Picking Up on a Portuguese Love Affair

Portugal’s allure is undeniable. Succulent seafood, the azure waters of the Algarve, welcoming people, a temperate climate, and a rich history.  My first grand tour of Europe began in Portugal when I was 18 and my heart was instantly ensnared by its captivating beauty. Last year I returned and was thrilled to find the first love of my travelling life still as enchanting as I remembered.

Lisbon, with a population of 500,000, is a European gem, often forgotten in favor of bigger, showier competitors. But on this visit, I was reminded of why this beautiful grand dame deserves a second look.

My husband and I made our base the centrally located Tivoli Avenida Liberdade hotel. I was introduced to the well-regarded Portuguese Tivoli brand (now owned by Minor Hotel Group) by a PR rep in Toronto and on this trip we decided to see if the reality matched the hype. Poking around the lobby, I came across a history of the storied hotel and learned it had been Portuguese actress Beatriz Costa’s home for 30 years. The black and white film star once shared the silver screen with stars such as Marlene Dietrich and we spotted her portrait outside her former suite.

Getting into the hotel’s lux vibe, one of the first things I did was splurge on an Anantara Signature massage in the onsite spa. After my feet were washed in a bowl of warm water, I picked a lavender essential oil for my treatment and melted under the sure hands of my Thai masseuse. Pure bliss.

That night, at Sky Bar on the hotel’s 9th floor, we lounged on comfy seats while looking out over the twinkling city. It was the perfect place to sip designer cocktails and delectable small bites. Dinner was at the hotel’s Seen Restaurant where bartenders buzzed under a very real looking tree (the trunk was, the leaves were not) and wait staff served choice selections from “chefpreneur” Olivier da Costa’s tantalizing menu including tasty, fresh caught Portuguese fish and Brazilian palm hearts.

The next day we walked Lisbon’s cobbled streets to burn off a few calories, and headed to St. Jorge Castle, strategically located on one of the city’s highest points. After a calf-tightening ascent, we admired the view and marched into the crumbling stone edifice. Built by the Moors in the mid-11th century, the castle was home to royalty from the 14th to 16th centuries. After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, new buildings were raised over the older ruins and by the 19th century military barracks covered the entire area. The castle and ruins of the former royal palace were rediscovered after restoration work in the late 1930s. Not much is left of the interior, but we walked the circumference of the castle, admiring the eleven remaining towers.

Taking a tram overlooking the Tagus River, we headed to the Belem Tower, one of the most photographed historic sites in the city. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the structure was built in the 1500s to guard the estuary at the mouth of the Tagus and later it served as a customs house. The sun was beginning to set and it almost glowed.

Next day, we tapped into Portugal’s majestic past in Sintra, a 30-minute drive from Lisbon. Nestled in the hills of the Serra de Sintra, it was the summer playground of royalty and is filled with whimsical palaces and mansions. 

Our first stop was Pena Palace which sprang from the imagination of King Ferdinand II. Originally a 16th century monastery, it was converted into the king’s summer house in the late 1800s. The palace had a fairytale-like quality and was filled with hidden nooks and crannies.  When we emerged, the grounds were wrapped in fog thick as cotton wool and it felt as if we had been transported back to another century.

Our visit to nearby Quinta da Regaleira, a world heritage site built at the end of the 19th century, had a similar feel. “We get a lot of fog. It’s what makes Sintra so mystical,” the admission clerk explained. A pamphlet informed us that the property was created in the late 19th century and was inspired by the Rosacrucian spiritual movement. The site was conceived by Italian set designer Luigi Manini and the symbols, enigmatic structures and lush gardens he created reflected the philosophical and spiritual views of owner Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.

Our hotel was equally spellbinding. The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais was built in the late 1700s for King John the 6th, who never arrived. At the start of of the French Revolution in 1779, he hid out in Brazil.

Taking a tour of the property with a staff member, I learned most of the furniture, including handmade carpets and tapestries, was original. “A Dutch ambassador bought it as a summer house for his son, but he didn’t like it here. Too much fog,” noted my guide. There were many owners over the years and in 1955 it was converted into a hotel with two tennis courts, swimming pool, lemon garden, and mountain hiking and biking nearby.

These days, it contains 30 guest rooms. The King and Queen of the Netherlands had stayed in our room two years prior, according to the guest book displayed in the lobby. Other big name guests included Agatha Christie, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger.

The Algarve was our final destination and after checking into Tivoli Carvoeiro, a 248-room seaside spread that was refurbished in 2017, we prepared for our Carvoeiro Tuk Tuk tour. Our guide and driver Antonio arrived promptly in his lime green four-seater and we took off for an open air jaunt to cliff-side trail and Alfanzina lighthouse. We also stopped at Porches Pottery, founded by Dublin artist Patrick Swift in 1962. Swift’s daughter Juliette was behind the counter. “We have 11 staff and nine painters. When we first came, we had moved from London where my father hung out with painters such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon in the pubs,” she said. I learned that her father reinvigorated a local art form that was dying out. “At one time there were a lot of studios making pottery for everyday use. When plastic came along, the studios started closing,” she explained.

At Bacchus, a café attached to the shop, owner Carlos Rebelo stopped for a chat. He was born in Portugal but lived in Toronto for most of his life. Five years ago he and his wife Tina and son Rick came back to Portugal and took over the café. “We could not pass up the opportunity to work in such a wonderful environment,” he said with a smile.

The final stop was Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery) where we met owner Ian Fitzpatrick and his daughter Molly. Originally from Glasgow, Ian came to the Algarve after completing art college to work with a friend. “That was 38 years ago,” he said. He opened Olaria Pequena in 1983 outside the village of Porches and today his daughters Molly and Martha, also ceramics artists, give him occasional assistance.

Portugal has a way of capturing people’s hearts. There’s an easy warmth to the country that compels most people to come back or, in some cases, to stay.

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