You say Portugal, I think ‘egg tart.’ Lord Stow‘s small kiosk in Glorietta led me to my first encounter with the gooey, lemon-colored li’l devils and I haven’t looked back since.
Needless to say, my non-negotiable stop on our Lisbon trip was a visit to 175-year old Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, home of the original pasteis de nata.
To whet our appetites we did a bit of sightseeing before going to Rua de Belém. In my opinion getting around the city is best done by tram. It’s not the fastest means of transport but it’s the most scenic. Premium “seats” to the view can be had by standing at the front next to the driver.
We walked around the Alfama district with its narrow cobbled up-and-down streets and beautiful view of the river Tejo.
We passed by the Sé Catedral de Santa Catarina without knowing it. I snapped a photo only because the facade looked pretty. I found out it was the Sé Catedral after consulting our guidebook later that evening and thinking hey, this church looks familiar. The cathedral is built on a site once occupied by the city’s main mosque, which isn’t surprising as Alfama used to be an important district of Moorish Lisbon.
A trip to Alfama wouldn’t be complete without dropping by the Castelo de São Jorge,which consists of a Moorish castle dating back to 1147, ruins of the former royal palace, and part of the neighborhood for the elite. Entry tickets costed EUR7 per person at the time of our visit in November 2011.
The castle offers fantastic views of the city and the river Tejo. There’s an element of Brazil-meets-San-Francisco in the photo: you can spy the Cristo Rei at the far distance as well as the 25 de Abril Bridge, named after the day the Carnation Revolution occurred.
Only in Lisbon have I seen an ‘elevator tower’ in the form of the Santa Justa Lift, located at the Rua de Santa Justa. It’s the only remaining tower of its kind in Lisbon, another reminder from the city to stop. Breathe. Take a ride up and enjoy the view.
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was another stop we made on our way to the egg tarts. A grand 500-year old monastery, it houses famous residents including Vasco da Gama, an Age of Discoveries poet and chronicler. The imposing facade is amazingly detailed. Entry tickets also costed EUR7 per person as at November 2011.
From the monastery, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém was a short walk away. We bought a half-dozen pasteis de nata–called pasteis de Belém here—for around EUR6. The shop was full, everyone was buying pastry in bulk and though we wanted to eat the tarts with a cup of hot coffee there wasn’t any room.
We did the next best thing and bought takeaway lattes from the next-door Starbucks. We decided to have our snack sitting by the bank of the river. It was almost sunset and everything glowed orange. I recall feeling the tempting warmth of the tarts, which were at the bottom of the plastic bag, against my palms.
They give you sachets of icing sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on your pasteis de nata. I am a sucker for cinnamon, so this was an instant win in my book.
The pastry was surprisingly flaky and so, so good with sugar and cinnamon. Best eaten warm.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos is right by the bank. It’s one of my favorite places in the city. The names of the sculptures read like a who’s who of Portugese explorers instrumental to Portugal’s success during the Age of Discoveries.
The L-shaped Torre de Belém was already closed by the time we got there. It’s meant to be a defensive tower. According to our guidebook it used to occupy an island on the river itself, commanding the approach to Lisbon more fully than it does today.
We stayed at Hotel do Chiado; its private terraces have one of the best views of all the hotels we’ve stayed at so far in Europe.
The next day we left our bags at the hotel to take a day trip to the hills of Sintra, a World Heritage City and a short 40-minute train ride from Lisbon.
We stopped at the Moorish Castle, which was conceived as a vantage point overlooking Lisbon, its surroundings, and other adjacent towns. The fortress has a beautiful, sweeping view of the hills. In some sections I could almost imagine I was on a more rugged section of the Great Wall in Beijing.
We also stopped at the Palace of of Pena (yes, yes… this is the nth castle/palace we’ve visited in Portugal–there’s quite a few of them). The fact that the palace facade is built from colorful patterned tiles makes for an interesting overall look. It’s said that the Palácio Nacional da Pena is one of the finest examples of 19th century Portugese Romanticism.
The surrounding 85-ha park is also worth a visit, with hidden gems such as the Fountain of Small Birds (an Islamic-style pavilion tiled similar to the palace) and the Cruz Alta, a stone carved cross and the highest place in Sintra hills.
Ah, Lisbon. Writing about your pasteis de Belém makes me crave for the little treats. I’m off to Google if London has a Lord Stow’s substitute… preferably one that serves its pasteis with a healthy sprinkling of cinnamon.