Category Archives: Portugal

• Cultural Landscape of Sintra

Visit: 7th December 2016


Not far to the west of Lisbon in the forested hills lies what UNESCO describes as the ‘Cultural Landscape of Sintra’. This refers to an area of grand palaces built as summer houses for Portugal’s nobility in the 19th century. My family and I drove to this World Heritage Site from Alcobaça after having been to three monasteries, two historic cities and one volcanic island on a five night tour of southern Portugal. The first site we saw when heading for our hotel was this 11th century Moorish palace.


We had arrived in the early afternoon so, although this site consists of a number of palaces and a Moorish castle, we only had time to visit one – the Pena Palace. This eye-catching edifice perched right on the top of a series of jagged hills takes some getting to, being accessible via a bus that winds its way up hairpins so tight it has to stop and do a three-point turn in order to get round one of them.


The Pena Palace was built by King Ferdinand II as a summer retreat. His architects turned this former monastery into a wild pleasure palace that prefigured Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner of the Art Nouveau movement (whose buildings in Barcelona have their own places on the UNESCO list). The Palau de la Música Catalana, for example, was completed in 1908, whereas the Pena Palace had been around since 1854.


It is described as being of the Romanticist style, and features as one of Portugal’s ‘Seven Wonders’ (apart from Óbidos Castle, the others are all World Heritage Sites and places I’ve visited: Guimarães castle, Batalha, Alcobaça and Jerónimos monasteries and the Tower of Belem in Lisbon). It is certainly eclectic and exotic. They say that Disneyland was inspired by the Pena Palace.

Sintra is popular with tourists as it is easily done as a day trip from Lisbon (or at least, it is easy to see parts of it in a day) – and it is priced accordingly. We lost the crowds, however, as we walked down from the Pena Palace through its charmingly landscaped grounds where even the waterfowl live in castles and where we experienced what can only be described as a ‘black swan event’.



• Monastery of Alcobaça

Visit: 7th December 2016


This was our third Portuguese monastery in two days and we were starting to develop ‘monastery fatigue’ (a related condition to ‘Gothic cathedral fatigue’ – both common maladies for WHS visitors). So it was again only Dad and I who looked around this site, in Alcobaça, central Portugal (Mum and Joe went shopping).


The monastery was built in the 12th century under early king Alfonso I on land that had been laid waste during the battles against the Moors. The Cistercian monks who were given stewardship of the area were to become adept at turning the land back to productivity and also at building an efficient, modern institution for the 1,000 brothers who were to live there.


The kitchen is a practical but impressive room at Alcobaça. This enormous oven was used to cook six cows at a time. The monks also installed running water that fed huge sinks to do the washing up in.


The style of Alcobaça, exemplified by the nave, above, is of the austere Cistercian Gothic. It couldn’t be more different to the monasteries we had visited the previous day at Tomar and Batalha. The intent was to avoid the trappings of ornate decoration then so popular with ecclesiastical builders so that the monks could focus on the things that really mattered. It feels more like some sort of Protestant denomination building, though of course Protestantism hadn’t been invented when Alcobaça was constructed.


• Monastery of Batalha

Visit: 6th December 2016


The Monastery of Batalha in central Portugal was the second of three we visited in a two-day period. Unlike the Convent of Christ in Tomar, it was never used as a castle so has no fortifications, sitting instead in the middle of a large town square.


Batalha means ‘battle’ in Portuguese. The whole monastery in fact was built to commemorate the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota in which the nascent Kingdom of Portugal defeated the numerically superior Crown of Castile. It is therefore of great significance to the Portuguese people as a symbol of their independence as a nation.

Led by their king John (or João) the First, 7,000 Portuguese troops outmanoeuvred John (or Juan) the First of Castile’s 30,000 man army. To mark his victory, João ordered the building of a grand Gothic cathedral and monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary – to whom he had prayed on the eve of battle. João’s wife, Philippa of Lancaster, was buried here (she was the daughter of English nobleman John of Gaunt* – whose heirs male included kings Henry IV, V and VI).


The site is still of major importance to the country’s armed forces, where a constant guard is kept over an eternal flame in memory of the war dead.

When the Manueline style emerged in the 16th century the monastery was extensively redecorated in it. I think of that style as being like textile patterns made with stone.


After 150 years of building works the nation eventually ran out of money – or patience – and one of the major chapels was never completed. Known today as the Unfinished Chapel, it lacks a roof, leaving the ornate World Heritage architecture of its interior a home for pigeons. You can see in the pictures above and below that the intricately-decorated columns simply stop abruptly.


We drove on from Batalha to our destination for the night in the nearby city of Alcobaça. This being in the dead of the off-season, we turned out to be the only guests in the hotel (apart from a solitary Italian businessman).

* Everybody was called John back then.

• Convent of Christ in Tomar

Visit: 6th December 2016


Having spent the night in Elvas, we had a long drive ahead of us from the eastern half of Portugal to the west. We were heading 105 miles to a golden triangle of World Heritage monasteries. Each of these three is a WHS in its own right, and no more than 30 miles distant from one another. The first node turned out to be my favourite: the Convent of Christ, perched on a hilltop overlooking the small city of Tomar.


Before it became a convent the site was a castle built by the Knights Templar – soldier-monks who fought to expel the Moors from the Iberian territories they called the ‘Cordoba Caliphate’. It still retains its fortifications, which now protect orange trees and some of Portugal’s national treasures from nothing more deadly than stray dogs.


In the 14th century the king of France, who was evidently in the ascendancy at the time, booted out the knights in order to seize their riches. It was after this that their church was extended and modified into a convent for monks.


Its most impressive feature is this enormous octagonal altar beneath a 16-segment dome. Repeated references to the number 8 are examples of medieval Christian numerology. There were eight survivors of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament, and in the New we are told that Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week after he was crucified (interpreted to mean the eighth day).


The Manueline (a Gothic/Renaissance mix unique to Portugal) nave is covered in ornate designs commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The elaborate sculpted ropes bring to mind the vessels that bore explorers including Vasco da Gama to far-flung places in Africa, Asia and South America.


The convent’s cloisters are full of details like the elegant spiral staircase, below. The Convent of Christ had been remarkably quiet, though I suppose that may have been because we visited on a Tuesday afternoon in December. After walking along the ramparts it was time to continue our journey onward to another monastery at Batalha.


• Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications

Visit: 5th/6th December 2016


Fifty miles northeast of Évora is the fortified Portuguese border town of Elvas. We stayed overnight here in an apartment in the town centre. As with Évora, one is first greeted by an aqueduct, except this one is not Roman. Elvas is notable for its extensive fortifications, built between the 17th and 19th centuries. This tall and sturdy aqueduct dates from that era, bringing water to the town from 5 miles away.


Elvas is basically an enormous fortress, comprising ‘the largest bulwarked dry ditch system in the world’. It sits at a key point on the road from Lisbon to Madrid, which meant a system of fortifications was inevitable following the beginning of hostilities in 1640 of the 28 year Portuguese Restoration War against Spain.


The ditches and walls date from a period of rapid developments in military architecture. France has a World Heritage Site inscribed as ‘The Fortifications of Vauban’, which I visited a part of on the Amiens trip earlier this year. Vauban was Louis XIV’s chief military architect, and he ringed France with new defences in the 17th century.

I walked over from the main town to the Fort of San Luzia – one of a number of fortlets that were added around Elvas to enhance its security. It was closed for restoration, but since there were no signs telling me so I walked inside and looked around until somebody told me in Portuguese that I wasn’t meant to be there. It did however allow me an opportunity to see Elvas from afar. You can see the aqueduct on the left and the town’s walls on the right, in the photo below.


It was pretty cold that night in eastern Portugal – a contrast to what we’d been used to Madeira. We had drinks and dinner in the nice Restaurante Acontece, where the bartender made us G&Ts with cardamom pods. The photos below show Elvas from next to its castle as we strolled around its narrow streets by dusk.

None of my photos really do the place justice, however – and neither, if I am honest, did my own visit. For to properly appreciate the extent of the fortifications one needs to view this WHS from above. The best I can do is reproduce some Google Earth imagery, first showing the fort of San Luzia and then the city of Elvas in its entirety.


• Historic Centre of Évora

Visit: 5th December 2016


After flying from Madeira to Lisbon, my family and I rented a car and hit the road for a 4 day trip around mainland Portugal. We set off across the Vasco da Gama bridge – at 7.6 miles it is the longest bridge in Europe. Heading into the country’s interior I was surprised to see that storks are prevalent here, with several nesting on practically every electricity pylon along the route. Portugal has some of the best (toll) roads in the world, so were soon at our first destination, 80 miles east of the capital: the ancient Roman city of Évora.

The sight that first greets visitors is a well-preserved aqueduct that cuts through the main car park. Walking into town along a busy cobbled street the traffic noise was a little horrendous, but soon we had entered a pedestrianised square where we sat down to lunch.


Apart from the aqueduct the major legacy of the Romans is a temple to Diana, goddess of the hunt. There isn’t any signage explaining how or why the temple remains in such good condition, so it remains a bit of a mystery to us.


Next to the temple is a more modern religious building – though modern is a relative term. Évora’s cathedral was completed in the 13th century after Christianity had firmly taken hold of Portugal. Dad and I went up onto the roof to get a view over the town.



In the 15th century the city became the residence of the Portuguese kings, which marked an upswing in its fortunes. Urban planning was instituted and the town developed a uniformly Portuguese style of whitewashed terraces. This style was superseded in later years by the tiling style typified in Guimarães, but Évora is the best surviving example (it was unscathed by the widely-destructive earthquake of 1755).


I haven’t been to Brazil but they say that walking around Évora feels like some of the earlier Portuguese colonies in the New World. A number of these are World Heritage Sites themselves, so watch this space.

We spent only about three hours in the city in total before continuing our journey eastward to the border town of Elvas. Having seen a miscellany of souvenirs fashioned out of cork for sale (think cork handbags, cork ties, cork shoes etc.) we began to notice the abundance of cork trees littering the route – something the region is well known for producing a lot of.

• Laurisilva of Madeira

Visit: 4th December 2016


Many months ago I had the idea of spending a week in December travelling around Portugal and Spain on my own. I booked a flight from Gatwick to the island of Madeira and another from Madeira to Lisbon, with the intention of travelling by bus from Lisbon to Madrid and then flying home from there. Some weeks after booking my mum expressed an interest in joining me, then my brother decided he was interested too. Finally my dad found his schedule allowed him to come too, so my solo adventure had been turned into a fully-fledged family holiday!


Joe and I were on the same plane out – a half-empty Norwegian Air Shuttle 737-800. Madeira’s sole airport is known amongst pilots as a relatively tricky place to land because of its proximity to steep terrain and its unpredictable weather. This was especially so before the year 2000, when the runway was extended out on stilts over the sea.

An hour after our touch-down Mum and Dad arrived from Bristol and we drove to our hotel for the night. We ate dinner in Funchal, the island’s quaint capital, and discussed our walking plans for the following day.


Madeira is a mountainous volcanic island in the eastern Atlantic ocean, roughly level with Marrakesh. It is covered by primary, or ancient, forest – meaning forest that has never been cut down by man. Indeed, it was not settled by humans until the 1420s. Madeira’s isolation led to great biodiversity, giving it many endemic plants and insects and two endemic birds.


One experiences this WHS by hiking the ‘levada trails’, which are walking routes that follow man-made irrigation channels known as levadas. The levadas generally flow horizontally along the contours of the hills, with occasional descents down the slopes.

The most striking things about driving up from our hotel by the coast up to the laurisilva forests in Madeira’s uplands were the changes in weather and vegetation. The temperature dropped by about 10 degrees and the types of plants we saw changed as we ascended. It was as if it was still summer down at sea level but further up – as the temperature fell – the leaves had turned brown and autumn was well and truly underway.

The start point for the Levada 25 Fontes and Levada do Risco trails was shrouded in fog. If we had wanted to go walking in cold, foggy conditions we could have stayed in England!


These two routes, which start off as one but then fork off individually, led to waterfalls and give a good flavour of the sprawling forests of Madeira. We spent several hours walking along the trials before heading back via road on the north coast to our hotel in Funchal.

We had enjoyed our time and would have liked to have stayed longer on the island. But I had planned only to stay for one full day (two nights) before setting course for the mainland, so the family had no choice but to join me.