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8th Nov 2016 11:13am | By Kaye Holland
Just because autumn has arrived in the UK, it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your Vitamin D hit. TNT enjoys some time out - and local vibes - in Lisbon and Madrid.
The mornings are dark and damp and the commute to work painfully crowded, but reader...it doesn’t have to be this way…
Don’t let the end of summer get you down. Swap Britain for a brighter, better European model and make for Madrid where the temperatures are balmy (few things in life beat the sensation of feeling the sun sink into your bones), but the crowds have thinned out. The Spanish capital has always been playing catch up with Barcelona, but is now enjoying its moment of glory. Classical sightseeing should start with the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Teatro Real (Royal Theatre) with its restored 1850 Opera House, the 19th-century National Library building (home to Spain's historical archives) the Golden Triangle of Art, located along the Paseo del Prado, Plaza Mayor - the beating heart of Madrid - and Buen Retiro Park.
Founded in 1631, Buen Retiro Park (meaning ‘Park of the Pleasant Retreat’) is a gorgeous green space that serves as Madrid’s answer to New York’s Central Park. Regardless of whether you want to relax and read a book or rollerblade – rest assured that you can do it all in this popular park. There are many museums to take in too – including the Museo del Prado (Madrid’s best known attraction) and the Reina Sofia (an absolute must for art fans). That said, Madrid is not so much about sightseeing, as exploring: getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets of the atmospheric barrios, dawdling the day away in an elegant cafe, eating a long late lunch in a tapas bar (ask for the ‘la especialidad de la casa’ aka ‘house speciality’) or traditional tavern and then listening to live al fresco music while sniffing, swirling and swallowing wine with fellow punters (who with the help of too many drinks, soon feel like old friends) well into the wee small hours. It’s exactly the kind of thing you won’t find going on in the UK anytime soon…
Madrid credit: Sean Pavone
For further local vibes, check into Charo’s enchanting Homestay abode in Malasaña - arguably Madrid’s most happening barrio - that mixes the comfort of a hotel with the sociable DIY aspects of a hostel. The general vibe is a home from home: I felt like I knew Charo - who was warm and hospitable and keen to know what I was up to each day - even though I was only there for two nights.
If you want to get the maximum out of Madrid and be an easy stroll away from all the sights and shops (you’ll find a cure for every strain of retail fever), have an excellent bar around the corner and hear the hum of Flamenco music from your balcony, then Charo’s place covers these bases - and adds the kind of delightful touches (read reliable Wi-Fi, complimentary coffee throughout the day and a bountiful breakfast) you hope for, but don’t always get. Having settled in so well, I didn’t have an easy time leaving Madrid – which with its heady mix of culinary feasts, cultural offerings, buzzing nightlife and friendly locals, may just be my favourite European city - but I did. Namely because I had an overnight train to catch to Lisbon with Voyages SNCF, something I enjoyed enormously. As the old adage goes, often it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. Make no mistake: supersonic flights and space tourism might be on the horizon but nothing beats letting the train take the strain - a less rushed, more civilised way of travelling.
Lisbon credit: Sean Pavone
Lisbon itself is easily one of Europe’s loveliest cities. Portugal’s charismatic capital sits atop seven steep hills - it’s a bit of a slog to get to the top but trust TNT when we say that you won’t regret the effort for a second (unless you forget your smartphone), as stunning vistas of Lisbon’s pretty pink and yellow tiled walls come as standard.
Seeing the sights from the back of a bus doesn’t cut it in Lisbon. Instead hop aboard one of the old fashioned trams: number 28 will take you to the colourful Feira da Ladra flea market (open Tuesdays and Saturdays) at Campo de Santa Clara. Alternatively, head west on number 15 to Belem for a culture fix. One of the jewels in Lisbon’s crown, this quaint neighbourhood is chock full of museums (the new Museum of Art and Technology (MAAT) opened on October 5) and maritime history (this is where the Spanish Armada assembled in 1588.)
But arguably Belem is best known for its freshly baked pastels de nata and the place to try these famous custard tarts is Pasteis de Belem (pasteisdebelem.pt) - this iconic pastry shop has been making them, right before patrons’ eyes, since 1837. Push past the tourists and nab a table in the shady courtyard - the perfect place to enjoy an excellent coffee and pastel de nata, in peace.
For more of Portugal’s famous cozinha portugesa, make for Mercado da Riberia (Avenida 24 de Julho) - a fabulous market which has the air of a permanent festival - and get stuck into sardines (the unofficial symbol of Lisbon) and Sao Jorge cheese, washed down with excellent local wines that are sold by the glass.
And don’t worry about the extra calories you’re consuming… you’ll burn them off climbing up to Sao Jorge Castle, a majestic Moorish castle. That said if you’re feeling lazy (well you are on your holidays, after all), sign up to an electric bike tour with Bikes and Company (www.bikescompany.tours/en/) who will help ensure you scale Lisbon’s seven hills with ease… Back in baixa (downtown), browse the old style cafes, boutiques and theatres in Chiado, a rejuvenated neighbourhood that’s currently the hottest corner of Portugal’s capital with buzzy new bars and chi chi boutiques opening every week.
Sintra credit: alxpin
Further afield Sintra - the fairytale city that inspired Lord Byron - makes a great day trip. But whenever you venture, the sound of Fado - Portugal’s famously melancholy folk music - pervades the air evoking a sense of saudade (something Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo described as "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”). Little wonder then, that Lisbon has attracted adventurers and explorers since time immemorial…
This explorer’s Lisbon base was Ana Rita’s apartment - high quality yet homely accommodation booked through Homestay, that’s just 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre. Homestay seems to have sussed out what 21st century travellers want: spacious rooms, airy communal spaces and super friendly hosts (before I even admitted that I didn’t know where to start, Ana Rita had drawn up her top tips on a tourist map) without splashing much cash.
As I sunk into my comfortable bed at Ana Rita’s for the final time, I had the feeling that everything was right with the world - even though everything is wrong. So there you have it… why spend weekend after weekend in grey, drizzly Britain at this time of year when Madrid and Lisbon are buzzing and that ‘summer holiday’ feeling is still in the air….
Kaye flew from London Gatwick to Madrid with Norwegian airlines (flights from £100).
Train fares from Madrid to Lisbon with Voyages SNCF start at £68 one way, with accommodation in a four berth couchette.
All fares are per person and subject to availability.
For bookings visit www.voyages-sncf-.com.
Direct flights to London from Lisbon take around 2.5 hours with easyJet.