Wednesday, 30 July 2014


We heard the name of this small town way before arriving to Portugal. Almost everybody who heard that we’re heading over here suggested us to visit Sintra. They kept saying how amazing it is and we definitely have to visit it. This was the reason that we drove up here on our very first weekend. After seeing it for ourselves we can only join the others in saying that if you ever have the chance to come to Lisbon, plan a day trip up here.

The village hides in the Sintra Mountains surrounded by the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park. From the Muslim times it enjoyed special attention and its streets are full of castles, retreats and amazing looking buildings. Thanks to its many monuments, the Castelo dos Mouros, the Quinta Regalia or the National Palace of Pena it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you feel like trying some of the famous Portuguese pastries, head over to the Periquita bakery and ask for the typical travesseiro, pastel de nata or queijada cakes.

Finding a parking space in Sintra is absolutely impossible so try to park in one of the alloted parking lots and use the local bus 434 to carry you to the attractions. It also stops at the train station. The ticket is 5 euros and goes all the way up to the Palacio de la Pena. If you're up for it you can hike up to the Moorish Castle from the town centre with the help of a map that you can get for free from the Tourist Office. From then on it's only a matter of minutes to get to la Pena. 

Check the town’s official website here to find out more about the monuments and many other useful information.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The National Tile Museum in Lisbon

I’ve always loved looking at the beautiful tiles in Spain and it turned out that Portugal is practically covered with them! The National Tile Museum was one of the first museums I went to see.

I learnt in the Museum that its Portuguese name, azulejo comes from the Arab azzelij or al zulejcha, which means ceramic tile. It has been around for an extremely long time, since the 13th century, to be precise. Similarly to Spain, Portugal was also under Muslim rule. The Spanish chased them out of the country however their decorating style was left behind. The Portuguese took over their rigid geometric forms (according to their religion they are not allowed to depict anything resembling a living thing as only God has the power to create) then slowly turned them into their liking, however the Islamic motifs endured for centuries.

I was fascinated to learn about how each tile was formed and decorated.

The building of the Museum is also fascinating. It is housed in a Convent of the Mother of God which does not look very impressive from the outside however some areas are jawdroppingly beautiful. For example the chapel which was decorated in a Baroque style and its walls and the ceiling are all filled with huge paintings.

You can take a break and relax in the shady courtyard or walk around the cloister.

Walking through the rooms of the Museum is like walking through time as you can follow the history of the ceramic tiles over the centuries. The Portuguese tile has found its identity in the painted blue scenes which you can see examples of all over the country.

Some of the modern, contemporary designs.

The pride and joy of the Museum is this huge, panoramic view of Lisbon from before the 1755 earthquake. There are little plaques at the bottom to explain the many churches, convents and palaces on the paining.

The National Tile Museum is a bit away from the centre on Rua Madre de Deus, 4, but easily accessible by the buses 794 and 742. It's open from Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 18pm. The normal entry fee was 6 euros at the time of writing however the Museum is free to enter on every first Sunday of the month.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Jerónimos Monastery

Together with the Belém Tower, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo is also listed as a UNESCO Word Heritage site and is one of the 7 Wonders of Portugal. When I arrived it was still raining so on the photos the monastery looks a bit drab but it all shines white and is imposing in the sunshine.

This building was also built in the Manueline style. Indeed, it was King Manuel I. who commissioned the monastery and housed Hieronymite monks there (The Order of Saint Jerome, hence its name) whose only job was to pray for his soul. In their free time they were allowed to give support to the sailors too, who went to discover the World. Thanks to these guys and to the riches they brought back, the architects didn’t have to think small. Well, they really didn’t.

In the long bit you can visit the Marine Museum however most people come here to see the Church of Santa Maria, which is free to enter. There was a mass in progress while I was there so I couldn’t go around to see it all but I took a photo of its interior.

The main ‘attraction’ here (apart from the gorgeous and unique decoration) is the tomb of Vasco da Gamma. Have you ever heard his name? He was the person who singlehandedly made Portugal rich by discovering a marine spice route to India.

The other important place to go here is the two-storey cloister of the Monastery. I think it’s impossible to describe it with words so let me show it to you through the lens of my camera. 

This huge, impressive building is only about 10 minutes away from the Belém Tower so many people do the two monuments together taking advantage of the discount of the combined ticket, which is 12 euros. A ticket to the Monastery itself costs 10 euros but if you go on the first Sunday of the months you can get in for free. Seniors can get in for half price. It’s advised to get there about an hour before closing time to avoid queuing. For more information have a look at the official website here.

You can find the Monastery on Praça do Império. You can take the commuting train from Cais do Sodre train station and go three stops or take the (slightly uncomfortable) tram nr. 15 from Rossio Square.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the gargoyles!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Tower of Belém

One of the many iconic monuments in Lisbon is this ‘mini-castle’, as Paul called it, on the Tagus River. The first time we came to see it was closed so I went back on a cloudy Sunday to have a look at it from the inside.

The Torre de Belém was built in the 16th century as a part of a defensive belt around Lisbon and had an important part to play during the Age of Discoveries as a fort. It was built in a style that is so typical in Portugal called manueline which got its name from the then ruling king, Manuel I. It is also called ‘late gothic’, the style between the gothic and the renaissance. It is a listed UNESCO World Heritage site and part of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

There’s a wooden walkway that leads you into the Tower through a drawbridge.

The Tower from the inside.

The terrace of the lower bastion.

The Tower was obviously not built for housing this many visitors and having a one man wide spiral staircase does not make things easy. To help the visitors, the Portuguese came up with an interesting system. On every level there’s a screen that tells you whether you can move up or down the stairs and give you a time frame to do so, its lengths depending on the level you are on. The fun starts when somebody disregards the system and starts moving into the opposite direction that they are supposed to. It was quite entertaining to watch for a while but if you want to visit every level you have will have your patience tested.

There’s a cute rhinoceros depicted under one of the turrets. According to the stories it is a memento to the first rhino set foot in the country in 1513 as a present from India. Soon King Manuel got tired of it and wanted to give it away to the Pope, however the poor animal never made it to Rome but got shipwrecked on the way (please keep a minute silence in memory of the rhino). As the whole story happened around the building of the tower they used it as an element of decoration. It is now so well-worn that if they didn’t tell you you wouldn’t know that it’s rhino but it has its own plaque on the wall and there’s an arrow guiding you to the right window to see it.   

You can find the Torre Belém on Avenida da India. The entry fee is 5 euros for adults but if you go on the first Sunday of the months you can get in for free. If you happen to be there at this time, be prepared for the crowd! You can take the commuting train from Cais do Sodre train station and go three stops or take the (slightly uncomfortable) tram nr. 15 from Rossio Square.