BIS Secondary students have just returned from their annual study tour. This year’s destination was Portugal. We spent four days in Lisbon and three days in Porto. Everyone agrees the trip was an enjoyable experience that all will remember for a long time.
We first headed for Lisbon, ‘golden city’ of southern Europe and the capital of Portugal which sits at the point where the River Tagus feeds into the Atlantic, just about as far west as you can go without getting your feet wet.
After a few hours of beauty sleep and rich breakfast, we visited Monsteiero das Jeronimos in Belem. It is a Monastery that was built in the time of Henry the Navigator when spices from Africa and India were only being imported through Portugal. The revenue from the import of pepper alone helped build this monastery with its magnificent cloisters, each column differently carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs. The Monastery shares space with the Natural History museum and the Maritime museum where we were impressed with model ships from the Age of Discovery onward, the world’s largest collection of astrolabes, and replicas of 16th century maps showing the world as it was known then.
Then we went to a Pastry shop that has been going since the 1800’s. It is called Belem Pastiere. We were told no trip to Lisbon was complete without trying the Pasties de Belem. They are a small tart with a caramelised custard filling, served warm. They were delicious! When the Monastery ran out of money from the trade and sale of pepper, one of the monks came up with a recipe for pastries and started selling them to finance the completion of the Monastery. Not only did they finish the monastery but the pastries became world famous and now the recipe is hidden under lock and key in one of Portugal’s largest banks.
Our first evening ended in a cute little restaurant where we relaxed and listened to popular live Fado music and enjoyed Portuguese national dishes. There were several performers accompanied by two guitarists playing the intensely melancholic songs about love, woes and pains, on guitar and viola. Thanks to our Principal, Miss Keserovic, who sang a couple of songs to the owners and guests, we became a part of the show.
Next morning we visited the Tower de Belem, a large castle fort built to protect the Port of Lisboa. It used to sit right in the middle of the River Tejo, but now, because of changes in the river bed, it sits along the shoreline.
Later on, while ‘hoofing’ across Lisbon, we found Lisbon’s very own Hard Rock Café in the center of the city. How cool is that? There’s a car (a real one!) hanging from the ceiling! We had our drinks as we watched the pop videos on the screens and listened to the loud music.
Another unforgettable experience was found shopping in an immense shopping center; Vasco da Gama with water running over the transparent roof. During our stay in Lisbon we visited another shopping mall Colombo, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula. The girls were enchanted. On our way there we saw Europe’s largest Christmas tree placed on Edward VII Park overlooking the city all the way down to the river. It reaches a height of “only” 44 meters due to the fact that the top of the park is much higher than its previous low riverfront location and it could interfere with the airplanes passing by on their way to the city’s airport.
After a few days of exploring Lisbon, we went on a day tour to Sintra, Estoril and Cascais. The tour took us to the westernmost point of both mainland Europe and Portugal, Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca). It was windy and we stared at the far off horizon in the distance. There was nothing but ocean to look at. It was funny to think that at one time people assumed this was the end of the land and the rest of the world was just water. I guess, because of their lack of knowledge and the view from there, we could understand their thinking. We got the Certificates with our names on them stating that we were there.
Our next stop was Sintra, the summer playground of the kings and queens of Portugal, with many palaces and stately buildings. Back in the day, Lord Byron noted that “Sintra is probably the most beautiful town in the whole world.” We all agreed that Byron was right. We started our conquest of Sintra by looking through some of the souvenir shops. Then we went to visit the palace. To get to the palace we had to climb from where the bus dropped us off. It’s quite a big climb and we were (especially girls in high heels) tired by the time we reached the palace at the same time as the shuttle bus from the bottom arrived at the top. Grrrr! We consoled ourselves with the notion that we had not only saved ourselves the 1.50 euro fare, but that more importantly, it was healthier for us. We forgot about the tiring climb when we spotted the impressive Palace of Pena, built on an imposing site high on a mountain overlooking Sintra and the surrounding countryside, including the Atlantic coast in one direction and Lisbon in the other. This amazing place, described as the finest example of Romantic architecture in Portugal started life as a monastery but took its current form in the 19th century. The interior of the palace is one of the best examples of decorated rooms. We spent several hours exploring the palace, commenting on whether the queen or the maid had the nicest room (opinion was divided) and walking around narrow paths on the exterior of the palace. It’s a lot of fun to explore and we all had a great time running around the walls, hiding in the towers and looking through the battlements.
Then it was time for lunch. We found a nice place in Cascais; there were plenty to choose from. Cascais is a stylish summer resort with cobbled streets, that give it a charming feel. There was a walkway along the ocean that goes all the way from Cascais to the next town of Estoril. There are cafes along the side and different play areas to entertain the students and of course beautiful beaches. Cascais is the playground for the Lisbon rich. There are many beautiful old mansions hanging off the cliffs overlooking the walkway and hidden within the old part of the city.
Having completed this part of the tour we moved to Oporto which lent its name to the famous wine and to Portugal. Oporto was built along the hills overlooking the Douro river estuary and turned out to be even more beautiful than Lisbon. Everywhere were fine monuments that brought to mind the great Age of Discoveries and picturesque houses whose facades were decked with ornate ceramic tiles. As dusk turned to night, the yellow electric tramcars continued to wind their way up and down the hills of the old gracious northern capital.
We visited Igreja de Sao Francisco; a Gothic church with a plain facade and rich interior of gold-leaf gilding. We took pictures of Ponte D. Luis, the city’s emblematic iron bridge, built by a disciple of the famous Eiffel and spent several hours on the bank of Douro river and Ribeira do Porto.
A visit to the Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia was an essential part of the trip where we learned all about Port wines; there are over 50 port producers within the narrow lanes where the wines are aged and blended. We all bought a bottle or two of the famous Port wine for our families.
The fresh fish and shellfish proved to be delicious. We tried shrimps, oysters, and crabs and the rich seafood rice, “arroz de marisco”, except for few of us who preferred Pizza Hut and MacDonald’s. The national dish is “bacalhau” – dried, salted cod. There are said to be 365 different ways of preparing it, one for each day of the year. In some countries, at Christmas time, people eat turkey; in Portugal people eat boiled ‘bacalhau’, with olive oil, potatoes, grain and cabbages.
The trip proved to be very successful, educational and enjoyable. We learned a lot about this part of the world, took a lot of photos, enjoyed listening to Fado singers and have already started putting thoughts together, wondering where next year’s adventures might lead us!