Western Europe's Least Expensive Capital City

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A detour to religiously important Fatima, and the holiday towns of Sintra and Cascais on the way to Lisbon - Western Europe's least expensive capital and one of Europe's safest cities.

Photography by the authors

Insight Vacations is giving the 36 of us on this comfortable Mercedes-Benz coach some appetizers around Lisbon before we get to the main meal of Portugal’s capital, a city that is Western Europe’s least expensive and one of Europe’s safest.

Fatima lies on our way. Not all on the coach seem to know what happened in 1917 in this small place in Portugal, but many have the faith needed to believe and — though we are not Catholic — we are glad we walked this special spot.

A thousand years ago, explains our guide, when people went on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, they could go by three routes: south from Britain through Northern Spain; across France into the Pyrenees; or up from the south, Portugal to Santiago. The journey to the remains of St. James was a way of making penance for previous sins.

“In 1917 when the three children saw the apparition at this place, Portugal was a poor country, the world was at war and it was desperate for a miracle,” says our guide. “The stop we make at Fatima for Catholics is too short; for non-Catholics too long.”

USAToday has an article on the logistics of visiting this busy pilgrimage site, an article that shows how much easier it was for us arriving by Insight Vacations.

We head for Lisbon through a densely wooded land circling the city’s “Golden Triangle.”

“Ninety two percent of the forests in Portugal are privately owned,” says our guide. “Here in those small towns live many of this half of Greater Lisbon’s two million population who can’t afford to live in the city.”

The small towns Cascais and Sintra that lie to the west outskirts of Lisbon are easier to understand than Fatima. They are holiday towns beloved by their regular visitors: wealthy Portuguese who know how to enjoy their vacations.

Sintra is particularly interesting. It has its own micro-climate, a great volcanic soil and — since it’s well watered by coastal breezes — grows great vegetables. Sintra has Roman ruins, Moorish castles and Celtic shrines. European Royalty used to come each summer with its fawning staff. That was enough to make the Spanish monarchy decide it wanted to build a summer palace here, too. The Romantic poet Lord Byron stayed here on what the local tourism office tells us was “his Childe Harold tour.”

We know some “wine snobs” and shot the advertisement for vintage port in Sintra for them.

We cross into Lisbon over the longest suspension bridge in Europe, built in 1966 by the same company that put up San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Laura, our guide tells us bridge traffic is down by two-thirds due to the Great Recession.

“There’s nothing flat here, it’s all up and down here…” she says. “I know you are all world travelers familiar with Paris and London,” (most of the Insight guests are Australian and, typical of that care-free country, they shake their heads good-naturedly and grin at each other) “but I know you don’t know Lisbon, this very old city that started a long time ago with 7,000 people on top of a hill! Then came the Greeks and the Romans then the Barbarians then the Moors.”

“And the tourists!” shouts an Australian to much laughter.

Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe. Why would a great city be built here, our guide asks then answers her own question.

“The river! The Tagus, this river so broad here you’d think the river bank was the edge of the ocean and yet when you saw it in Toledo it was so small.”

We had, in fact, seen the beginnings of this river in eastern Spain. It is the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, 626 miles from its source 90 miles near the Mediterranean until it empties into the Atlantic.

The two countries share not only a river but their history. Portugal is older. It expelled the Moors earlier (in 1143 while Spain’s Treaty of Granada was in 1491). Portugal evicted royalty in 1910. Spain in 1951. Both joined the EU in 1986 but things have gone better for Spain than Portugal.

“Both countries work a 40-hour week but in Spain that brings in 700 euro a month yet only 500 euro a month in Portugal,” our guide explains. “We wonder why taxes are greater and income less yet cars, for example, cost more. We wondered if it was business and government corruption but, No! Corruption is greater in Spain and Italy. It turns out the problem lies in our incompetent bureaucracy.

Portugal runs 350 miles from north to south and 130 miles east to west. Its coastline, for example, zigzags for only 900 miles so it’s easy to explore and get to know. At 35,655 square miles, it’s a small country — slightly smaller than Indiana (36,185 square miles). Its highest mountain is in the Azores islands.

The medieval city of Lisbon was easily defended; the river access could be watched at all times by the city sentries back then. But in 1755 an earthquake devastated the city with a quake so strong it was felt in Casablanca 380 miles away — on a different continent. The rebuilding by Prime Minister Marquis of Pombal is now widely regarded as a triumph. It has made Lisbon the beautiful city it is now.

Yet, change is happening. Sixty percent of marriages happen outside of the church and the fertility rate has dropped to 1.46 — and this in a Catholic country!

What an exciting time to have lived in Lisbon in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was, indeed, Portugal’s Age of Discoveries. It started with Henry the Navigator’s contributions that enabled Portugal to capture the North African city of Ceuta in 1415 and “reached its peak when Vasco da Gama discovered a route to India and Cabral found a way to Brazil.”

European visitors recognize The Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon as the signature image of the city, but it’s actually fairly recent. It was built of wood for the 1940 World Exhibition as a temporary structure and replaced in concrete in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. The Jeronimos Monastery shows the elaborate Manueline wedding cake-like architecture that “celebrates the prosperity of the 1495-1521 reign of Manuel I, a wealth dependent on Portugal’s sea trade.”

The pleasure of seeing the mausoleum of the great sailor Vasco da Gama in the Jeronimos Monastery is matched on a long hot day when we find our air-conditioned coach waiting for us outside.

The 100-foot high Belem Tower, built in 1515, stands on every tourist’s bucket list as yet another monument to the great era of Portugal’s Discoveries. It’s a fortified tower that was part of the city’s defense system.

Beside it stands an aviation tribute to the first flight across the South Atlantic and to the third Fairey III seaplane and its finally-successful attempt to cross over in 1922

the two aviators Coutinho and Cabral having to ditch in the ocean each time they reached South America.

Lisbon is so scattered a city that a brief visit may allow you to enjoy the history in the west part of the city but barely time to wander the east part, the Baixa — the old city itself. The Insight visit took us to Baixa our last night in Lisbon, where we had free time in the evening to wander its streets and choose an individual restaurant at random for a personal experience.

One of the charms of an escorted tour to an unknown country is the visit is, to a degree, a virtual reconnaissance. In our case, it leaves us with a wish, a hope that we might return another year, independently, to explore what we missed the first time.

There are such classics as the museum revealing the marvelous idiosyncrasies that the personal petrochemical wealth and exquisite good taste of Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) could create, or the oddity of a simple drinking place, the Pavilhão Chinês bar or pub or antique shop that defies description, with multiple rooms exhibiting 4,000 artifacts.

The Chinese Pavillion has been there for 22 years so we’re sure it’ll be waiting for us if we return to Lisbon.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.