Well, this is a surprise. On a wet, winter's day in Portugal, I'm sitting in a tiny corner cafe sheltering alone from the rain, having already given up my umbrella to a fellow guest. Yet I'm happy because I'm reading about one of my teenage heroes, Lord Byron.
And yes, Byron's name is usually followed by those immortally damning words uttered by his most famous lover, Lady Caroline Lamb. Those of you in Melbourne should pay attention. The English prime minister after whom your city was named, Lord Melbourne, was cuckolded by Britain's emerging poetic superstar. And Lady Caroline's damning verdict of Byron? "Mad, bad and dangerous to know."
Byron spent a formative time of his youth here in Sintra in 1809, and it features in the poem that established him as one of the greats of English literature, Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage. I know this because of the books about Byron available for customers to read in this cafe which has the beautifully evocative name Cantinho Lord Byron Snack Bar.
But why would Byron, a rich, aristocrat, spend so much of his life in this tiny triangle of Portugal, so far away from the cities most wealthy Britons visited on their Grand Tour? Well, it was a mistake. Byron was supposed to be sailing to Malta, but he missed the boat. So he and his mate caught the next packet to Lisbon instead.
On arrival in Lisbon, Byron wrote: "Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see/What heaven hath done for this delicious land!/What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!/What goodly prospects o'er the hills expand!"
Eight years later, Byron wrote to his best friend from Venice saying that, in his opinion, the three best sea views in the world were Istanbul, Naples and Lisbon, though he conceded that, strictly speaking, Lisbon's view was over the wide Tagus river estuary rather than the Atlantic.
In Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage, Byron writes of Sintra: "Lo! Cintra's glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and glen." That phrase "Glorious Eden" has both haunted and promoted Sintra ever since. So what did he mean? And is it still true of Sintra, 200 years later?
Well, yes, and I wish we had more time to savour it. This is our only day in Lisbon and we're really packing in the experiences. Tomorrow, our Insight Vacations tour party, made up of journalists from Canada, the UK, Canada, South Africa and Asia as well as us Australians, will leave the Portuguese capital and head east for Evora, Seville and Cordoba. This is an abbreviated taster of the 10 different tours of the Iberian peninsula that the upmarket coach holiday company will be offering in 2015, and the pace is hectic. Normally, of course, guests would arrive early and have at least a couple of days in the Lisbon area.
I'm envious of those extra hours as our luxury coach drives down into Sintra through a landscape that has since been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage landscape since 1995. Much of it is Parque de Pena, a huge, humanly planted park that was created in 1869 by Fernando II, for his second wife. Once we arrive, and look up, we can't miss the remains of the 10th-century castle, Castelo dos Mouros, easily the most imposing reminder of the Moorish culture that once reigned here.
Even in this drizzle, Sintra is immensely picturesque, full of gardens, quaint shops, and the two royal palaces. The Palacio Nacional de Sintra, in the heart of the old town, is distinguished mainly by its two unusual conical chimneys, reminiscent of brick kilns, which rise majestically above the vast kitchen. Known locally as "Paco Real", it was built in the late 14th century as a summer retreat for the Portuguese royal family, and it continued as a royal residence until the 1880s. We spend an hour, wandering round its many ornately-decorated rooms imagining what it must be like to have had a summer pad like this.
Even more spectacular is the Palacio da Pena which stands on one of Sintra's highest peaks, the vision of Portugal's 19th-century royal consort: Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Iberian equivalent of Queen Victoria's beloved Prince Albert. Albert and Ferdinand were Germanic cousins, who shared a similar interest in art, nature and science. But nothing Albert ever devised was quite as madcap as Ferdinand produced at Sintra with his German architect Baron Von Eschwage. It is a 19th-century folly, on a very grand scale; a hotchpotch of architectural styles, many with Moorish references. It was completed in 1885, the year Ferdinand died.
By the time we leave Sintra, around 4.30pm, we've already been on the road for eight hours. Each Insight Vacations trip has its own full time tour director who accompanies the clients for the entire journey. Ours is Spanish-born Toni Aguilar, who is well-informed, funny and a real can-do merchant, making things happen when someone asks for something unexpected. Our driver, Portuguese-born Helder, is also with us for the entire journey, and he has taken us the pretty way to Sintra, leaving Lisbon city centre and following the Tagus westwards until it emerges into the Atlantic, then on to the resort towns of Estoril and Cascais. Both have long been haunts of Portugal's wealthy. The former King of Spain, Juan Carlos I (who abdicated in favour of his son, Felipe VI in 2014) lived in Estoril for much of his exiled youth and it's fun spotting the aristocratic residences which cling to the cliff faces, often humorously close to the railway line. Of the two, I preferred Cascais, a pretty fishing village on the north bank of the mouth of the Tagus. All the way up the coast we've seen the remains of former forts and castles, and Cascais is no exception with its own 17th fortress. Here we pause long enough to have lunch in Cascais's quaint maze of streets near the marina.
This part of Portugal is famous for its international golf courses, but soon after leaving Cascais all development ceases and we focus on the outstanding landscape of the Sintra-Cascais National Park which includes Cabo da Roca, the most westernmost point in continental Europe. We stop for a few minutes to talk photos of the roaring Atlantic waves crashing the granite cliffs and admire the carpet of wild flowers.
On the way back from Sintra, we take the freeway back to Lisbon (about 30 minutes). According to Euromonitor International, Lisbon is the seventh most visited city in Southern Europe (after Istanbul, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens and Milan). Yet Lisbon never feels a crowded city. Much of this is because of the famous earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) that destroyed historic Lisbon in 1755. The result is that Lisbon's city centre is essentially an 18th-century creation, with uniform building heights and a carefully planned street grid stretching back from the waterfront. Elegance is the word usually associated with the city, symbolised perhaps by the Elevador de Santa Justa, designed by a pupil of Gustave Eiffel. Built at the turn of the 20th century, this neo-gothic lift has a practical purpose, taking tourists up to the spectacular viewing platform, but it is a thing of beauty in itself.
Like Rome, Lisbon is a city of seven hills. Knowing I had only one day in the city, I had got up for an early run, leaving our hilltop hotel, the five star Dom Pedro Palace, around 6am. I had cruised downhill along Avienida da Liberade, Lisbon's equivalent of Paris's Champs-Elysees, past the magnificently ornate Rossito railway station and the stylish piazzas (Dos Restauradores, Rosssio and Da Figueira), through the beautiful central district of Baixa to the Praca do Comercio by the banks of the Tagus. I'd seen the imposing Castelo de Sao Jorge and the cathedral, Sao Vicente de Fora, and watched Lisbon awake before most of my fellow travellers had even woken up.
A couple of hours later, showered and breakfasted, our party had boarded Helder's coach to meet Laura, our local guide for the day. Regulars on an Insight Vacations holiday (and return customers form a large part of the Insight business) would already have booked into Lisbon a day or two beforehand, so they can explore the city at their leisure. Likewise, regulars would book a couple of days at the end of the trip in their termination city, just to unwind. As humble journalists, we don't have that luxury. So we are dependent on Laura's whirlwind tour (I'm glad I got up for that early run, despite the jet lag).
As she explains, Portugal changed forever on April 25, 1974 when hundreds of students thrust flowers into the rifle barrels of soldiers, effectively ending one of the longest fascist dictatorships in history. The Portuguese call it the Carnation Revolution, because most of those flowers were carnations. Our morning is spent seeing the obvious Lisbon sights, such as the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, originally a monastery founded in 1501 after Vasco da Gama's epic journey to the East Indies which began the Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade. The architectural style is known as "Manueline" after the reigning king, Manuel I: a more descriptive term might be "late Portuguese Gothic", a glorious mixture of Christian and Moorish influences. Lisbon's best known Manueline construction is the city's most famous landmark, Belem Tower, just 400 metres away. When it was built, this decorative little fortress was in the middle of Tagus river, the last thing Portugal's most famous navigators would have seen as they set off on their voyages of discovery. Today the tower's celebrated stone carvings are much easier to see because it is attached to the shore, following the 19th Century reclamation of the Tagus's north bank.
Just a short walk away is the Monument to the Discoveries, built in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry The Navigator. Though Henry was never king and did not sail himself, this scholarly prince laid the foundations of the nation's Age of Discovery. He stands at "the prow" of the thrusting monument, leading a who's who of famous explorers including Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Pedro Alvares Cabral who discovered Brazil. Laura also points out the beautiful marble compass on the north side of the monument, a gift from South Africa, with a map showing all the routes the Portuguese discovered (including, of course, the route around the Cape of Good Hope). From the monument you get a good view of the Ponte 25 de Abril (25 April Bridge), originally named Ponte Salazar after the long-surviving dictator who had it built in 1960. Until then, the two sides of city were linked only by ferry. There's a reason why it so closely resembles the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco: Laura points out the same US engineering company built it. Salazar also commissioned the construction of another of Lisbon's most visible landmarks, the 28 metre high statue of Christ completed in 1859 and modeled on Rio de Janeiro's more famous Christ the Redeemer.
By now it's time to visit one of the city's cafe-cum-bakeries specialising in the production of pastel de nata, those egg custard pastries most of us know as Portuguese tarts. Pasteis de Belem, which has operated since 1837, is a cavern of a place with multiple dining rooms and a kitchen where you can see teams of bakers making the delicious treats.
Laura tells us that in 1834, as a result of the liberal revolution of 1820, all monasteries and convents in Portugal were shut down. Needing to find an alternative way of making a living, the monks who had lived at the Mosterio dos Jeronimous began baking their delicacies from a former sugar cane refinery next door to the monastery. At that time, the Belem was still a separate community from Lisbon, with visiting steamboats delivering tourists to see the Belem Tower. By 1837, tasting one of these traditional tarts, baked by monks, became part of the Belem experience. According to Laura, only three senior bakers know the secret recipe that has been passed down since the days of the monks. Only when one dies is a new baker is initiated into the secret.
That evening we taste some more of Lisbon's culinary delights, taking one of the charming commuter ferries across the Tagus to Outra Banda (Other Bank). We select one of the many family-style restaurants close to the ferry terminal and enjoy a convivial evening tucking into the simple fish, shellfish and grilled chicken dishes which Portugal is famous for. It's been a long day, and I wouldn't recommend you trying to fit all of this into 18 hours as we have. Do yourself a favour. Linger longer in Lisbon!
The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.
Emirates Airline has three daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne, via Dubai to Lisbon. See emirates.com.au.
Insight Vacations' nine-day "Amazing Spain and Portugal" tour visits Madrid, Granada, Seville, Lisbon and Salamanca and is priced from $1975 per person. Phone 1300 301 672; see insightvacations.com.