Lisbon has always been something of a riddle. It is the kind of city that visitors rave about, citing sweet green wine; long, sun-drenched streets flanked by houses dressed in intricate, colourful tiles; and alleys crammed with family-run bakeries selling traditional Portuguese custard tarts.
Yet somehow, it almost always gets overlooked in favour of more high-profile Spanish and French cities. Baffling really, considering that it is enjoys a lot of sun, and despite being in the EU, is ridiculously cheap in comparison. Jeremy Irons, who is currently in the city filming Night Train to Lisbon, recently raved about the place and I've got to agree - if you're broke and in desperate need of a holiday, it seems to be one of the best places to choose to visit.
Pasteis de nata
A mere 11 Euros will pay for a taxi from the airport to the centre of town, and while taking a respite from walking an almost vertical ascent from the waterfront to the Barrio Alto district, I ordered a cold beer - it cost one Euro.
Some of the city's short break charm might stem from the fact that because Lisbon doesn't have a wealth of historical art like Rome or big-draw galleries like the Prado and the Louvre, there isn't quite so much pressure to sightsee.
Instead, the leafy avenues and labyrinth of quaint streets up and down the hill in the historical centre are great for walking around, stopping for a beer and mooching along with a pasteis de nata in hand, rather than spending hours queuing with other tourists.
The plan was to spend a few days in Lisbon and then move on to Sintra - a quiet, peaceful town by the sea, located a 30-minute train ride away.
Solar Do Castelo
Perhaps it was the ultimate exercise in laziness (or just an ingenious bit of planning, depending on how you look at it) but to eliminate the amount of sightseeing, we based ourselves in one of the most historical areas of the city - the Castelo of São Jorge (or the Castle of St George), perched right at the top of a hill.
Here, the streets are cobbled and winding, and cars aren't allowed beyond a certain point. Perhaps it was just me, but I suspect that even the fittest among you will be wheezing by the time you charge from the bottom to the top. To the east lies Alfama and to the west are the more touristy districts of Chiado (great shops) and Barrio Alto (quirky bars).
We stayed at the Solar do Castelo - the only hotel within the castle walls - and made our arrival at night. We picked our way up the narrow, empty street, past small houses with light spilling from their windows; the sounds of a football match in its dying throes on TV trailed after us as we went.
We came to a vast door. Opposite, the castle sat illuminated and silent. The peacocks were already asleep by the time we arrived, and as we entered our traditional, pretty room, we saw a beautiful bottle of port and two tiny glasses.
An old tram in Alfama
A bright sunny morning greeted us, and we breakfasted outdoors on the terrace.
The daytime afforded a much better view of the hotel; at night we had noticed paintings and other artifacts, but in the day, it was evident how much of the building's past has been preserved.
The 18th-century building was built on the site of the kitchens of the Alcáçovas Palace and certain areas, including the cistern and the courtyard facade, have been restored.
You can hop on the old 28 tram near the hotel, which takes you through the Alfama district and past Chiado and up to the Bairro Alto. It's a wonderful, clackety way to travel - the tram is made from wood and brass - and this form of transport is a familiar sight, winding up the hills.
We hopped off to see the Elevador de Santa Justa - possibly the world's prettiest lift (although my husband balked at paying five euros - "it's just a lift!") - that was built by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, who studied under Gustave Eiffel.
After two days of walking, eating wheels of cheese and dining in tiny, family-run restaurants with barely more than eight covers, it was time to pack up and head towards Sintra. It is very close to Lisbon, and a 30-minute train journey deposits you in a rural, leafy place of natural beauty.
The town itself is beautiful - spread across layers of green hills, containing cobbled streets and crammed with shops selling hand-painted tiles - but it is touristy, and so we chose to stay in nearby Samarra, in a tiny cottage by the sea.
It's possible to stay very cheaply in self-catering accommodation in Portugal, and I just wanted a bit of peace and quiet in a stunning location. We passed fields and tall grasses on the approach to the Casa da Luz and discovered it had unbelievably calming views of the sea and sun-splashed landscape. The house belonged to a German couple named Dieter and Elke, who had built it in a traditional manner with a few environmentally friendly touches, including solar power.
It was made of whitewashed stone, and had flashes of colour from stained glass windows. Upstairs was a little terrace where we could eat breakfast and sit in the sun - it also afforded the best view away from the wind.
A car makes life much easier (we hired ours from Avis at the airport), and over the course of a few days we drove north to Mafra (a fairly large town with a magnificent palace) and Ericeira (a lovely, atmospheric smaller town where we bought giant bundles of greens, lemons and a basket of freshly laid eggs) .
Overview of Sintra and the Castelo
One of the most memorable moments was visiting the Capuchin monastery in Sintra, located deep in the national park, covered in green moss. The entrance fee was very reasonable - £5.
As we moved through the quiet grounds, breathing in the fresh air and quietly enjoying everything around us, it occurred to me that this was the cheapest holiday I've ever had, and easily was one of the most restorative.
Lisbon and its surrounds may still be inexplicably off the map for some , but the locals are so very friendly and everything is so reasonably priced, that it just may be the perfect holiday solution for those still feeling the pinch of the recession.
Poorna stayed at: Solar do Castelo, Rua das Cozinhas, 2, 1100-181 Lisboa, Portugal. Call +351 21 880 6050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Single rooms start from €162 and doubles start from €176.
Casa da Luz, the self-catering cottage in Samarra, near Sintra, is available to rent through HomeAway.co.uk. Ref 549105.
related stories on msn
Single rooms start from €162 and doubles start from €176.
"everything is so reasonably priced, that it just may be the perfect holiday solution for those still feeling the pinch of the recession."
She must have money to burn! She could have had 3 nights for the price of 1 if she had done a little more planning in advance - there are numerous clean and safe pensions (some classed as 1 star) within walking distance of the Avenida da Liberdade and Marques Pombal -and the Miraparque (3 star) (where I always stay for a weekend) offers a single with good breakfast for 60 euros (except July and August) when prices go up to around 80 euros. The cost of a cerveja (beer) may be cheap as is is good quality vinho (half the price of Waitrose) - but Portugal is not the inexpensive country it once was (prior to joining the Euro) and if anyone is planning to live here - you will need a good bank balance. I should know -as I live in Caldas da Rainha (70 kilometers north of Lisboa) as we say it here.
Com meus cumprimentos,