We spent four days visiting Sintra and Lisbon alternately. For convenience they have been made into separate blogs.

Wednesday 7th April 2009, Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal
This morning, after spending yesterday scrambling around the Sintra hills, my hips and knees ached, my leg muscles screamed to be allowed to rest, the blisters on my toes where tightly packed with water and the damaged bones in my right foot were bruised and painful. As predicted however, we've explored the highs and lows of Lisbon. There are seven hills, all amongst the steepest to be found in any European capital city and Ian immediately discovered another Moorish castle on the top of one of them! The worst thing about Portuguese cities is that the walkways and roads are entirely paved with small cobbles that are hell to walk on.

Yesterday we searched out a likely area to park Modestine in Sintra so we could take the train into Lisbon from there. It worked perfectly and was so much easier than finding somewhere to park in Cascais while the train fare was exactly the same.

The journey in took about 45 minutes. The nearer we got to the capital, the more ugly grafitti covered the walls and windows of the stations we passed through. As we got further in to the centre we were surrounded by hillsides covered entirely by blocks of flats, the walls at ground level heavily spray painted with obscenities and bad art work. Until now we have found Portugal to be possibly the cleanest and freshest European country we have visited. This though easily equalled the surroundings of Prague and Budapest. Lisbon is a city of over 1,000,000 people and almost all of them live in flats. They are obliged to look out every day onto these scarred and ugly suburbs and walk to work through abandoned rubbish and fly posters left by the disaffected few.

Lisbon was once one of Europe's major ports. In the 18th century however it suffered a couple of massive earthquakes, particularly in 1755 when a quarter of the population was killed by collapsing buildings and the resulting fires and tidal waves. Many of its architectural gems were lost then so there is less to see than might be expected of a capital of this size. The only flat area in the city, the Baixa, was rebuilt as a planned grid by the autocratic Marquis de Pombal. It is now an area of small shops, the streets full of pavement cafés.

The population has increased greatly in recent years, primarily with refugees from former Portuguese colonies such as Angola and Mozambique. They have integrated well and we were very aware of the ethnic mix of different cultures around the city. In one street we would hear an impromptu street concert with musicians and someone singing the mournful words of the traditional Portuguese fado, while a couple of streets further on we'd encounter colourfully dressed young men with dreadlocks banging the living daylights out of a couple of African drums.

We've said before how complicated it is to understand the Portuguese transport system. It's even worse in Lisbon! There are the cutest trams imaginable that struggle gallantly up and down the gravity defying hills and our lower limbs yearned to try them out. We were sent from pillar to post attempting to buy tickets. Eventually we found someone who explained in English how it all worked, starting with an annual season ticket and slowly working his way down to a day ticket, by which time we'd pretty much lost the will to live! At last we climbed on board one of the rickety, noisy wooden trams. The seats were hard and uncomfortable but our feet rejoiced. The sliding wooden framed windows were wide open as we trundled slowly through the streets at little more than walking pace, climbing steep inclines through narrow streets and twisting round impossible curves that left inches between the tram and the windows of the shops and houses. Children clung onto the outside as we swung through the streets, hitching a free ride home – until the police removed them. It was a flat rate fare so we stayed on to the terminus at Estrela, on the summit of one of the hills.

Lisbon transport

Here there is an early 19th century basilica in neo-classical style, with a pleasant cloister. There are also some of the city's nicest public gardens. It's a very popular and tranquil place, remote from the hubbub of the city below. Here a class of toddlers in matching tabards and sunhats played in the children's garden. There was an open air kiosk run by the public library where people could choose a book to read on a park bench, take it home to finish and bring it back on their next visit. There was also a little café beneath the shady trees where we sat with a coffee and custard tart, simply because they are a Lisbon speciality. All the pastelerias are filled with them so we had to try one.

Basilica at Estrele, Lisbon

Our main reason for coming to Estrela, apart from the tram ride, was to visit the English cemetery to seek out the grave of the 18th century writer Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones. He died here in 1754 shortly after proclaiming Lisbon to be the nastiest city in Europe. I guess arriving here in constant pain from gout and other ailments shortly before dying, he'd be unlikely to appreciate what the city was able to offer. At least he just managed to miss the earthquake a few months later!

Our luck was out. We found the cemetery with its notice to bang loudly and wait to be let in. Banging did no good though, everyone inside was dead and the attendant had gone off for the afternoon!

So we returned down into the city on another of the delightful trams. How do the brakes hold on the hills? They groaned and squawked all the way down and several times we had to wait while the driver hooted at cars that had decided to park on the tracks!

Portuguese ladies having a chat, Lisbon

Lisbon has an even more vertical form of transport than the trams! There are several funiculars and a couple of gigantic lifts to take you to a higher level around the town, linked to the cliff face by aerial walkways from the head of the lift. The one below, the Elevador de Santa Justa, was originally steam driven and was built in 1902.

Lift from the Baixa to the upper town, Lisbon

Exploring the centre we discovered the attractive square of Rossi with an enormous, imposing statue of Dom Pedro IV set between a couple of large fountains. Apparently it was originally intended to be a statue of Maximilian of Mexico and had been transported from Paris to Lisbon en route for Latin America when news arrived that the emperor had been assassinated! So could the order be cancelled and please could they have their deposit back? What else could you do with an enormous bronze statue of an assassinated Emperor from a country on the other side of the world? The emperor's head was sawn off and one of the Portuguese monarch welded on instead.

Rossio Square with the recycled statue of Dom Pedro IV, Lisbon

At all the popular, touristy parts of the city we were pestered by beggars, all male and invariably pleading for money for food, often with a cigarette in their hand. They all seemed to suffer from problems with their feet or lower limbs. Near churches they would sit with their trousers rolled up showing a leg in plaster or a wasted limb or a seeping wound covered in white paste. At tram stops they would come up close and personal, waving a crutch and asking for money in three or four different languages. I've had a neoprene support on my damaged foot all day and thought about showing it to them in exchange! Sorry, it's uncharitable of me but it was all very distasteful. They were like a dark cloud spoiling a pleasant experience, not just for us but for the many tourists visiting the city. At some stage an attempt seems to have been made to unzip our rucksack. We didn't notice even though we were looking out for it. Nothing was taken however and even if it had been, knowing it's a vulnerable side pocket we carry nothing but a dummy purse in it with a multilingual rude message for anyone who manages to get it! In the city centre there was a police presence. They roll around the streets on Segways! They look such fun it almost makes you want to join the police force! They were more intent on seeing if the could drive them backwards at the same time as answering their mobile phones, than in dissuading the beggars from displaying their limbs or preventing people getting their pockets picked.

Police patrol the centre of Lisbon. Arco da rua Augusta in the background

Generally though it has been a very interesting day and we've greatly enjoyed visiting Portugal's capital although it's not a place we can warm to in the way we did to Porto. There is still a lot more to see and we will return again before we move on. Today we have done no more than scratch at the surface of the city. There are dozens of museums and it would be perfectly possible to spend several days exploring in greater depth.

After a second day at Sintra, covered in a separate blog, we returned to Lisbon.

Friday 10th April 2009, Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal
It's Good Friday but really doesn't feel at all like Easter. Certainly it's an anticlimax after our amazing experience in Greece last year. Still, Ian did discover a little coffee shop in Lisbon where he could buy himself a hot cross bun so he's content enough even if it did have glacé cherries in, was served untoasted and resembled French brioche in texture.

Again we drove to Sintra, avoiding the expensive local bus into Cascais and the wait for the train to Lisbon. Parking in Sintra early on a public holiday was a synch and within minutes we were on the train for the 45 minute run into central Lisbon.

Unfortunately the suburbs seemed even worse today with unsightly graffiti. Nothing is immune. Even the train seats and windows have not escaped and have been randomly sprayed with painted scribble. It is one of the very worst cities we have seen in this respect.

Suburban flats in Lisbon seen from the train

Not a single building unscathed, Lisbon

Striding across the suburbs are high arches supporting the aqueducts that bring fresh water into the city.

Aquaduct seen from the train, Lisbon

By contrast to its rolling stock Rossio railway station in the centre of the city is immaculately clean and smart with escalators carrying passengers down to street level and the highly decorative neo-Manueline entrance hall.

Rossio railway station, (and a man rolling his snowball along the street!) Lisbon

First we stopped off at a little stand-up snack bar we discovered on Wednesday. Here customers pop in for a bowl of soup or a piece of baked fish which they eat standing at the counter with a glass of wine or beer, regardless of the time of day. We have been working our way along the tray of goodies displayed in the window, each of us choosing something different and sharing it. Today we had triangles (that's how we indicated what we wanted, actually they were fried pasties filled with curried meat) and a piece of something flat and yellow covered in herbs. It turned out to be cold fish and was very nice.

Today our intention was to visit Belém on the estuary of the river Tejo. Here there is a white defence tower that stands with its feet in the river, close in to the bank. When it was built however, (1515-1520) it stood way out in the water. Following the earthquake of 1755 the river changed its course, leaving the tower almost high and dry.

Defence tower on the river Tejo, Belém

Our main reason for visiting Belém was to see the Mosteiro dos Jeróminos, housing the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who in the 1490s circumnavigated Africa to reach India, opening up routes that gave Portugal trading supremacy on the Indian Ocean. It was from Belém that he set sail on his voyage of discovery and to Belém that he returned in triumph. On the waterfront there is a huge monument to his exploits shaped like a ship's hull. It is fitting therefore that his tomb should also be at Belém.

Monument to the achievements of Vasco da Gama with Europe's longest suspension bridge crossing the Tejo behind, Belém

Tomb of Vasco da Gama, Belém

The Mosteiro is an enormous building, heavily decorated inside and out in the Manueline style in the early 16th century. It is stunning to see though really the style is so prevalent in Portugal that it is becoming as tedious as baroque in Southern Germany.

Mosteiro, Belém

Manueline doorway to the Mosteiro, Belém

From the waterfront the long, 25th April Bridge, crosses the estuary. It looks highly impressive and is the longest suspension bridge in Western Europe. Further upstream however, the river widens out and is crossed by the longest river bridge of any sort in Europe, Ponte Vasco da Gama, over ten kilometres long, bringing traffic right into the heart of Lisbon. We recall crossing it on the night bus to Faro after a couple of weeks back-packing around Spain and Portugal. We caught the early morning flight back to Exeter and were back in our own house in time for breakfast! How strange that we feel so far from home now - but that's probably because it has taken us four weeks to get here!

Roofscape with Europe's longest river bridge in the background, Lisbon

Perhaps because it has been a public holiday, there were large crowds at Belém, walking along the river front or queuing to visit the cloisters of the Mosteiro. They looked like having a very long wait so we gave them a miss. Having seen what we came for and seeing little else to detain us we returned on the tram to central Lisbon.

Not being inclined to waste time and money queuing for the iron lift from the Baixia up the hillside to the Convento do Carmo, a mediaeval gothic building partially destroyed during the earthquake, we walked up. This took us through a pleasant quarter of Lisbon that we'd seen from the tram ride we took on Wednesday, and we had leisure to investigate a couple of town squares on the way. We'd reached the head of the lift, high above the streets while people were still standing in the long queue waiting for their squashed ride up! From up here we had excellent views over the lower town, the wide river Tejo, across to the Moorish castle on one of the neighbouring hills, and over towards the cathedral which I'd gone on strike about, refusing to be dragged up yet more hills into yet more over decorated ecclesiastical buildings.

Convento do Carmo, Lisbon

Convento do Carmo, Lisbon

Looking towards the Moorish castle from the top of the iron lift, Lisbon

Rossio square seen from the top of the iron lift, Lisbon

Lisbon cathedral seen from the top of the iron lift

We've enjoyed Lisbon but we enjoyed Porto far more. Lisbon really is a tourist mecca, finding your way around is not easy and arriving by train means seeing the ugly, seedy side of the city before even setting foot in it. We were happy to take the train back to Sintra, getting steadily more depressed as we sat staring at scribbled walls and wanton destruction for 45 minutes until we left the train at the pretty, leafy, lively, charming old town of Sintra where Modestine waited patiently to drive us back to our campsite. We've had an excellent few days but it's time to move on tomorrow, perhaps towards Spain again.