Lisbon and Barcelona

Back from my trip to Lisbon and elsewhere. I haven’t written a word in ten days, so everything has become a bit of a blur. But a very lovely blur.

The journey was tiring: a lift to Montpellier, train trip to Barcelona, taxi to airport, where the plane was delayed nearly an hour – and lots of queuing, which I find a strain.


In Lisbon, my sister, Deb, arrived from London at the same time, and we took a mad taxi to the hotel- a 70 year old driver, who paid more attention to us than the road and whose gps system was not working (did it ever?). Much of the journey I was leaning over the back seat, showing him my phone and trying to give him instructions. Trouble is that he never got the ‘in 300 metres’ bit and changed direction immediately. We got horribly lost and end up being left beside the roadside a good distance from the hotel and in the dark. Next day I downloaded google maps,which is a much better app and would have got us out of this pickle. We were picked up by a woman (whom I had wrongly assumed was picking up in another sense) and she insisted on finding out hotel and leading us to the door. We parted with enthusiastic hugs.

The hotel was a delightful, quirky place, tucked away in a cul de sac, rather off the main tourist areas, with very friendly staff and (very important for our family) delicious breakfasts. Jude, Ed and the girls were waiting for us, and as usual I marvelled at how Ella and Maddie had grown and were even more of a delight to be with.


Our first day together we went to Belem, a port, now part of Lisbon, at the mouth of the river, which flourished during Portugal’s golden age of voyages and commerce in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is a splendid monastery, financed mainly by ‘pepper money’ – taxes imposed on spices and precious stones – its size intended to display the wealth of King Manuel I. The stone was the same soft colour as Montpellier’s, and the brilliant sunshine enhanced its warmth. The fortress, Torre de Belem, beside the water was also an impressive demonstration of the power of Manuel I.

We then had a hot walk along the water front, past the monumental 20th century Padrao dos Descobrimentos – built to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator and in memory of this glorious period of Portugueses maritime exploration. Impressive, even though Salazar clearly had Stalin in mind when he commissioned its construction.

We made a little detour to visit the Museum of Coaches. This turned out to be unexpectedly entertaining. The museum was like a giant spacious hangar, filled with ridiculously ornate coaches, mainly from the 18th and 19th century, with a back cloth of appropriate music and filmed dancing of the period. The coaches somehow succeeded in portraying the huge gulf in the life of the few wealthy aristocrats and the rest of the population.

Back along the water front towards the very modern looking Museum of Modern Art. This was the BPs I was travelling with: their energy – led by Ed, who invariably strides ahead, leading his band ever on and up – is incredible, and the children are accustomed to days with many activities packed in. But Ed and Jude are also sensitive to my growing incapacity to stand the pace, and I was definitely wilting by now. So while Ed, Deb and Ella went round the museum, Jude and Maddie kept me company, watching a sailing regatta outside.

There followed perhaps a bizarre and isolated incident of unimaginative officialdom. I could not sit on the steps, so I perched on the low iron railing in front of the museum – and was ordered somewhat officiously to get off, by a guy in uniform who seemed to have no other role to play. If they were worried about their railing, I observed, it would be cheaper to paint it once a year than hire someone to stop people using it as a seat (god forbid that the museum – a building on which no expense had been spared – should have provided some seats). But then again, in a country with a shortage of work, it kept him in employment of a kind.

Jude was so cross at the absence of seats that she marched into the museum and demanded a chair for me. Amazingly they seemed to have none. Three more officials inside the museum, equally underemployed, seemed to have great difficulty in understanding my need to sit somewhere but then offered a wheelchair, which required an amazing amount of paperwork. I’m afraid it compared very badly to similar situations in London museums and galleries, remembering the time five years ago when I was particularly incapacitated and people bent over backwards to help.

After a collapse in our hotel we went out for what was for me the most enjoyable meal of the holiday. We went to a busy restaurant with a view out over the water and as the sun set, gorged ourself on lots of delicious tapas, washed down by rather a lot to drink. The end to a busy and satisfying day.

Day two: museum, cable car and tuk tuk

The day started with another museum – the Gulbenkian. We opted to view his vast and eclectic private collection of art, objects and furniture. We particularly liked the rooms on Egypt and Persian, and were less enthusiastic about the French 18th century furniture and objects. There is a pretty wide ranging European art collection, notably lots of Guardis (which I liked more than the others), some good Flemish stuff and a Turner (which I missed). The museum is set in a lovely park and for the children (and me!) the turtles were a highlight.

Each day aims to include something for the children, so we then headed down to the waterfront for a ride in a cable car (a particular sacrifice for Jude, who has no head for heights). And then a late lunch in a nearby restaurant, which turned out to be Brazilian (we have come across quite a lot of Brazilians in Lisbon) and included eat as much as you want of a range of meat, which made Ed very happy.

We left Ella, who was not feeling well, and Jude at the hotel and went on for the final activity: a trip through the delightful old Alfama district on a tuk tuk, the transport I so loved in India. Ours turned out to be a slight deviation from normal design – although it conformed to type by having no handbrake, in a city built on hills. It had a completely mad Russian driver, Lucy, whose aim seemed to be to excite Maddie (sitting in front with her) by racing down all the hills.

I would have liked to have returned to this district to explore at a slower pace and maybe listen to some fado music. But the views were splendid – and of course we packed in a quick church visit on the way.

Ella had recovered by supper time, which was in a more up-market restaurant: the Pharmacia, which had a splendid terrace and garden, again with views over the water. But personally I preferred the previous evening’s less formal setting, friendlier service and, for me, tastier tapas.

Tram 28

Next day we started at the 18th century Basilica de Estrela, whose roof top offered more splendid views over Lisbon. And for the children, more turtles in the pleasant gardens opposite. Lisbon seems to have a lot of green spaces for locals to stroll in.

We packed in a trip on the famous Tram 28. Built in the 30s, it is still negotiating streets with bends and slopes that modern trams could not contemplate. Great fun for me, as I am always offered a seat, but not so easy for the family, though they found a viewing point at the back.

One of the negative points of Lisbon (and other European cities) is that we are not the only tourists. Apart from the crowds in the trams and on the streets, perhaps the most tiring implication is the need to queue for everything. Something I find increasingly difficult to manage. (The worst queue was on the first day, trying to get into the monastery. One key is to buy the rather expensive Lisbon Card, which usually means as well as discounts you get the equivalent of Speedy Boarding.)

Down we trundled to the elegant district of Baixa, rebuilt on a grid system after the great earthquake. The main pedestrianised avenue, Rua Augusta, was splendid, but full of other people. Seeing the queues for the Elevator, we abandoned the plan to go up it and, after picking up some delicious custard tarts (we are all fans of these), we moved on.

We were supposed to be taking a tram up to near the Castelo de Sao Jorgio. It was fun watching the driver (a woman) leap out of the tram and change the points so we could descend and then reverse up the next bend – except we soon discovered that this manoeuvre was because the tram had half broken down and could not manage further climbing, and was turning round to descend the hill. So we continued by tuk tuk and then on foot.

It was hot and we were tired, so we did little more than climb the tower of a charming 12th century church in order to admire yet more views – and then, as always, a highlight of the day – lunch.

Then suddenly it was time to leave Lisbon – a day earlier than Deb and I expected. Ed and Jude had brought forward the second part of the trip, to give the children more time in the swimming pool and playing with their friends Henry and Daisy, who were staying in the same hotel.

I was sad to leave Lisbon; I felt I was just beginning to get a feel for it. I recognise that a city built on hills is a challenge for someone with my arthritis, but it is a place to wander round, noticing little details, like the tiled houses – and pavements – and admiring the views that are always there. I like the fact that much of it is a bit down at the heel, and although swamped by tourists, the guesthouses and hotels have not taken over. And apart from a couple of museum officials, people were very friendly and welcoming.

Our journey to Sintra, 30 km from Lisbon, for part two of the trip, was in an enormous people carrier rather than two taxis. The driver kept us entertained telling us his life story. He was born in a Portuguese colony (I forget which) and his father, who had fallen out with the government, sent him – aged seven – and his sister to school in India, before the whole family met up again to start a new life in Portugal. His father died young and our driver seems to have spent much of his life being responsible for his family.


How can I describe our hotel in – or rather a few kilometres outside – Sintra? Well, it was perfect for the children: a choice of swimming pools, a trampoline centre, a carousel, and food they liked. For the adults the pluses were surprisingly good food, comfortable bedrooms, and a view up to the palaces and forts of Sintra that we would be visiting.

Blurred photo from hotel
Fort on left, Palacio Nacional da Pena, Sintra below

But I found the vast pretentious, luxurious, impersonal hotel architecture utterly depressing – and an eyesore on the landscape. Quite a contrast to our quirky little Lisbon place (which Jude said was more expensive!). As soon as I arrived I thought of Jacques Tati, in particular Les vacances de M. Hulot and Mon oncle. So looking at it through his eyes, I could not take this place seriously.

It was also a taxi drive from the town, which given we were now ten people (including Jude’s friends Charlie and Sam and their two children) complicated planning.

Castelo dos Mouros

The next day’s outing illustrated the problem: Charlie’s taxi headed for the Palacio Nacional da Pena, the amazing red and yellow palace we could see from our hotel, while Jude’s and ours went to the Castelo. A communication problem somewhere, but since we were jam-packed in a line of tuk-tuks, cars and taxis, in a one-way road up the hill, not much chance to rectify it.

Anyhow, Deb and I kept to the plan, gave the palace a miss and concentrated on the Moorish castle, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the holiday. The Castelo was built by the Moors from North Africa in the 9th century, fell into ruins when the Christians conquered the area, and was restored in the 19th century. This description does not do justice to the charm of the place, its magnificent views, interesting relics of Moorish and early Christian occupation, and its splendid battlements. The romantic restoration is good: it restored but retained the fortifications and wrapped everything in lush woodlands and plants.

I was determined to reach one of the high points and made it, with the patient help of Deborah. I think if the others had been there at the time I would have stopped earlier, not wanting to hold people up. As it was we were all reunited in time to go down to Sintra for lunch.

As usual our mid-afternoon lunches meant that it was impossible to find somewhere interesting and in the shade for ten people! So after a rather hot snack, everyone was glad to return to the hotel – particularly the children, who were by now fixated on swimming and trampolines.

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

The next day – Deborah’s last – we opted to go to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, in the central of town, while the others went the quirky palace and gardens at Quinta da Regaleira.

The Sintra palace proved the highlight of Sintra. It is a vast complex, much of it built in the 14th century and added to in the 16th century. It was the royal family’s summer home right up to the 20th century. The outside is charming, with whitewashed walls, moorish windows and dominated by two giant conical chimneys. Inside is much more ornate. What I remember particularly are the wall tiles (I have become very attached to Portuguese tiles) and decorated ceilings. I also coveted some of the huge collection of wooden dressers.

We emerged, well satisfied, ready for lunch, which turned out to be another highlight of the holiday. Jude and Ed had picked the restaurant which looks out over the palace. Good location, service and food! It is strange how late lunches eat into the afternoon. Nobody had much energy for further exploring of this very pleasant town: so back again to the hotel (where this time even Deb – not me – joined the bathers).

I am so glad Jude and Ed invited both of us on this holiday. It is a long time since Deb has had one and she deserves it. Despite having to often prop me up I think she enjoyed the trip.

The seaside

The last day for the rest of us was spent on the beach, or rather, beaches. Part one was a magnificent beach to the west of the village of Colares, though as this is a surfing area, the swimming was not really suitable for the children.

Lunch – once again a highlight… – was in an unprepossessing building set back the wrong side of the beach road, chosen because the prices were less astronomic than on the right side. It turned out to be a little gastronomic delight. Henry chose sea bream (or was it turbot?) and so his dad, Sam, had to have the other half – and got very excited after his first mouthful. The rest of us were more modest but equally pleased, though I’m surprised we had any appetite given how many delicious starters/amuse gueules we had already consumed. (There was a long argument about the difference if any between amuse bouche, amuse gueule and similar expressions for the little delights that some restaurants place in front of you while waiting for the meal itself.)

After lunch we went to Colares, a charming old seaside village, now town, in search of more suitable swimming for the children, who spent a happy couple of hours on a sandy beach with rocks – in the company of hundreds of mainly Portuguese families. I do find it frustrating going to the seaside and not being able to swim, but I enjoyed watching Ella and Maddie’s delight at the simple pleasures of a seaside holiday.

Well, that was it, my last day in Portugal with the family, as I was to set off early in the morning to travel to Barcelona.

I’ve not talked much about the family and have of course not put up photos of them. But it was a lovely to take part in a family holiday with them and sad to say goodbye. Not that I did say goodbye, as Ed and Jude were off to see the palace and Ella and Maddie were already in the water, supervised at a distance by Sam. Great to see their independence even if it means one sees less of them.


Since the times of my flight to Barcelona and the ongoing train to Montpellier did not work, I had decided to spend a day in Barcelona, which I have never seen, and checked into a nondescript but very satisfactory hotel (300 metres from the metro) for two nights.

Sagrada Familia

I had planned to make visiting Gaudi’s masterpieces a priority, but discovered three days before coming that I was already too late: there were no more reservations for three days. Oh well, I thought, at least I can see the exterior and I will get there early to photo without crowds. I arrived at 7.30am and there was already a queue! As it was not a long one I wondered if I could chance it. I said to one of the guards that I had no ticket, bt he waved me into the queue. Once again over half an hour standing and waiting, and chatting to the young couple from Dubai next to me (he was Hungarian and she was Spanish, both in the ‘hospitality’ business).

At last the queue moved, and we went through an airport-style security system. Still nobody asked for my ticket or money. Was this because it was Sunday, I asked myself. A little later, as we were ushered into a packed church, it dawned on me. I was going to Mass!

Well, the church itself is pretty surreal, with its tall, tall nave, bizarre details, colours, figures in unexpected places. But you add to this the whole theatre of a Spanish Catholic mass. But not just any Sunday, this was the Sunday nearest to Ascension Day, a full-blooded affair with readings in English, French and English as well as stuff in what I imagine was Spanish and Latin!

As a non-believer you can imagine I soon got lost (I did recognise the Lord’s Prayer, but that was it, unlike the Koreans beside me). This left me with lots of time to gaze up at Gaudi’s edifice, enjoy the music, marvel at the Catholic rituals and the huge number of priests that seemed involved, and reflect on the dreadful role all religions have played in world history.

At last, at last, it came to an end, after virtually the entire congregation except me had gone forward to receive Holy Communion. Now, I thought, I can wander round the church, look more closely at details, and take photos. But no, we were ushered out, by smiling but firm young women (trained to do the job with a smile?), as the rows of chairs had to be removed and the church tidied up before the public, the paying public entered. I grabbed photos as I was gently nudged out.

Well, I had not intended to spend the morning at Mass, but it was quite an experience. I crossed the road to have breakfast (after 11am) and recover, only to be hijacked by an Australian couple with whom I had to share my table and who wanted to tell me about their Mediterranean cruise… …

Medieval Barcelona and Ramblas

I’ll talk more about my impressions of Gaudi later. Meanwhile, on to part two of the day: heading towards the Ramblas and the medieval centre of Barcelona beside it. Except that I took rather too long a detour along the Gran Via de les Costs Catalanes before arriving, already tired, at the Placa de Catalunya, the starting point for much tourist exploring.

Much of Barcelona is laid out on a grid system, but the old centre is a recognisable jumble of a medieval town, and I wandered through, enjoying the views, until I reached the cathedral.

My heart sunk when I saw the long queue. But when I asked an official if my Barcelona card worked, he replied no, but if I had an internet booking I could go straight in. So I went off into the shade, booked online, returned and was ushered straight in, wondering if I should have told all the poor sods in the queue.

The mainly 14th century cathedral is impressive, but I was surprised I felt a little disappointed. I think we are so spoilt by our magnificent cathedrals in Britain that there is not much outside Italy that match up to them.

When I came out I badly needed to sit and have a drink. The only cafe in sight was opposite and rather grand looking. No matter, I sat. And sat. Without being served. So very annoyed, I got up and told the waiter in passing that I had waited too long. He didn’t seem to care, but I did. I did not see another cafe – or bench – for ages.

I don’t understand it: there seemed a complete absence of seats in centra Barcelona and a curious lack of cafes in an area which you would have thought prime location with year-round tourists. There were shops, usually with discreet fronts, but no cafes.

In search of somewhere to sit I left the medieval streets and walked slowly up the Rambla. I could not really appreciate its historic and architectural attractions as much as I would have liked, as I needed to sit. At last I came to a tapas bar, collapsed at a table looking out at the Ramblas, and had something to eat and drink. It was sad that I was tired, but also I was rather put off by the fact that Barcelona seems to have been given over to consumerism. Yes, there were musicians and entertainers (though not as much as in Lisbon) but I was very aware of just how much this was a shopping centre. Apart from the stalls selling to tourists along the pedestrian centre, there were shops lining each side. And yes, at the top, in the Placa de Catalunya a massive store is about to be opened by Apple.

Still, in these meanderings between the Placa da Catalunya, the old medieval centre and up the Rambla (a tree-lined avenue which is regarded as the centre of tourism), I did see and like a lot:

I had planned to go to the Picasso museum, but I knew I had run out of steam, so when I finally reached the Placa I took a tourist bus round the southern part of the centre of Barcelona instead. This was disappointing: a poor commentary and of course the bus tended to stop in traffic jams rather than in front of a point of interest. But still, I saw the water front area, which I would not have otherwise seen, including the massive development done as part of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Much of the athletes accommodation is now luxury apartments. Nearby is the World Trade Centre, a singularly unattractive business park reinforcing my impression of Barcelona as a place that is about money. And then, nearby, unexpectedly a park with a statue by Jean Miro.

The bus tour over, my one thought was I needed to get back to the hotel. I felt pleased with myself: I could see on the map that line 6 of the metro went from the Placa to Gracia, a stop 300 metres from my hotel. But every underground entrance I went to was for lines other than 6. I asked a gaggle of police officers and one pointed to a road beside the future Apple store and said the entrance was about 300 metres along there. Except it wasn’t. OK, I thought, I will take one of the other lines and find line 6 that way. I did – but it involved a nightmarish 500 metre plus walk along interminable corridors and moving staircases. One day I will go back to Barcelona and discover the steps down to line 6 on the Placa Catalunya.

More Gaudi: Casa Vicens

On my last morning I knew I did not have enough time for Picasso, so instead I went to another Gaudi house, not far from my hotel. Casa Vicens is the first house Gaudi designed, so relatively early in his career and an interesting contrast to Sagrada Familia, which was designed at the end of his life, during his obsessively religious period, before he met an early death run over by a tram.

This was a fascinating visit: the house, built as a summer house for his client, shows all the influences – Catalan, Islamic, oriental, English – before he developed fully his own modernism. The house included an interesting exhibition with models of houses by his contemporaries, from William Morris to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There was even a model with small description of a house by Voysey (our grandmother lived in a Voysey house in the Fifties, so this was interesting for me).

There were also several original texts written by Gaudi, showing the development of his ideas about what a house should be. Reflecting the times in which he wrote, when so much housing was insanitary, he places emphasis on the importance of the house as a healthy place for children to grow up in. But he is also interested on the concept of the house as a space for the nuclear family, and for him, the ideal was a ‘manor house’, a house in the country.

So, as I walked round this house, I could see how he saw the functionalists spaces of a family house interrelating, but I could also see the beginnings of all the unusual details which became more exaggerated later on.

I can’t make my mind up about Gaudi. The Sagrida Familia is an amazing spectacle and not to be missed, particularly the inside with its play on height and light and the little details, some of which are delicate and lovely, others just plain bizarre or kitsch. Ultimately I suppose it is Gaudi’s obsession with religion that stops me from excessive enthusiasm for the Sagrida Familia.

I find the Casa Vicens more interesting, both in the study of his evolving artistic ideas and because he was still designing for people not God. I saw another famous Gaudi apartment block, the Casa Mila (Pedrera), from outside. Next time I would like to go round this too.

I want to conclude my rambles through Barcelona with some pictures of windows and banners. I think I have become a little obsessed by these and can see me continuing to build a window collection in other places. The banners were interesting: I have not tried to translate all but I think they reflect the passion for Catalonian independence and of course there were probably more than usual following the EU elections.

To do it justice I need to see Barcelona again, when I am less tired, and perhaps in a month when there are fewer crowds. After all, as the easy journey home demonstrated, Barcelona is only three hours from Montpellier.

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