National Palace of Queluz, Lisbon, Portugal: Day trip shore excursion to Lisbon's outskirts

As final European ports of call go, it's hard to beat Lisbon in the dreamy, postcard-pretty, won't-forget-you-in-a-hurry stakes. Sailing up the wide, tranquil Tagus River, with the faintly choppy Atlantic Ocean behind us, we're greeted by the mighty red Puente 25 de Abril, a spit of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, while rainbow-colourful buildings and a medieval castle decorate the seven hills of the Portuguese capital. 

It being our last day on the Regent Seven Seas Explorer, a vessel so plush it's trademarked The Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built, we're tempted to spend an indulgent afternoon on the boat's sun-kissed rear veranda, feasting on champagne and seafood, with Lisbon shimmering away in the backdrop.

But we've decided not to be lazy . A major draw of cruising with Regent Seven Seas are the all-inclusive features, and along with endless servings of more-ish food and drink, there are copious "free" shore excursions. Having enjoyed guided tours in our Mediterranean stops, Valencia, Cartagena and Gibraltar, we're keen to see what Lisbon has to offer. Or, more precisely, after sifting through today's half-a-dozen tour options, what the outskirts of Lisbon have to offer.

With Maria Jose Almeida, a straight-talking Lisboeta as our guide, we head first to the National Palace of Queluz. Sixteen kilometres north-west of the city, it was built in the 18th century as a summer retreat and residence for Portugal's royal family. Beyond the sober facade of the public entrance lies a maze of sumptuous rooms and gardens, with ornate baroque, rococo and neoclassical architecture to admire and Maria's entertaining, matter-of-fact stories about the eccentric characters who were born and lived here.

Moseying beneath richly carved ceilings and past Chinese porcelain, mahogany furniture and azulejo (tiles) depicting rustic and mythical scenes from Portugal and its former African, Asian and South American colonies, Maria points out one of the wall portraits. It's of Carlota Joaquina, the Spanish-born wife of Joao VI, once king of Portugal and emperor of Brazil.

"She was terrible," says Maria. "Terrible temper. Always crying. And we believe she had, ah, 'private moments' in the gardens with the palace workers."

She may also, adds Maria, with a raised eyebrow, have had a hand in her husband's death.

In 1826, a year after he granted Brazil independence from Portugal's imperial shackles, Joao VI died mysteriously, probably of arsenic poisoning. We meander out into said gardens. Touted as the Versailles of Portugal, they're resplendent with topiary hedges, sculptures, fountains and an azulejo-lined canal on which the royals would enjoy gondola rides. As well as hosting rumoured illicit liaisons, the gardens also witnessed extravagant functions and festivities, replete with fireworks and exotic animals (lions, tigers and monkeys would be displayed in cages to impress the guests).

Things aren't quite as pulse raising here today, but the gardens are a lovely place for a stroll, the only downside being the muffled roar of traffic from the nearby motorway.

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"We're now 20 minutes from Lisbon," says Maria. "It used to take a day and a half by horse."

We glimpse more ostentatious properties and luxuriant scenery in our next stop, Sintra, a hilltop town described, in 1809, as a "Glorious Eden" by that wanderlustful poet, Lord Byron. Though it no longer lives up to this idyllic billing (its narrow streets are clogged with tourist buses and groups), Sintra is undeniably photogenic, with enchantingly forested surrounds, and it's a shame we don't have longer to linger.

We return to Lisbon via the fishing villages-turned-Atlantic coast resorts of Cascais and Estoril, with Maria pointing out a striking modern high rise on Cascais' seafront, in which Ronaldo, the Portuguese footballer, apparently has an apartment. Hopping back onto the Regent Seven Seas Explorer for our last night on board, I can't help wondering what Ronaldo, with his decadent tastes and penchant for Instagramming, would make of this floating palace.

As we pass the ship's gleaming chandeliers, Carrara marble-strewn corridors and hot tub-fringed pool (a nice backdrop for his six-pack-flaunting selfies, perhaps), I fancy it would be right up his street.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/portugal

visitlisboa.com

CRUISE

Regent Seven Seas Explorer visits Lisbon on several Mediterranean/Atlantic cruises, including a seven-night Barcelona to Lisbon cruise, departing May 15, 2018. It's priced from around $7140 per person. The ship will be cruising in Europe until November 2017. After switching to the Caribbean for the northern winter, it returns to Europe in March; rssc.com/ships/seven_seas_explorer

The writer was a guest of Regent Seven Seas Explorer
 

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