As promised, then, a brief account of our trip to Portugal. We were staying in the hills a few miles from Lisbon, within easy reach of the city, and of Sintra and Cascais. Much of the time was spent, as is our custom, sitting in the sun and working through a pile of books, but we made a few forays out to explore our surroundings.
Sintra (see photo in last post) was the retreat of Portuguese monarchs, and home to a number of wealthy eccentrics, who’ve left their mark in the architecture and landscape. For me, the charm of the place was somewhat undermined by the large number of crumbling, neglected buildings, and by the tourist coaches cramming the narrow streets and squares. However, we enjoyed our visit to the Palacio Nacional, and found refuge from the crowds in the Loja do Vinho, right on the main square, where the young maitre d' allowed us to sample a range of fine ports with our coffee. And on the way back to the railway station, we came across the Fabrica das Verdadeiras Quijadas da Sapa, which makes some of the finest cakes in the region.
The seaside town of Cascais was another scene of faded glory, its fine villas now overwhelmed by English pubs, tourist shops and badly-planned overdevelopment. We walked along the seafront, past beaches thronged with Lisboetas on day trips, to the equally faded resort of Estoril, once the playground of European royalty and apparently the inspiration for Casino Royale.
There was no disappointment of any kind, though, in our two train trips to Lisbon, the first from Sintra, through the multi-racial working-class suburbs of the city to Rossio station, the second from Cascais, overlooking the sea and the Tagus estuary, to Cais do Sodre. As we had 'done' Lisbon pretty intensively four years ago, we felt under no pressure to rush around the sights, but instead strolled about, soaking up the endless charm of one of my favourite cities. On our first sortie, we wandered through the Baixa to the vast Praca do Comercio, taking coffee at the Café Martinho da Arcada, Fernando Pessoa’s regular haunt, before shopping in the Chiado and having lunch at a theatre restaurant, in the very square where the great man was born. On our second visit, we climbed up the Rua do Alecrim, stopping briefly for coffee at a cool bar with free wifi, then wandered through the alleys of the Bairro Alto, before descending for lunch at the excellent, book- lined Café no Chiado, which we first visited back in 2006.
During our stay, the Portuguese media were dominated by news of forest fires throughout the country, due to the unusually high temperatures. We had a close call of our own last Saturday, when the hillside opposite us burst into flame and thick smoke billowed across the valley, until the local bombeiros and a water-spraying helicopter finally extinguished the fire.
It was on the same day that we bumped, almost literally, into a member of the British Cabinet. I have a habit of coming across celebrities when we're on our travels: previous sightings include Nancy Pelosi taking tea in San Francisco, Shami Chakrabati in Tuscany, and the Archbishop of Canterbury at Land's End. This time it was none other than Michel Gove, on holiday with his wife and children. Watching Mr Gove en famille and in vacation mode, it was quite difficult to maintain my one-dimensional image of him as school-wrecker and right-wing ideologue. And googling him on our return hasn't helped: he is, after all, a member of the Henry Jackson Society, opponent of Section 28, admirer of Tony Blair, and author of Celsius 7/7. If this were America, he'd probably be a centrist or conservative Democrat. Anyway, close encounters with politicians certainly play havoc with one's prejudices and preconceptions.
Since this is not one of those gossipy political blogs, and I'm not an MP-stalking Twitterer, I'll reveal no more. Except to let slip that Gove's holiday reading included Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon. I recognised this instantly, as I'd packed a copy of my own for the holiday. Wilson's lurid murder mystery jumps back and forth between the 1940s and the present, linking Nazi gold, the Salazar dictatorship and contemporary Lisbon (incidentally, can anyone recommend a good book - in English - on the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 1974?).
While we were away, I also read Jose Saramago's Balthasar and Blimunda, a compelling and often very funny romp through eighteenth century Portugal, which takes swipes at monarchy and religion and includes elements of Marquezian fantasy. I also enjoyed Philip Graham's brief memoir of his year in Lisbon, which started life as a series of blog posts, and is reminiscent of the writings of Adam Gopnik. And I almost finished Jenny Uglow's splendid The Lunar Men, her engrossing narrative of the overlapping lives of 18th century inventors and innovators such as Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestley.
That's the holidays done with, then. Time to catch up on what I've missed in the blogosphere during my absence.