Tomar’s magnificent matchbox museum

No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. Tomar, in central Portugal, is home not just to a museum full of matchboxes, the Museu dos Fosforos, but what must count as one of the most extraordinary collections of all things match anywhere on the planet. I’d never thought of them in this light before (or at all before), but matchboxes are attractive things and a vast collection of over 43,000 of them has a remarkable visual effect.

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

People come to Tomar to visit the Convento de Cristo, the heavily fortified former headquarters of the Knights Templar, but if you’re in Tomar I’d strongly suggest a visit to the Museu dos Fosforos. When we first arrived at the museum it was closed; because the weather was so hot and humid we almost decided to skip visiting and head out of town. I’m glad we didn’t, it was a brilliant and very human experience…and it’s free. Even the Templars can’t top that.

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

It’s a magnificent collection, bringing together matchboxes from just about every country on the planet – including several that no longer exist. It’s absurd and fascinating in equal measure. Part social history, part full-on kitsch, this is a monument to obsessive, ridiculous human nature and the determination of one man to leave something behind in the world.

The late Aquiles Da Mota Lima is that man. His achievement, the stuff of legend (at least in my household). If my years on this planet have taught me anything, it is that without men and women like Aquiles the world would be a far less interesting and liveable place.

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

The museum houses more than 43,000 match boxes from 127 countries and dating from the 1820s. It is estimated that there are approximately 2 million matches inside the museum, which must make their annual discussion with the fire insurance people pretty interesting. As we were the only people there, the museum attendant gave us a wonderful potted history of the museum and its patron.

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

It all started in 1953 while Lima was traveling to England to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. On the boat over an American woman who collected matchboxes asked him to send her some from the coronation. This he did, but Lima also kept some for himself, marking the start of a life-long fascination with collecting matchboxes.

His first ever matchbox, decorated with the head of Elizabeth II, has pride of place in the museum. The rest is filled with matchboxes depicting just about everything and anything: flags, traditional dances, star signs, sports, animals, science, famous art and artists, film stars, politicians, cars and fairytales to name just a few. There are several matchbox collections featuring the alphabet. I’m all for learning but did people really think giving children matchboxes was a good idea?

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

There is a large subset of matchboxes that would probably best be described as erotica. If this was just from one country I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but matchbox erotica is widespread. The museum houses examples from Europe, North America, Latin America, Japan and China amongst others…and yes, they do all feature semi-naked women.

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Museu dos Fosforos, Tomar, Portugal

Exploring the streets of historic Tomar

The Convento de Cristo, the fortified headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal, might be the main reason for a visit to the lovely town of Tomar, but wandering the historic streets is endlessly rewarding. The narrow lanes and old buildings offer a glimpse into Portugal past and present, small outdoor cafes and restaurants serve up delicious food and (on a Sunday) families gather for church and a hearty lunch. The faint hum of traditional Portugal can be heard everywhere.

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

We stopped in a small cafe next to the river for a reviving coffee and pastel de nata before following our noses and finding ourselves in Tomar’s main plaza, the Praca da Republica. This relaxed square is home to the Church of São João Baptista and dominated by the statue of 12th Century Master of the Knights Templar, Gualdim de Pais.

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Gualdim de Pais was the architect of Tomar’s early history, following the defeat of Moorish forces in the region in the 1150s. The town formed part of Portugal’s defences against the Moorish Caliphate which continued to control the south of Portugal and Spain. Although now considered a latter-day invention of convenience, the Reconquista, the seven-hundred-year-long demise of Islamic power on the Iberian Peninsular, must have felt pretty real when Tomar was defending itself from Moorish forces in 1190.

Outdoor cafe, Tomar, Portugal

Outdoor cafe, Tomar, Portugal

Lunch, Tomar, Portugal

Lunch, Tomar, Portugal

When the Knights Templar were disbanded Europe-wide in 1312, in Portugal it transformed into the Order of Christ and offered sanctuary to the Knights Templar from other countries. Under the rule of the Portuguese monarchy it became enormously powerful throughout the country. Tomar was their headquarters, and from here the former Templars planned and financed Portugal’s overseas expansion throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Praca da Republica, Tomar, Portugal

Praca da Republica, Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

The Age of Discoveries, Portugal’s Golden Age, wouldn’t have been possible but for the vast Templar wealth held by the Order of Christ. Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan were just some of the early maritime explorers to receive training and support from the Order. Portuguese ships sailed with the Templar red Cross of Christ emblazoned on their sails. At this defining moment in Portugal’s history the Templars, and Tomar, were the country’s beating heart.

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

This rich history, however, has a more sinister side. The Reconquista was an unmitigated disaster for Jews across the Iberian Peninsular. In our own turbulent times, it should be remembered that Jews (and Christians) enjoyed full rights under Islamic rule, allowing Jewish culture to flourish. Christian rule was far less tolerant.

Tomar’s tiny synagogue is the best preserved medieval synagogue in Portugal. Tucked away down a narrow street it is an evocative place housing the Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato – named after the Jewish mathematician and royal astrologer who assisted Vasco de Gama in planning his voyages to the New World.

Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato, in Tomar's synagogue, Portugal

Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato, in Tomar’s synagogue, Portugal

Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato, in Tomar's synagogue, Portugal

Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato, in Tomar’s synagogue, Portugal

Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato, in Tomar's synagogue, Portugal

Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato, in Tomar’s synagogue, Portugal

Zacato’s astronomical tables and astrolabe would help Portugal discover both India and Brazil. A man who fled the Jewish expulsions from Spain helped start Portugal’s Golden Age. In our own period of European history where immigration and asylum are under attack from retrograde and reactionary forces, this is something upon which to ponder.

Built between 1430-60, the synagogue and Tomar’s Jewish community flourished for a few years following the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain. This cataclysmic event uprooted thousands of families who fled Spain upon pain of death as the Spanish Inquisition brought its full ferocity to bear against Jews and others. Many migrated to neighbouring Portugal where, recognising the economic value of the Jewish community, a more tolerant society awaited – at least for a time.

Sculpture in Tomar, Portugal

Sculpture in Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

Jews who reestablished their lives in places like Tomar under the reign of King John II found little peace. In 1496, under pressure from the Catholic Church and the zealotry of the Spanish Monarchy, King Manuel I of Portugal issued a decree that all Jews must convert or leave the country without their children. Most Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity rather than allowed to leave, but the Chief Rabbi met a brutal death and there were forced deportations of Jews to Portuguese colonies.

Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, Portugal

A few decades later a much more frenzied bout of religious persecution, organised by the Portuguese Inquisition, led to severe repression and violence against the Jews. Jewish properties and wealth were confiscated and given to the Inquisition itself. A basic land grab disguised as national interest and in Holy garb.

Tomar, the great citadel of the Knights Templar

According to one of Umberto Eco’s characters in Foucoult’s Pendulum, a lunatic can be recognised “by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars…There are lunatics who don’t bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious”. Judging by the results of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code the world seems to have a surfeit of lunatics.

If the spawning of numerous wild and bizarrely popular conspiracy theories about these medieval warrior-monks wasn’t started by Dan Brown; the massive (and frequently unhealthy) surge in interest about the Knights Templar in recent times is his responsibility. Conspiracy theories abound and the Templars have been given an aura of mystery out of all proportion to the reality.

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, an hour drive north east of Lisbon, was one of the great strongholds of the Knights Templar, we decided to go and see what all the fuss was about. The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, to give the Templars their official title, played a critical role in Portugal’s history. They were the shock troops of the Reconquista when Portugal was being reclaimed from the Moors in the 12th Century; later, their vast wealth would help bankroll Portugal’s maritime expansion during the Age of Discoveries.

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Tile, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Tile, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Built in 1160, the Templar fortress of the Convent of the Order of Christ or Convento de Cristo is a massive and extraordinary place. Perched high on a steep hill, the whole site is surrounded by huge defensive walls. At the heart of the whole complex is the truly magnificent sixteen sided Charola, the beautifully ornate Templar church based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Elsewhere there are endless corridors of cloisters, roof terraces, gardens, a huge dining room and kitchens, store rooms with vast jars of cooking oil, shady quadrangles, ornate tiles and stone carvings and a wonderful aqueduct. You could spend days wandering around the Convento de Cristo and still find things you hadn’t spotted previously. It is an amazing place to wander and wonder on the history that these buildings have seen.

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Charola Church, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

The Templars were founded in 1118 in Jerusalem. Their name derived from their rooms in the palace of King Baldwin II on the Temple Mount in what was believed to have been the Temple of Solomon. Making vows of poverty didn’t stop the Templars accumulating vast wealth and power, including owning the island of Cyprus. Soon they were wealthier than most European monarchs and increasingly viewed with suspicion and envy.

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Dining room, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Dining room, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

When their fall came it came hard. Initiated by King Philip IV of France, and supported by the supine and cowardly Pope Clement V, numerous false charges were levelled at the Templars. Thousands were arrested and tortured to get the confessions needed to destroy their power and appropriate their wealth. Clement V officially disbanded the Templars in 1312 but not before hundreds had been murdered on trumped up charges.

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Oil jars, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Oil jars, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

That might have been the end of the Templar tale in Portugal except that the Portuguese monarch, King Denis, cunningly reestablished them in 1317 as the Order of Christ. This time they were under royal control and the wisdom of Denis’s decision soon became clear. The vast wealth of the Templars was used to fund early Portuguese explorations during the reign of Henry the Navigator, giving rise to the Portuguese Golden Age.

The rest, as they say, is history…and what a history.

Aqueduct, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Aqueduct, Convento de Cristo, Knights Templar fortress at Tomar, Portugal

Through Portugal’s historic heartland to the wild Atlantic coast

Except for a brief trip to Lisbon several years ago I’ve never visited Portugal, although I’d heard only good things about the country (mainly from Portuguese friends and colleagues). A couple of weeks travelling around the ancient hinterland of Portugal’s Alentejo region, visiting historic fortified towns along the Spanish border, before heading to the south west tip of the country and working our way up the west coast back to Lisbon, was an exciting prospect. One filled with the romance and adventure of this region.

View of Mertola, Portugal

View of Mertola, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

View over Marvao from the castle, Portugal

View over Marvao from the castle, Portugal

Travelling down quiet lanes flanked by ancient cork trees, passing abandoned houses, before reaching the massive defensive walls of sleepy villages and towns which have seen centuries of history, turned into a memorable and fascinating insight into the ‘real’ Portugal. The Alentejo region is as far removed from Lisbon as it is from the fleshpots of the Algarve and, without wishing to sound clichéd, it does feel like stepping back in time.

Sagres Fort, Portugal

Sagres Fort, Portugal

Street in Constancia, Portugal

Street in Constancia, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Cabo Espichel, Portugal

Having our own car allowed us access to remote corners that public transport doesn’t reach. It also allowed us to find traditional restaurants in tiny hamlets serving up delicious local specialities, before strolling the quiet streets or taking our place amongst the old men and women on benches in the local plaza.

Traditional dinner, Portugal

Traditional dinner, Portugal

The shock of the Alentejo after Lisbon’s busy streets is the sense of time moving more slowly. You can feel the pace of life almost literally drop to a crawl. This isn’t just hyperbole, many (too many) of the ancient towns and villages of the Alentejo are slowly being abandoned by young people, leaving empty houses and an ageing population. It’s a great shame that these communities – at least the ones which haven’t attracted tourism and holiday homes – appear doomed to fade away.

West coat of Portugal

West coat of Portugal

Birds in a window, Evora, Portugal

Birds in a window, Evora, Portugal

Cemetery in Constancia, Portugal

Cemetery in Constancia, Portugal

Reaching the wild tip of Cabo de Sao Vicente, the iconic south west corner of the country, was like reaching a distant foreign land compared to the Alentejo. This stretch of coastline is all towering cliffs, small but magnificent beaches, crashing Atlantic waves and tremendous seafood. I was glad the weather was hot and calm, I can’t imagine walking these cliff tops in stormy weather.

Portugal’s small size means you can cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time, and travelling out of season meant that we rarely saw many other tourists. Wherever we went people were always friendly and helpful, giving us tips on where to eat and what to see. This will be a trip that lives long in my heart and mind. These photos are just an amuse-bouche for the rest of the trip…I hope you enjoy.

Zambujeira do Mar, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Street in Constancia, Portugal

Street in Constancia, Portugal

View over Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portugal

View over Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portugal

Street in Marvao, Portugal

Street in Marvao, Portugal

Beach at Sagres, Portugal

Beach at Sagres, Portugal

Across the wide Rio Tejo into the arms of the King

There are two things you can’t ignore when you’re in Lisbon (three things, if you include pasteis de nata, which you should definitely not ignore): the glorious Rio Tejo or River Tagus carving its way around the city; and the giant statue of Cristo Rei or Christ the King, which overlooks the river and Lisbon from the top of a hill across the water in Almada. Getting to the latter requires that you cross the former by car, train or, best of all, by boat.

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer provided the inspiration for Lisbon’s giant statue. While it may not have the same grandeur or dramatic vantage point of Christ the Redeemer, Christ the King provides a vast and beautiful panorama over the city. Standing loftily above the Ponte 25 de Abril, the iconic red bridge which straddles the Rio Tejo (and which does a passable impersonation of the Golden Gate Bridge), Christ the King is a remarkable sight.

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Although construction was approved in 1940, it was only after World War II that the building work started. Fittingly, the statue was dedicated to Portugal having survived the Second World War largely unscathed. The foundation stone was laid in 1949 but it took another three years before construction began. It was completed and opened in 1959 and, like the Monument to the Discoveries across the river, became a symbol of the Salazar dictatorship. Church and State, hand-in-hand.

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Made from reinforced concrete, the statue is 133 metres in height. The observation deck, located somewhere around the feet, is ‘only’ 89 metres, but thanks to the statue’s hilltop position on the top of a cliff, the views overlooking the river and city are spectacular. I don’t know how far you can see, but the views extend for several dozen kilometres all the way pst the dramatic white sliver crossing the Rio Tejo to the south, the Vasco da Gama Bridge.

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

Leaving the ferry terminal of Cais do Sodré in Lisbon we headed to Cacilhas on the opposite bank. The views when you’re crossing the river are pretty special, and give you an idea of the size of the Ponte 25 de Abril, which towers over everything.

Ferry in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Ferry in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Fishermen in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Fishermen in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Cacilhas is a sleepy suburb and although it might be the jumping off point for the Cristo Rei, most people from Lisbon head here for delicious seafood and beer. The numerous fish restaurants for which Cacilhas is famous dish up a lot of tasty traditional dishes. Most of the restaurants have good views over the river, making a leisurely lunch a real pleasure; fishermen can be seen trying their luck along the waterfront while boats motor past. All the while the beautiful cityscape of Lisbon provides the backdrop.

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

Cabo da Roca: Europe’s wild, western frontier

It’s frequently wild, it’s almost always windswept and on a stormy day I imagine you’d want to keep well back from the edge of the plunging cliff face, but you can’t deny the raw beauty of Cabo de Roca. The name translates as ‘Rocky Cape’, which is, if nothing else, a pretty accurate description of what you can see when you poke your head over the cliffs and look north and south.

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

The 16th Century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões described Cabo da Roca as the place “where the land ends and the sea begins”. They had no way of being certain in the 16th Century of course, but Camões was correct. Cabo de Roca is the place where the entire Eurasia landmass, Continental Europe and Portugal end and 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean begin.

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

To the Roman Empire, which occupied this patch of land up until 400AD, this coastline was the end of the world, and you can see their point. From the 100 metre high cliffs the Atlantic seems to stretch to infinity. It would have taken a giant leap of faith to imagine the American Continent in 400AD. Although we now know that Viking ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean to North America around 1000AD, it wasn’t until the 15th Century that Europeans truly knew that this wasn’t the end of the world.

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Flowers, Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Flowers, Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Thanks to its exulted status, Cabo de Roca attracts its fair share of visitors – it is only an hour from Lisbon. Even if it wasn’t the western-most point of Europe, the jagged cliffs and sandy inlets of this coastline would make a trip worthwhile. The surrounding countryside is also really very beautiful. Hiking trails lead off along the coast and although we only strolled a short way, a day or two walking this coast would be wonderful.

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

Cabo de Roca, the western-most point of Europe, Portugal

A large red and white lighthouse – there has been one here for centuries – is the most prominent feature of the area. It still performs a vital role, protecting shipping from the perils of this coastline.

Leaving Cabo de Roca behind, we jumped on a bus and headed for the lovely, and upmarket, seaside town of Praia das Maçãs. After a truly wonderful lunch in what can only be described as one of the best seafood restaurants I’ve ever visited, we went for a stroll along the nearby beaches.

Beaches at Cascais, Portugal

Beaches at Cascais, Portugal

Beaches at Cascais, Portugal

Beaches at Cascais, Portugal

Praia das Maçãs used to be a small fishing village, traces of which are still visible today; it has a wonderful beach next to the ‘town’ known, so the story goes, as Apple Beach because apples that fell from trees into the Praia das Maçãs River were deposited here. This is a popular destination for Lisbon families, and can get crowded in summer. On a week day out of season, the town, coastline and beaches are largely deserted.

Beaches at Cascais, Portugal

Beaches at Cascais, Portugal

On the waterfront, gateway to Portugal’s Age of Discoveries

Walking off the brightly sunlit street, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the gloom of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery). When your eyes have adjusted, your mind has to follow suit. This is a magnificent building, in size, grandeur and its historical significance. This is where Vasco de Gama’s crew prayed in 1497 before departing on a voyage that would change history.

Nearly a year after departing these shores, in May 1498 de Gama’s crew became the first Europeans to discover India. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope they crossed the Indian Ocean and arriving in Calicut. The discovery of India changed everything. The opulence and wealth of India, and of its native rulers, was obvious. The European desire to have a share if it, insatiable.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Soon a network of trade routes flourished, pepper, cinnamon and other sought-after spices began to flow towards Lisbon. Gold flowed into the coffers of the Portuguese Crown and sparked a fierce rivalry with just about every other European nation. India’s discovery helped establish the Portuguese Empire and virtually ensured the rest of Europe would want a slice of that particular pie.

Built with an enormous amount of money from the booming early 16th century spice trade, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is a massive structure with vast stone pillars soaring to the domed roof. The ceiling is ornately carved and looks like a giant spider’s web; beautiful and ancient stained glass windows adorn the walls.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Europe’s early exploration and huge accumulation of wealth led to a truly impressive burst of artistic and architectural creativity. The Mosteiro embodies the Age of Exploration, exemplifying Portugal’s “Golden Age”; and fittingly this is the building where the most famous of all Portugal’s early explorers, Vasco da Gama, is entombed in beautifully carved marble. For a traveller, a visit to Lisbon wouldn’t be complete without a pilgrimage to see de Gama’s final resting place.

Vasco de Gama's tomb, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Vasco de Gama’s tomb, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

A little walk through some gardens brings you to the banks of the Rio Tejo, where fishermen try their luck and a couple of other monuments to Portugal’s Golden Age are found. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, was opened to the public in 1960 to commemorate Portugal’s past glories at a moment of right wing nationalist tub thumping.

Fisherman on the Rio Tejo Lisbon, Portugal

Fisherman on the Rio Tejo Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Harmless as it may look, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos was built by the Estado Novo government of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, in part to send a message to Portugal’s African colonies. When the rest of Europe was retreating in the face of pro-independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, Salazar’s pro-colonial ideology saw Portugal dragged into colonial wars which only ended with a 1974 military coup overthrowing the Estado Novo.

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Not so subtle message or not, the Monument to the Discoveries is a dramatic piece of sculpture. Along the sides are numerous carved figures of rather pious looking individuals facing towards the horizon. The wonderful thing is you can climb up inside the monument and get tremendous panoramic views over the river and town. Looking down there is a giant map of the world showing the dates of each of Portugal’s discoveries.

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Stroll a little further along the river front and you arrive at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Belém Tower. It initially struck me that this rather odd boat like structure was just for ornament, but this was part of an elaborate defence system in the early 16th Century. It was still seeing action during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th Century. This little stretch of waterfront has seen its share of history.

Belém Tower, Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Belém Tower, Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Old Europe, the streets of Lisbon (II)

Lisbon is a city of tightly packed streets. Periodically you’ll find yourself emerging into the sunlight and presented with tremendous views over the city and the River Tejo. Ancient looking yellow trams rattle their way up cobbled roads; people drink strong coffee in cafes or sip chilled Vino Verde at outdoor restaurants. Overhead washing hangs from windows. Life here has its own rhythm, one that has dominated the city for centuries.

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon is full of beauty. Whether it is the small alleys leading into intimate plazas; red tiled rooftops stretching off into the distance; ornate blue and white tiled buildings; ancient monasteries and overwrought, elaborate church interiors; or outdoor restaurants serving up perfect fish; small cafes with delicious Pasteis de Nata and expresso, this is a city that is a joy to explore. If they could sort out the rush hour traffic mayhem, it would be perfect.

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers on a balcony, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers on a balcony, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

I hesitate to say this, but compared to many other cities across Europe, Lisbon feels truly ‘authentic’. ‘Hesitate’ because what I really mean is there is a pleasant lack of the all-enveloping tourist consumerism that seems to suffocate some cities. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos may become crowded with coach loads of day trippers, but the streets of Alfama and adjoining neighbourhoods feel remarkably tourism (if not tourist) free.

The hassle-free nature of visiting Lisbon allows you to absorb the town’s history without having to haggle your way down the street…and Lisbon’s history is worth taking time to absorb.

Street in Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal, Portugal

Street in Lisbon, Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Views over  Lisbon, Portugal

Views over Lisbon, Portugal

Founded around 1200BC, this is one of of Europe’s oldest cities. Civilisations have come and gone from Lisbon: Celts, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Barbarians, Visigoths, Berbers and Arabs all knew Lisbon before the Reconquista re-established Christianity across the Iberian Peninsula. Under Moorish rule Christians and Jews were granted equal protection under the law, no such luck for the Jews and Muslims under Christian rule: convert, flee or die were their options.

Houses, Lisbon, Portugal

Houses, Lisbon, Portugal

Cat on a window ledge, Lisbon, Portugal

Cat on a window ledge, Lisbon, Portugal

The Reconquista of 1147 re-established Christianity and there are dozens of churches to act as witness to this fact. From the 15th Century onwards, it was from here that Portuguese navigators set sail to discover the ‘New World’, sparking a Europe-wide competition to first trade and then colonise vast swathes of the globe. Portugal became wealthy from the spice trade, entering a ‘Golden Age’ in the 16th Century – cue yet more church building.

In more recent times, Lisbon’s fate (and that of Portugal) has been a long slow decline, not helped by a couple of monstrously destructive earthquakes along the way. By mid-20th Century, Portugal became one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. A series of 20th Century Republics resulted in a Fascist dictatorship, which only ended in 1974 with the loss of Portugal’s remaining colonies.

Views over  Lisbon, Portugal

Views over Lisbon, Portugal

This decline is clearly visible in Lisbon today. As is the result of the recent financial crash which has massively impacted on Portuguese society, disproportionately affecting young people, thousands of whom have voted with their feet. It may never see the Golden Age again, but the vibrancy of that time seems to pervade modern Lisbon. This is a global city, its world view shaped by its past but also with an eye to what looks like a bright and progressive future.

Lisbon at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Walking the streets of Lisbon evokes a powerful sense of this long and extraordinary history. Walking these same streets at night under the ethereal orange glow of the city’s street lights is altogether other-worldly. It really is one of Europe’s great capitals.

Bar in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Bar in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Grafetti, Lisbon, Portugal

Grafetti, Lisbon, Portugal

Old Europe, the streets of Lisbon

One of Europe’s most ancient cities, Lisbon’s relaxed charm and cultural vibrancy have made it one of the continent’s go-to destinations of recent times. It wasn’t so long ago that Lisbon was considered to be a ‘hidden gem’ or ‘off he beaten path’, not so these days. The path is well and truly beaten, and with good reason. This City of Seven Hills has a history stretching back 2,500 years and a contemporary culture that enraptures visitors from all over the world.

View over Lisbon towards 25 de Abril Bridge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards 25 de Abril Bridge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards the Santa Justa Elevator, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards the Santa Justa Elevator, Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon straddles the River Tejo (or Tagus depending on who your speak to). At 1038km the Tejo is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, in Lisbon it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is a dramatic setting. Witnessed from the top of the 12th Century Castelo de São Jorge, or one of Lisbon’s many vantage points, on a day when the sun sparkles on the water it is truly magnificent.

This is a city where expectations are regularly exceeded. There is something deeply moving about wandering Lisbon’s ancient streets and alleyways. If you happen to be walking down the street in one of Lisbon’s old working class barrios and are fortunate enough to hear Fado drifting out from a neighbourhood bar, you feel transported back in time.

View over Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado is considered by UNESCO as global ‘intangible cultural heritage’, something anyone who has heard the haunting melodies of the divine Mariza will instantly appreciate. Although born in Portuguese-controlled Mozambique, one of Portugal’s favourite musical daughters was raised in the narrow streets of Mouraria and Alfama. Walking those twisting, turning streets today you can still feel the tightly knit nature of this former working class fishing community. History seems to seep out of the walls.

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

The Alfama district is Lisbon’s oldest quarter, and the past seems to shroud the narrow streets. The name derives from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning ‘hot baths’ or ‘hot springs’. Knowing this makes sense of the medina-like labyrinth of streets that sprawl up and down the hillside. Another memory of the Moorish occupation is the glazed tiles that you see on many buildings in this area; the tiles were the invention of Arabic culture.

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Gone are the mosques that once formed part of Moorish Portugal and an intimate part of these streets. In their place are numerous elaborate and highly decorated churches, including the Church of Santa Engrácia, which has been turned into the National Pantheon where many of Portugal’s most famous are buried. The nearby Monastery of São Vicente de Fora is equally stunning, equally enormous.

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Window with flowers in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Window with flowers in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

We only had a short time in Lisbon, but it is a smallish city that lends itself to easy exploration – although those seven hills take a toll after a while. Whether you’re on foot or hopping on and off the iconic yellow trams, with two or three days to spare you can cover quite a lot. Two or three days is also just enough to make you realise that the city has much, much more to offer.

Cycling the North Sea Coast (III)

The difference a week makes.

August moved effortlessly into September and the hoards of tourists who had been inhabiting the North Sea Coast of the Netherlands suddenly, without fanfare, vanished. One day the cycle tracks, beaches and beach-side bars were buzzing with activity along this coastline, the next an eerie quietness descended. Where did everyone go? Alien abduction? Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need a ginormous know-it-all?

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Not that I’m complaining, fewer people is rarely a bad thing when you’re trying to enjoy nature. This is my first summer in the Netherlands so everything is still a little new. I hadn’t realised that such wondrous beaches existed in Northern Europe, let alone that hundreds of thousands of people would make their way here from across Europe to enjoy them.

Now though, the long decline into autumn and winter has begun; like birds heading south the North Sea’s summer visitors have migrated. The cycle tracks and beaches on the coast between The Hague and Haarlem to the north are much quieter; the beach-side bars that were host to a party crowd are closing, deconstructed and packed away until next year. Once again the coast is the preserve of local cyclists and dog walkers.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Razor clam shells on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

I picked up my earlier route at Noordwijk and cycled towards Zandvoort on the coast, then inland to the city of Haarlem. The journey is, to say the least, picturesque. Passing through kilometre after kilometre of rolling sand dunes, I occasionally stopped to walk over the dunes onto wide sandy beaches with hardly any people on them. I imagine in winter, with a gale blowing, these beaches will be inhospitable places. On a sunny September day, they are glorious.

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Jellyfish on a North Sea beach, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Arriving in Zandvoort is something of an anticlimax after the beauty of the journey. This is as close as the Netherlands gets to imitating the horrors of Torremolinos in the 1980s. At the height of the tourist season the beach can look like a seal colony, with thousands of people packed close together. Then there is the architecture.

There is a near universal truth that architects seem to lose their reason and sense of aesthetics when given the job of building by the sea. Almost every seaside town I’ve ever visited has been home to some of the most bizarre and fearfully ugly architecture known to humankind. My general theory is that architects, inspired by the liberating views of the ocean, do their drawing blindfolded. Zandvoort has not escaped this fate.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

Beach on the North Sea Coast, Netherlands

This isn’t entirely Zandvoort’s own fault. During World War II this area was considered strategically important, so the German Army built a series of fortifications here as part of the Atlantic Wall sea defences. To do so they first levelled around three kilometres of the town along the waterfront. Zandvoort had once been an upmarket resort with grand hotels and a wealth of beautiful buildings. By the time the German Army had finished, it had been devastated.

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Sand dunes en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Crossing from South Holland into North Holand en route to Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

The beach at Zandvoort, Netherlands

Amidst the general destruction of Zandvoort, the most iconic moment came when the the town’s ornate water tower was blown up. There is a grainy black and white photo capturing this moment on the town’s official website. Leaving Zandvoort behind I headed inland towards my final destination, Haarlem, which, as Harlem, has given its name famously to part of New York and numerous other places.

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Snowman in summer, between Zandvoort and Haarlem, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

Haarlem train station, Netherlands

I often sing the praises of the Dutch cycling system, but the journey into the centre of Haarlem was poorly signposted and once in the town I did several circuits trying to find the train station. This at least gave me the opportunity to see quite a lot of this historic town, whetting my appetite to return and explore more thoroughly.