in these haunting songs telling stories of love and loss, accompanied purely by guitar and mandolin.
We enjoyed the Fado of Marco Rodrigues in Adega Machado in Bairro Alto. They're proud of their fado in Lisbon and, needless to mention, they have a museum dedicated to Fado too.
Eating out is a delight in Lisbon – we didn't have a single bad meal, whether it was the upmarket Cafe Lisboa owned by internationally renowned chef Jose Avillez, where we paid about €30 a head for main courses, desserts and coffee, or Alfalfa, the little touristy spot we found in Bairro Alto, which was a bit rough and ready but which still served up mouthwatering sea bass at about €12 per main course.
The incredibly friendly staff at our hotel Principe Real – and people in general in Lisbon are warm and welcoming – recommended a great spot, O Prego Da Peixaria just around the corner from the hotel. The staff were fun, the interior was edgy and we loved their take on fast food – burgers filled with delicious mixtures, mainly fish, like salmon and squid, served in the one burger.
Lisbon is, of course, on the sea, and there are great coastal day trips to be enjoyed – we went to Belem, which has the majestic Jeronimos Monastery and the Belem Tower, on a little island of its own, both Unesco-designated world heritage sites.
On a less lofty note, it's said the best custard tarts are made by the Pasteis de Belem, and I can confirm they are pretty damn good. There are queues outside to buy take away tarts but it's easy enough to get a table and sit and enjoy them.
Other day trip options include the seaside towns of Cascais and Estoril but, as it was April, we opted instead for the inland Sintra, another world heritage site which has no less than seven castles dating from early Christian times to the 19th century.
Stupidly, we didn't plan our day there and, after scaling the stunning ruins of the Moorish Castle, and visiting the more recently built 19th century Palacio de la Pena, we decided to explore the park around the Palacio. That's where we encountered the somewhat haphazard signage which had us going around in circles.
Fortunately, we did have some custard tarts in our bags. To keep the sugar levels up. They were good. Were they the best Lisbon has to offer? There are many more establishments we would like to go back to and try before we can pronounce on that one.
Ryanair flies daily Dublin to Lisbon.
Further information on prices and timetables on www.ryanair.com
Mary stayed at the Hotel Principe Real in Rua da Alegria .
Pena Palace was built in the 1860s by Don Fernando, a German prince who married the heiress to the throne of Portugal. It's very like the fantastical German Castles built by Mad King Ludwig and features bits and pieces borrowed from architecture the world over, including turrets, spires, minarets, domes, oriental mosaics and gothic follies.
Chalet Condessa d'Edla
After his wife died, Ferdinand married Elise Hensler, a German Swiss opera singer, and they built their own little hideaway, the Chalet da Condessa d'Edla in the grounds of the palace. When he died, he left her everything, but his children contested the will and, though she was given the right to stay in the chalet until her death, she gave up that right and lived in Lisbon for a further 25 years.
Fish is the thing to eat as we discovered when we happened on Peixe em Lisboa, a festival where all the top fish restaurants serve tasting portions of their signature dishes. Stuffed sea urchin anyone?
Sunday Indo Living