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13 January 2017

Christopher Catling has just returned from Lisbon where he spent Christmas and New Year preparing to lead ACE's March 2017 tour of Portuguese palaces and gardens. Here he reports that Lisbon is in the midst of a building boom, but that some aspects of Portuguese culture never change.

Portugal Beckons

Christopher Catling reports back from Lisbon...

During late December, Lisbon was basking in the sort of temperatures we longed for in the UK last summer. Christmas Day for me was spent on the beach Carcavelos, a half-hour train ride from central Lisbon (and just Euros 3.85 return!) watching surfers and sipping coffee in one of several beach cafes that were open and busy even on this festive day. Like most of our Continental neighbours, the Portuguese do not make a big fuss over Christmas: some go to midnight mass, most gather with their families on Christmas Eve to give each other presents, drink a toast at midnight and enjoy some choice nibbles. Many cafes and shops are open and busy again on Boxing Day.

Lisbon is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s most fashionable cities and to keep pace with the demand for apartments and offices, many decaying buildings are being restored. This usually means retaining the attractively tiled 19th and early-20th facades but demolishing the rest and replacing dank and old-fashioned tenements with by brand new luxury apartments.

The building boom is not limited to housing: the maze of streets in the Alfama quarter leading to the Castle and cathedral have been greatly improved and are a joy to explore, with new paving, new planting, new displays and panoramic views. Townscape improvement works are also in full swing around the waterfront, where archaeologists have just uncovered the remains of the Roman city wall along with houses built when Lisbon was a Moorish city, before the Christian Reconquest under King Afonso Henriques in 1147.

All of this lies a short stroll away from the Pousada de Lisboa hotel, a fine historic building just off Lisbon’s main square, where we will be staying in March 2017 as part of the Palaces and Gardens of Portugal tour.

The Palaces and Castles of Sintra

There has been much careful restoration work too in Sintra, the hilltop town that will form the focus of one of our excursions from Lisbon in March. This favourite summer resort of Portuguese nobility has been designated as a cultural landscape by UNESCO, a special category of World Heritage site that embraces everything from the remains of Neolithic settlements to the carefully planned and planted woodland that surrounds the village and its several palaces.

Whenever I visit Sintra I say a mental ‘thank you’ to King Ferdinand II of Portugal (1816–85) whose vision for Sintra included not only the construction of the wonderfully romantic Pena Palace, but also all the planting of the surrounding woodlands. A polymath, like his cousin, our own Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria, Ferdinand was an architect, artist, botanist, astronomer, romantic and much else. He introduced all sorts of exotic species that he can never have seen himself as anything but small immature trees. We will see them in their full mature glory in March – the camellias bursting with colour and the magnificent magnolias weighed down with peachy pink and white chalice-shaped flowers.

Christopher will be visiting northern Portugal in February from where he will send us another blog report.