If you are looking for a holiday spot that offers history, natural beauty, pilgrimage, the sea, rivers, an old world charm yet the trappings of a modern nation – Lisbon is an outstanding destination. The capital of Portugal is a city shrouded in an old world ambience with the façade of modernity. Situated on the banks of the Tagus river that flows in from Spain and empties out into the Atlantic, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities of Europe. It is the westernmost capital of Europe. Within the city, there are beautiful buildings of various architectural traditions, historical boulevards and modern structures.
Within a hundred kilometre distance from Lisbon, one can visit many sites of historical and religious significance. One of the most famous pilgrimages is the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. The Basilica commemorates the appearance of the Virgin Mary as apparition to three shepherd children for six consecutive months in 1917. Today it is a major pilgrimage for Roman Catholics. The shrine has an ambience of serenity and quiet. On any given day, many faithful walk on their knees from the entrance to the Shrine across a large ground in thanksgiving. Around the Shrine, as is common at pilgrim sites, a small town has grown. You can pick up small gifts or have a nice Portuguese meal.
A drive of about hundred kilometres in another direction takes one to the breathtaking Batalha monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A Dominican convent, it represents the best of Gothic architecture in Portugal. Built as a thanksgiving for a battle victory, it took over three centuries to complete in 1517. The convent is simply beautiful, ornate with intricate and yet delicate artisanship. Built originally of limestone, it has turned an ochre yellow overtime. It has some fascinating stained glass work, cloisters and an unfinished chapel. Inside one of the rooms is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, remembering the dead of the First World War.
To get away from the city, a drive of some 20 kilometres takes us into the picturesque city of Sintra. Dotted with castles, estates and beautiful old style houses, it is green and fresh. The city streets are cobbled, lined with small shops selling local handicrafts and small restaurants where you can lounge and have a drink. Relaxing and refreshing, Sintra provides a perfect daybreak from Lisbon. Its cultural heritage made UNESCO declare it a world heritage site in 1995.
Driving through the picturesque municipality of Sintra towards the Atlantic Ocean, one reaches the historic Cabo da Roca. It is the westernmost point of continental Europe. The 16th Century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões described Cabo da Roca as the place “where the land ends and the sea begins”. With a light house and a cross marking the point, one can see the majesty of the Atlantic rushing against cliffs and rocks on the shore. On payment, a visitor can also get a certificate of having visited the place from an office nearby!
Lisbon, a city that gave birth to a million memorable voyages, still uses the tram extensively ever since 1873. A tourist attraction, the tram number 28 provides a fascinating journey through the by lanes and small streets of Lisbon. Some places it runs next to the ocean, at others the streets are so small that if you stretch out your hand you can touch the windows of buildings. It is not air-conditioned and has wooden seats. Most often, it is crowded and one has to wait to get a seat. The most important warning for anyone getting on the tram is to beware of pickpockets. That taken care of it is a great way of exploring Lisbon.
Within the city, a must see is the Discovery monument that commemorates the great explorers of Portugal, including Vasco De Gama. For a nice meal along the river Tagus, visit the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown's Darwin Café. Themed around Charles Darwin, the café provides trendy food and a nice view of the river. More than the food, for us, it was great to know that Charles Correa has designed the modern and ingenious building of the multi-disciplinary research center.
Seamlessly weaving tradition and modernity at every turn, Lisbon is a delight. It maintains a distinct character, which is a refreshing change from the standardized modern cities that seem to sprouting around the globe today.