A young Queen Marie Antoinette once said 'Let them eat cake!'
Its lesser known in history that this saying travelled west through the porto grapevine to Portugal, the people taking it literally, and deciding that life simply could not exist in Lisbon without at least one pastry shop on every street.
Most people have at one time or another tried the delicate dessert known in Australia as a Portuguese Tart, in Portugal these are called pasteis de nata. Just outside Lisbon in the seaside town named Belem is the most famous baker of these pastries, called Antiga Confeitoria de Belem, which has stood since 1837. It is the largest pastry shop you can imagine, and is said to seat up to 2000 people. The shop bakes over 15,000 tarts a day (30,000 on weekends) which are known as pasties de belem because they also claim to make the best tarts on the planet, hence the more common name for the dessert does not befit their superb pastries.
We didn't quite make the 15,000 however 15 was a fairly decent effort for the three De Freitas's in one day.
Promising ourselves when we arrived for breakfast that we would have 'one or two' with a coffee, we wolfed down 6 in the space of about 5 minutes before very guiltily asking the waitress (whose name was Freitas herself) for another round. Rather than look shocked she just nodded her head. She had seen this all before...
The recipe is a closely guarded secret, even the ladies whose job it is to roll out the fine crispy pastry shells don't even know what the custard ingredients are. Perhaps it's the 400c oven that is the secret to baking them to perfection, all I know is that no visit to Lisbon - or Portugal for that matter, is complete without a trip to Belem.
So it goes without saying that the diet isn't going too well. Goodbye Jamon, hello to the sweet life!
A lesser known visionary than Marie Antoinette, but a much nicer one (my mother in-law Dilia), had promised us that Lisbon would not disappoint and was best seen on foot. This of course is because if you live on a diet of pasties de nata and you don't walk everywhere, then you only have yourself to blame for the repercussions. And walk we have!
Day one in Lisbon we not only walked the majority of the way to Belem from the centre of Lisbon, but nursing our pasteis-induced hangovers did the area proud by visiting most of its major monuments. Belem is like walking through a history book of the launching of the trade routes between Europe and Asia.
The Torre de Belem is a World Heritage-listed fortress located on River Tagus. It was built in 1515 to defend Lisbon Harbour, and with its draw bridge, turrets and dungeons it is a striking building in remarkably good condition for its age. Climbing to the top of the Torre for its view requires navigating some very narrow spiral staircases. Logic would suggest that pasties de belem were invented after the Torre was built, non?
The Torre is one of the most famous landmarks in all of Portugal, and symbolises the once great and powerful Portugal of old, back to a time where Portugal almost did conquer the world amassing provinces from Brazil to Goa, Timor Leste to Macau through to Angola and Mozambique.
I was once told that even Australia was discovered with a Portuguese map, however our English friends aren't forthcoming in admitting this. But none the less from 1494 until 1580, Portugal really did rule half the world (the other half ruled by its compadres the Spaniards). Having now met a few Portuguese folk my theory on the crumbling of this once great empire was that after 200 years they simply got too drunk on porto and misplaced it along with their car keys...(just kidding Dilia!)
The morning we visited, the Torre had just played host to a few large Russian tour groups. What we hadn't expected to see was at least 8 immaculately dressed and highly made up Russian ladies posing for happy snaps. There was the provocative 'hanging off the chains to the draw bridge' and my personal favourite 'wind through the hair, leaning off the stone walltowards the water and pouting'. Either they were secretly being filmed for an episode of Russia's Next Top Model or Russia - you have some explaining to do. Don't even get me started on the fellow in the glow-mesh vest with the delightful overhanging gut.
Just a short stroll from 'Russia with Love' at the Torre we visited the Discoveries Monument Padrao Dos Descombrimentos. Difficult to miss, its 52 metres tall and was built to mark the 500 year anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator in 1960. Explorers and missionaries such as Saint Francis Xavier are immortalised in stone, in a permanent watch out to sea.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is another World Heritage-listed site in Belem, a monestary that was built to celebrate Vasco da Gama's claim of India for Portugal in 1498. Another beautiful building which has been meticulously cared for. Elaborate monkeys, boars and other gaudy looking animals dance along the balustrade and the lengths the artists have gone to in order to express symbolism throughout the church itself is mind blowing. It is a painstaking exercise from a voyeur's chair.
So that was one morning alone, and if that wasn't enough walking we had about 9 cakes still to burn so we stomped back to Lisbon as Marco was itching to see Alfama, Lisbon's Moorish Quarter.
While I may be sometimes prone to exaggeration, this time I promise I am not when I say that by this stage we had walked a good 8 kilometres and it was only midday.
Marco pointed to a castle perched on top of a very high hill, and casually mentioned that we would all be walking up there. Oscar was asleep in the pram for all the excitement of me questioning why on earth we would be walking when there was a perfectly good tram we could take (!). But of course this is the same man who decided we should hike to the peak of Cradle Mountain on our honeymoon, so I didn't even bother protesting and agreed so long as he took charge of the pram and I got the water bottle.
'The Castle' is actually Castelo Sao Jorge and as the tour books says there is a scenic tram that can take you there from Largo Martim Moniz (grrr). The views from the skyline are wonderful and were very much worth the agony of the walk, and we took turns traipsing around the castle itself as the cobblestones are so old and jiggered there was no way the pram was going to make it. In the centre of the castle is an enormous statue to the Knights Templar built in 1147, so for anyone who knows Marco, this site was cause for much celebration.
Day one in Lisbon was by far the most activity we had packed into a short period so far in our trip, so by the time we went back to our hotel I was dreaming of a long hot bath and a cool Sagres beer. But of course we were in Portugal, and Marco had organised for us to catch up for dinner with a few Officers from the Portuguese army that he had worked with in Timor Leste during 2009.
With an Oscar well and truly passed out on my lap by 7pm westill somehow managed to get in Juao Alfonso's car, and were driven to an area in Lisbon known as 'The Orient' which was the site of a World Expo back in 1998 - quite a modern and trendy area on the harbour. We also met Ricardo and his lovely wife Anna, and were treated to a lovely evening of Portuguese hospitality, steaks and beer and lucky for me everyone chose to talk in English!
The next day we had organised a tour to take us to the area known as Sintra, so there was definitely no sleep in on the horizon and we were once again ready for a full day's activity by 8am when the bus pulled up at our hotel.
Sintra is located about an hour north west of Lisbon, and the most impressive building in this region tourists flock to each day is called Palacio de Pena. The original foundations of this spectacular building were built sometime in the 11th century by The Moors, who occupied most of Spain and Portugal during this time. In the 1500's the Monarch King Henrique 1st seized control, and the Royal Family took up residence. This was around the same time as many palaces and forts we had already seen in our travels were seized back from The Moors (such as in Granada and Seville). So for us the pieces of the puzzle that is the history of Spain and Portugal were all starting to come together!
From when the royals took over the palace, sizable works were completed in stages. Our tour guide referred to the 'brand new and modern' tower regularly which was built in the 18th century!Life was good for the Royals until fairly recently, when in 1908 the fairy tale ended and the Republicans seized control.The majority of the family were exiled to Spain, the King was not so lucky...
The Portuguese Royal Family cannot be accused of not having any taste, because Palacio de Pena is at home in a picturesque location that looks straight out the pages of a fairy tale. Perched high on a hill we travelled through almost rainforest like foliage to our destination, and once at the top were hit with a temperature drop of about 10c from Lisbon, however the colourful and majestic views warmed our souls.
Palacio de Pena is situated amongst lush, immaculate gardens with superb views of rolling hills most definitely fit for snow white and her seven friends. The palaces rooms are like most Royal Palaces, and choc a block full of enough antiques and gold leafed furniture for ten years worth of episodes of 'Antique Roadshow'. So while this tale may not have had a happy ending, the Royals certainly enjoyed living the dream while the pages were being written.
Once visiting the Palaciao we were only given a very short 30 minutes to explore the township of Sintra and we were kicking ourselves we hadn't given Sintra, and Lisbon for that matter, more time in our itinerary. The township of Sintra is enchanting. Colourfully painted buildings and narrow laneways full of restaurants, bars and shops with beautiful views it seemed the perfect location to stay for at least a few days. Somehow we still managed to consume 6 cakes and a few coffees in our short spell in Sintra.
Oscar has been doing remarkably well the entire trip and has complained very little, astounding really for all our travelling. However his poor little body has suffered the past week as no less than 6 new teeth (to make the grand total 14!) have started coming through, and for anyone who has a baby they will know this is no fairy tale. So after a grizzly day I spent the last evening in Lisbon giving Oscar some quality time in the hotel, and Marco joined his (literally) long lost cousin Tiago for dinner.
Marco had last seen Tiago 22 years ago so there had been some changes in appearance. Tiago arrived to collect Marco at our hotel with his friend and partner in crime...Tiago. And if that didn't seem confusing enough, after a few long days in the sun and a few vino tintos that afternoon, Marco hugged both of them prior to seeking clarification as to who was actually his cousin.
So needless to say we probably need to keep in better touch with the Portuguese side of the family!
Marco learnt that evening after travelling in Tiago's car that on Portuguese roads...there are no rules, and the two Tiago's each had their own cars which they decided to race down the highway. I'm not sure which Tiago vehicle Marco was co-pilot of, but after a hairy drive to cousin-Tiago's house for dinner at an average speed of 160kmh (with no indicators for lane changes), and a belly full of bacalau, he was happy to be back at our hotel!
Lisbon has been a breath of fresh air and I look forward to coming back here one day, and I highly recommend it to anybody travelling to this part of the world. Europe does not finish in Spain when travelling west.
But now we are off to pick up a hire car and brave these Portuguese roads. For now we travel to Northern Portugal, which I foresee to be a theme park of sorts for all things that Marco's infatuated with -History, Castles and Cathedrals. Oh my!