The last time I was outside Ireland was pre-Covid (I thought I’d forgotten how airports work but a crash course in queuing soon reminds me). The last time I was in Lisbon was over 15 years ago (I know this because it was for a wedding, and my eldest child was then two; now, he’s at home prepping for the Leaving Cert). The combination of these two ‘lasts’ is a potent one and I feel quite emotional as we drive into the city in early afternoon sun.
his time, unencumbered by small child or wedding duties, I get to do exactly what I want (allowing for the fact that it’s a Monday, and most of the museums are closed). First, I head for the port and admire the energy and bustle that comes in with the brisk Atlantic wind. I walk along the Ribeira das Naus, the waterfront area where many of the ships were built in the Age of Exploration.
Then, I walk back through the centre and up into the Barrio Alto. Everything I pass is cleaner and more polished looking than it was last time I was here, but – luckily – this has done nothing to diminish Lisbon’s remarkable charm.
It’s a city that is both young and old, full of energy and hustle, but also resting easily on its own cultural and historic traditions. Imposing statues of men on horses sit alongside colourful urban graffiti in a way that enhances both.
The only museum that’s open is the Carmo Archaeological Museum, housed in the ruins of the old Church of the Convent of Santa Maria do Carmo.
This was badly damaged in the 1755 earthquake and is now an elegant shell, open to the sky, but with enough 14th-15th century features preserved, along with a collection of historical and artistic pieces, including the rather touching mummified remains of a boy from 14th century Peru, and a 4th century sarcophagus, to make it a fascinating place for a tour.
Dinner is under the walls of Castelo de São Jorge, at the very good Petisqueira Conqvistador, where the sound of a peacock scream distracts from the flow of tourists traipsing up and down to the castle.
The next day I head about an hour-and-a-half north outside Lisbon to the Silver Coast, and the World Surfing Reserve of Ericeira. The award is given by the Save the Waves coalition, and recognises the quality and characteristics of waves, as well as a diverse eco system, and strong relationships with the local community. Ericeira is the second surf spot in the world to receive it, and first in Europe.
Here I meet João Ganhoteiro Silva, my amusing and knowledgeable local guide, at the delightful Vila Galé hotel, which stands beside Pescadores beach.
This is the site where the last kings of Portugal left for England on October 5, 1910 – certainly it has all the drama you’d want for such a scene – huge waves roll in along a broad stretch of open bay. In fact, from my bedroom window I can see the Future’s Peak wave breaking. This, João tells me, is dangerous, and only for the most confident of surfers. I do not feel even remotely tempted!
Instead, we head for Matadouro beach – meaning slaughterhouse; it is named for an old long-gone abattoir. Papu, my surf instructor and owner of Activity Surf Center (facebook.com/ActivitySurfCenterEriceira), comes from a family of local fisherfolk, and his business is a perfect example of the evolution of this small town.
Fishing is still the heart of the village and community here, but recent years have seen surfing take off in a big way – meaning a growing transitory population of surfers and digital nomads who are here ‘living the dream’ with their laptops and camper vans (the presence of oat milk and turmeric lattes on menus signals their presence).
As a result, Papu has segued from fishing to surf school.
He is reassuringly solid and clear in his instructions. Out in the waves, he tells me that “95pc of surfing is paddling”, which feels like a useful metaphor for life in general. Then he asks me “are you a positive person, Emily?” I say that yes, I think I am. Good, he tells me, because to surf, as in life, one must look up.
“Always look up, Emily.” Another metaphor. I can see why so many surfers behave like they have the wisdom of ages.
Once I’ve learned the basics, we’re off. A wave comes, Papu launches me on to it, and shouts “stand up!” I scramble to my feet and for a full second, maybe two, I feel the gloriousness of flying along. And then I fall off. I do this many more times – I can get up, but I can’t stay up.
My trouble, Papu says, is that I can’t keep my eyes on the horizon – I can’t keep looking up. I look down, at my feet, and I fall. “I thought you said you are a positive person, Emily,” he says reproachfully.
I am, I insist. I am. And he’s right that the few times I manage to keep my eyes trained on the cliff top at the far edge of the beach, I manage better. I can see how someone might get obsessed with this. It’s so tantalising… “next time”, I think, a thousand times; “next time I’ll get it”.
We catch waves (try to!) for an hour and a half, by the end of which I am bone weary. Time for lunch. João takes me to Mammy restaurant (mammy.pt), where we eat excellent seafood, followed by a trip to Tapada Nacional de Mafra (tapadademafra.pt), the former 18th century hunting park of the kings of Portugal, now a wildlife reserve.
It is quiet and shaded and utterly beautiful. Paths wind through forest and clearings and we see deer, wild boar and rabbits. Overhead, apparently, are eagles.
That night, dinner in Jangada (youandthesea.pt/restaurante) is distinctly hipsterish, with pale wooden counters and grey tiles, overlooking a patio pool. I try ceviche made with croaker (a fish related to perch) with sweet potato, along with an excellent non-alcoholic cocktail made with ginger and apple.
Next day I depart for Sesimbra, south of Lisbon on the Blue Coast. We travel by car, stopping at a glorious white-sand beach known as Beach of the Little Fig Tree, near the town of Setúbal.
It is completely deserted, undeveloped, with white sand and clear water. The next cove over, Galapos beach is a prize-winner, and for a long time relatively ignored but now, apparently, influencers are spreading the word. Portinho da Arrabida, a little further along and much loved by Lisboans, is comparatively built-up, with a tiny pier and a couple of restaurants.
We drive through the natural park of Arrabida and down to Sesimbra, a pretty seaside town on a beautifully calm stretch of water. I check in to the gorgeous Hotel Do Mar, which sits almost on the sand, so close is it to the water, then take a hike up to see the Castelo dos Mouros. This is a good 40-minute walk, up through the town and then along a steep path through glorious-smelling pine trees.
At the top, a viewing spot shows me the whole of the bright blue bay, with Sesimbra tucked into a corner below me.
Along with the castle there is the church of Nossa Senhora de Castelo, which has a remarkable blue-and-white tiled interior and is cool and pleasant after the hot climb.
The next morning, I’m collected by local adventure guide Solange (nosporla.pt) and driven to the marina to be fitted out for an exploration of the coastline by canoe. Do I want a one-person or two-people canoe, she asks. Two, I say, hoping she’s going to do most of the work. And, such is her irresistible energy and enthusiasm, that she does.
We set off on a calm and lovely day, and make our way round the extraordinary coastline. We glide past high limestone cliffs – also used for rock jumping – caves, isolated coves and sea stacks, through calm, clear turquoise water. At a tiny secluded beach, we get off and swim, and eat the delicious oat-and-cinnamon bar Solange has prepared – apparently the traditional snack of local fishermen. The whole trip takes about three hours and is the ideal way to see this incredible coastline.
Back at the hotel, there is time for a late lunch and a quick last swim. It’s been a whirlwind tour: a whole lot done and seen, and a timely reminder that this part of Portugal is among my very favourite places.
- Emily was a guest of Visit Portugal. Lisbon is easily accessible from Ireland, with regular flights from Dublin with Aer Lingus, Ryanair and TAP Air. My Story Hotels have five hotels in downtown Lisbon – visit mystoryhotels.com.
- Vila Galé Ericeira is located on the beach in Ericeira. This hotel has four room types and an on-site restaurant, two bars, kids club and playground and Satsanga Spa. vilagale.com/pt/hoteis/costa-de-lisboa/vila-gale-ericeira
- Hotel do Mar is located on Ouro beach in the centre of Sesimbra. All 168 rooms have a private balcony with sea view. en.hoteldomar.pt
- For more information on accommodation, attractions and dining in the Lisbon region, visit visitlisboa.com.
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