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Europe's edge of tranquility
PORTUGAL is home to mediaeval villages and fairytale castles, long white beaches and exquisite coves. Its rolling hills and verdant flora are crowned by blue Mediterranean skies. Its people are as gentle and hospitable as the climate.
Is it gluttony then to confess one's best memory of the country is - burp - the Portuguese egg tart?
The stomach, unfortunately, has a memory of its own which, in this case, trumps all the other senses. Though the egg tart is found in many bakeries in Singapore, the delicacy tastes quite different - and far better - in its home country. Really.
At the famous dessert restaurant Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon where, judging by the languages used by the chattering crowds, the whole world has converged, the tarts are made using a secret recipe known by three master patissiers at any one time.
Unlike the egg tarts in Singapore, the Portuguese pastry base is very thin, slightly hard and very crispy. The custard is light, sweet and creamy - almost gooey - and gently dusted with cinnamon powder. Each tart is designed to be savoured in one bite, or two for tiny mouths. But once you've started, your ability to count tarts or calories disappears.
Insight Vacations typically books a whole section of Pastéis de Belém for its group tours. As several dozen bakers work hard behind glass windows, in plain sight of the customers, tarts are made, baked and placed straight onto the plates before you. The restaurant bakes 20,000 egg tarts a day and has been in business since the 19th century. Insight Vacations CEO John Boulding says that, in recent years, the tour company has been rewriting its tour company itineraries to take its groups to "less touristy places, places that you may not find yourself, places that allow you to meet the local owners and artisans, and have an authentic local experience".
Though the tour bus - a large Mercedes Benz bus with plenty of legroom and free Wifi - took us to some of the popular tourist attractions, such as the Monument of Discoveries and the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon, it also drove along the less-beaten tracks to lands seemingly faraway.
Just about an hour's drive away from Lisbon is a town that transports you back to a time of magic and fairytales.
Sintra is a small town nestled on a hill in a verdant forest. The streets wind and slope around quaint little houses to ultimately end at the doorstep of a Moorish castle.
The town is so small that you could probably cover all the attractions on foot in one day, relishing the charming pastel-coloured buildings - until you get sidetracked by the souvenirs shops plying wares made from cork.
Cork is big business in Sintra. You can find just about anything made of cork - bags, shoes, hats, belts, umbrellas, and even dresses. Cork oak trees are common in the area and other parts of Portugal. And about 60 per cent of the global cork trade comes from Portugal - or "Corktugal", as some have joked.
Some of the town's splendid palaces, such as the Sintra National Palace and Pena National Palace, are well-preserved, fairytale-like buildings that embolden you to wander around and get lost in their nooks and crannies - without fear of dragons.
One good feature of the Insight Vacations tour is that it gives you the flexible option of leaving the tour group and venturing by yourself.
After Lisbon and Sintra, the tour bus took us to Evora, another charming ancient town two hours away from Lisbon. There, we stayed at the très chic M'Ar De Ar Aqueduto hotel, regarded by some as the best hotel in Evora. Its stark architecture and elegantly understated furnishings would get an elegantly understated nod from the sort of the people who read Wallpaper very boredly. But the average cosmopolitan still stands to be impressed by this 16th-century convent converted into a luxury property.
Evora itself is a sight to behold. Built more than 2,000 years ago by the Lusitanians, its rich architectural heritage of Roman, Gothic and Baroque buildings means there's something to gape at every five minutes.
Like Sintra, Evora is a lovely small town with an unhurried pace of life. Not a single person looks like he or she is running late for anything. Portugal, in fact, often feels like a country which the rest of Europe forgot because it's located at the southern edge of the vast continent.
Among the sights in Evora is the extraordinary remnants of a Roman temple about which little is known, except that it's believed to have been built for Diana the goddess of the hunt. Also stunning is the rose granite Cathedral of Evora, where a rare statue of a pregnant Madonna stands.
But the must-see attraction of Evora - though it may be on the sinister side - is the Chapel of Bones. Here, you'll find the creepy bones and skulls of more than 5,000 adults and children packed tightly along the walls and pillars of the chapel. The 16th century Franciscan monks who built it wanted their fellow brothers to use the site to contemplate their own transitory existence on earth.
Most of the visitors today are awestruck by these sepulchral surrounds - but this is sometimes followed by a spree of selfies. An ominous sign on the wall with the words "Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (We bones that are here, we await yours)" is no deterrent.
About 30 minutes from Evora is Monsaraz, a mediaeval walled town that looks like it was ripped out of the sets of Game of Thrones and plonked at the edge of Portugal. (Or is that the other way round?)
Here, tiny white-washed houses, cobblestoned streets and sun-dappled backlanes take you centuries back in time to life between the 13th and 17th century. No vehicle is allowed to be driven along its tiny roads, so you remain lost in your mediaeval daydream for hours on end.
Perched at the top of the hill are the remnants of a once-great castle built in the 13th century. Among its remains are the fortified towers from which one can behold the entire lay of the land.
When you've been driving across rolling hills and spectacular rivers a few days, the sublime becomes the standard. But no amount of picturesque scenery can inure you to the breathtaking views commanded from Monsaraz's towers. The undulating land and valleys spread out majestically beyond what the eye can see.
That near-spiritual experience is paired by Insight Vacations with a subsequent sailing trip across the Grande Lago lake. Here, the distinctly calm waters surrounded by countryside disconnect one completely from modern existence and immerse one in pure tranquility.
- The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations..For more information, visit www.insightvacations.com/asia or call 6922-5950/6922-5978. There is currently a special discount for the nine-day Amazing Spain & Portugal tour, starting from US$1,922 (S$2,586). There is also a substantial discount for solo travellers from the usual rates, as well as an Easter Special Red Hot Deal. Couples planning for a romantic getaway this Valentine's can save on the 15-day Best of Spain and Portugal journey departing on Feb 14. Save US$780 per couple with discounted fares at US$2,735 per person.