Myth, Romance, and the Portuguese Highlands

With apologies to anyone wondering what any of this has to do with Nairn’s London, I shall attempt to quickly round up my Portuguese trilogy with the day trips taken from Lisbon. The most interesting of these was Sintra. Close to Lisbon yet high up in the mountains, this strange little town served as the summer retreat for successive Portuguese monarchs, and around its boundaries are scattered so many funny-looking palaces that one would need a car -and two or three days- to see them all.

The place is so high up that one wonders how they transported the materials for these palaces, and whether the altitude got to the architects’ heads. Their status as summer retreats is perhaps key; these buildings are what Clough Williams Eliis was riffing on in Portmeirion, writ far larger. They are romantic follies on a large scale. They are places of play and fun such as a child might commission. They are the giant’s house at the top of the beanstalk.

Everyone sees the past through rose-tinted spectacles and longs to get a little bit of it back; it wasn’t better, but what’s at stake is that we don’t like where we are. Past eras which were arduous, violent and repressive can look like heaven to anyone in a globalised economy where our livelihoods are moved to India or supplanted by robots en masse. Watching the Industrial Revolution clear the fields and draw everyone into the city, the monarchs of the C19th became avid fans of the princess in the tower.

At the same time that Prince Albert picked out Balmoral, Mad Ludwig II was building his fairytale stuff in Bavaria and high above Sintra, the Portuguese were building Pena Palace. To get to Pena from Sintra station, a bus lurches drunkenly up an ascending path with more twists than a fairground waltzer. The bus stops at the gates to Pena park where, if you don’t fancy the climb, a third form of transport is required to ascend to the palace (for a fee).

By the time you get to the palace you literally have your head in the clouds, and the fanciful creation before you seems as logical as following a white rabbit. This was originally a small monastery, of which everything bar the chapel was destroyed in 1755 (the stained glass is clearly not an original feature). It’s so high altitude, I’d venture that we were in Black Narcissus territory- except that was a brothel that became a convent, whereas Pena… at this time the Portuguese royal family belonged to the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, and a rogue’s gallery inside shows what a narrow gene pool the crowns of Europe had to draw upon.

When you’ve had your fill of the palace, there’s a substantial park with all sorts of follies. The visitor experience is fairly maddening in peak summer season because demand vastly exceeds supply for the bus. Trying to get back down from Pena will entail bus drivers pointing and laughing as their full bus passes your stop, or a Darwinian struggle in which only the most nakedly aggressive have a chance of getting onto the bus; probably both.

Logistics in mind, we limited ourselves to two palaces. The second, Quinta da Regaleira, was the creation of a wealthy trader rather than a King. A fabulous dining room and a quaintly bonkers rooftop “laboratory of friendship” aside, the palace itself is not extraordinary, but the gardens are a show-stealer. It’s cheaper and less crowded than the royal palaces, but better.

A child unleashed on the Regaleira gardens would have the best day of their life, to wander around is to become Indiana Jones for a couple of hours and even this adult found it tremendous fun. I imagine that contemporary adventure parks must be stifled by risk assessments and equalities legislation and health & safety protocols. Happily, the C19th didn’t do health & safety.

There are lookout towers, picturesque ruins, grottoes, and a network of tunnels; one path ends at the foot of a 30m well with a winding staircase, the other leaves you standing behind a waterfall.

When I realised someone had tipped off the locals that a Protestant was visiting, however, it was time to make a regretful exit.

Follow the Tagus towards the Atlantic, and on the outskirts of Lisbon you will find Belém. In another hint that Portugal is broke, the #15 tram goes twice an hour and is as much of a Sadean orgy of limbs, faces and unsupported bodies pressed together as the London Overground on a weekday morning. Nevertheless, the famous custard tarts that you have to queue 20 minutes for are the best in a city that has rendered me unable to countenance a Tesco egg custard tart ever again.

Setting aside my native soil of Ulster, small nations seem bonded and harmonious to me. When we mentioned to anyone in Lisbon that we’d been to Porto first, the stock reaction was to place hand over heart and say “Ah, well you know, I’m a little bit in love with Porto.” Can you imagine a Cockney saying the same about Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds? The national myth is a fairly big thing in a country that knows most outsiders are wondering why it isn’t part of Spain, and Belém is Bethlehem rebuilt on Portugal’s green and pleasant land. It was from here that the great explorers set out to uncover new routes to India and in the process found the new world, giving Portugal dominion over Brazil, Angola, Macau.

The Tower of Belém is, to anyone crippled by the hills of Lisbon, a pretty punishing walk from central Belém that involves a footbridge over a motorway; this gives it a sense of pilgrimage. The tower sat in the middle of the Tagus pre-1755, now it stands on its bank. This was the explorers’ point of departure, the last sight of their homeland. You have to use your imagination and reflect on all that happened here, or the momentous turning points for which those voyages were a catalyst, but I got a strange sense of awe from it. Walking around and surveying it, I felt oddly like Graham Chapman just before the end of The Holy Grail.

Belém Tower is an icon of the hyper-decorative, late Gothic style called Manueline, most of whose best examples perished in the earthquake. The other Manueline jewel is Belém’s Jeronimos Monastery, with its fabulous church and cloisters. It was here that the great explorers would make their confessions on the eve of each voyage, now it is a sort of Portuguese Westminster Abbey.

I was quite unfamiliar with the Manueline style but it feels fantastical and whimsical. I wonder if there’s a Moorish element as the only things I’ve seen that quite resemble it are the Turkish-tinged decorations in Venice. It’s said to be full of nods to the maritime, ships here and there and rocks carved to resemble ropes. Gargoyles and strange animals abound. Gurning and grimacing human heads grow out of pillars; the effect is almost as if Bosch had tried his hand at architecture. It speaks to me of Gormenghast or Discworld, although it obviously came first.

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Finally, the two blingy Atlantic resorts beyond the mouth of the Tagus are Estoril and Cascais. In the first half of the century, Estoril was the destination of choice for exiled monarchs who flocked to its famous casino. Its former grandeur is reputed to have given way to decay and obscurity; for this, and the Edith Templeton connection, I was tempted, but we instead plumped for the livelier Cascais. It’s a small place with beaches, shops, a park, and a plethora of (uniformly dreadful-looking) places to eat and drink. The coastal fortress is now a hotel. In a town like this, I wonder what people do for kicks. If I lay down to sunbathe I’d be bored rigid after 10 minutes.

I don’t have a huge tolerance for crowds. Not being a sun-seeker, I’ve grown accustomed to preferring tourist sites off-season, in the tranquil depths of winter, when you can have places to yourself and the pace of life is less brisk.  However, it was interesting for once to visit a seaside resort in full swing. The town was packed out and it was all hands on deck for the locals; constant streams of waiters running around with plates of baked cod, a dozen workers manning the gelato counter. They were as busy as an ant colony and entirely focused on extracting the Euros from the tourist wallets, to stockpile cash that would keep them going throughout the rest of the year. The pace might have been frenetic, but there was something harmonious about it.

 

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