Making a pilgrimage to the monks in Belem and heading to the seaside for some art and a wander. These two towns in Lisbon are reason enough to head out of the city for some downtime even if they are tourist magnets in their own right.
BELEM: BIG SWINGS
Belem is a small town with big swings. The Jeronimos monastery, Vasco da Gama memorial, the 25 de Abril bridge, the tower of Belem just to name a few. Without question however, the only real reason to pilgrimage to Belem is because of the pastries. Pasteis de Belem. Made from the old monks recipe from the monks that reside in the monastery next door. Yes there are other things to do and see in the town but really this is what we came here for. I went all the way to Belem to have these pastries because what beats a monk’s recipe really?
Belem unlike Lisbon is open and green and feels vast despite its smallness, its proximity to the sea feels gives it that air of freshness. The harbour is lined with vessels and the park is treelined and pleasant to observe. You can find pockets of quiet spots to rest your laurels and for a time forget you are in the same space with other tourists.
The Jeronimos Monastery: with its Manueline style architecture famed after Manuel I who is interred in the church. Walk the cloisters of the monastery, that is where the real magic resides and if you are lucky, as the sun sets, the rays give a holistic feeling as you explore the grounds. Celestial. Before you visit the Cloisters, start with the church which is connected to the cloisters; Igreja Santa Maria de Belem. For some it is the cloisters that is the show stopper but I found the church encased in this fanciful building, rather resplendent in its simplicity. Whilst you are in there look up because the ceiling will take your breath away. Spanning the central nave, with its ornamental branches that remind you of the Sagrada familia which is built to look like the forest. Igreja Santa Maria is something of a preview to the Sagrada.
Square Garden: Take a walk in the vast Jardim praca do Imperio with its lush green spaced and water structures, openness and proximity to the docks. Across the way, depending on your position you should see the bridge sprawled before you, one of the longest suspension bridges in Europe, Ponte 25 de Abril. The bridge took 45 months to complete and was initially named the Salazar bridge after Antonio de Oliviera Salazar the dictator. After the uprising; Carnation Revolution of 1974, Salazar’s regime was overthrown on the, you guessed it, 25th of April. If you wonder why it looks like the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, it was designed by the same company who designed the globally lesser known San Francisco Oakland Bridge, however it does bear a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate bridge, it also shares a resemblance to the Forth Road bridge in Scotland. A short distance from the mouth of the bridge, in the Almada district is the statue of Cristo Rei; Chris the King, which bears a striking resemblance to Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. The structure was commissioned after a visit by the Bishop to Brazil and overlooks the River Tejo and all of Lisbon.
Pasteis; as I mentioned, one of the main reasons to visit Belem is the pasteis de Belem, Pastries of Bethelem, from the cafe of the same name with recipes handed down from the monks in the Jeronimos monastry. I am a sucker for history of this sort and it was enough to visit even though I do not like custard at all, I ate around the pastry, the crust but not the filling; its weird I know, but it is what it is. The cafe is worth a visit for this and all the other pastries they sell in there and its quaint looking façade.
CASCAIS; DEEP CHARM
The Portuguese Riviera; grand old houses that once belonged to nobility bask in the summer sun of this old fisherman’s town along its harbour. About fifty minutes from Lisbon by train, Cascais opens its arms up ever so charmingly to welcome you. An escape from the city. It gives some respite to the hype of Lisbon. A town packed with culture in its smallness. Cascais is swoon worthy and calming, filled with endless charm and a vibe of its own. It has that ability to be filled yet retain its quiet charm that makes you feel like it was reserved solely for you.
Two things took me to Cascais; a friend was getting married in neighbouring Sintra and wanted me to walk the scene as she’d never been, she booked the entire thing without having set foot in Cascais, we fell in love with it over the internet. This was pre-pandemic by the way there was no reason for us to be so reckless but there we are so maybe we were preparing for this moment all along. The second more important thing was the view the Manuel Amado exhibition at the Paula Rego museum; Casa das Historias. These two were sympatico as I have had the Paula Rego museum on my list for some time. This was my first time seeing Amado’s works in person and the added bonus was almost having the entire space to myself. More on the pieces later. Cascais stole my entire heart. Even in high season, it really was so damned charming. Maybe it was just the day we chose to go, but it was accommodating and slow and beautiful.
ART: The Paula Rego museum is art in and of itself, one of my favourites in Europe and for some time I have wanted to visit not least because the building itself is quite special, surrounded by the sea, two red pyramids hold stories for us to explore. So if you are into art, this needs to be on your list and is a must see.
THE OLD TOWN: absolutely nothing beats the feeling of walking an old town with the winding walkways, it has the requisite charm; cobbled stones, colourful buildings, that quaint quietness amidst the life brimming by the sea. Old towns are secret holders, a window to the past, for good or for ill. It is a reminder of what once was, to go back to simpler times and indelible memories. Old towns are like smile lines that tell of age and wisdom.
ICE CREAM; Yes we ate in one of the beach side cafés and what not, there are a few good spots to eat, but the other reason to head to Cascais is Santini; for the best ice cream in town. I love dessert as you already know, it is a food group for me and so to find a place that speaks to my eternal sweet tooth was all the bonus I needed. So when in Cascais, eat ice cream. As I have often said, the best way to know good ice cream is by the Pistachio flavour, good pistachio ice cream will take you through a sensory journey of the flavour profile; the nut, the oils the smooth after taste… you should be able to taste it all without being overwhelmed by the sweetness. Trust me, I have spent a lifetime tasting ice creams in every place I visit.
Oh one last thing, take the time to pause; as with any seaside town, if you get lucky, you will get the chance to pause and Cascais gives you just that, a chance to breathe in the air, feel the sand beneath your feet, let the sun bounce all over your skin and listen to the sea serenade you some.