Our first walking tour on this visit to Portugal took us to historic Belem, a political power center of Portugal for centuries. A short train ride from Lisbon, it’s the home of the Presidential Palace, a grand cathedral, the riverside point where Portuguese explorers set sail, and monuments to their remarkable achievements. These days, tho, it’s most famous for Portugal’s most popular treat, Pastel da Natas, which originated here.
We generally opt for free tours over fixed-priced tours not because they are free — they’re not. You pay what you believe the tour is worth. Because guides have to earn each payment, the tours are better – livelier, and more informative.
We met our guide, Joao, at the Plaza Commercial, just a block from our apartment. Two groups had gathered – a large one for the tour in Spanish and for English…just the two of us.
Being the only couple on a tour has advantages and disadvantages. It’s nice to be with like-minded folks, who sometimes become friends and stay in touch long after the tour. But going it alone gives the guide the option to customize the tour to match our interests. We were fortunate to have Joao, whose knowledge was matched by his great sense of humor.
Our first stop was the park in front of the pink Presidential or Belem Palace, built in the middle of the 16th century. In 1755 an 8.9 earthquake almost obliterated Lisbon, including the royal palace in the city. The King fled to his Belem home, a summer royal residence that survived the devastation. He never set foot in the city again, leaving the task of rebuilding to others. Today the palace is the working residence of the President of Portugal. Tourists can visit when he’s away. But his flag was flapping in the breeze, indicating he was in and we should come back another time.
Next up was the birthplace of the Pastel de Nata, the famous rich custard tarts nestled in puff pastry and showered with cinnamon. There’s no doubt it’s the most popular sweet in the country: on this hot day, a line of hungry customers stretched for blocks. Over 20,000 are sold here everyday double on weekends for only 1.15 euros each.
Lots of stores sell pastels, but munching on a warm tart from the original bakery, Pasteis de Belém, is a memorable sweet treat. The recipe is a secret, created in 1837 by monks in the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, who had an abundance of egg yolks. (Egg whites were used for starching habits.)
Joao used his tour guide credentials to skip the line, emerging with a box of three pastels. They were worth the dirty looks we got… and the calories (about 300 each!). We’ve had them before… but always marvel at the crisp buttery crust and decadent creamy filling. Not to be missed.
Next up is Vasco de Gamma’s ultimate resting place and incredible tales of Portuguese explorers.