This post has been long in coming, both for the typical blogger excuses as well as the fact that I have thought a lot, one might even say struggled a bit, to try and explain (even to myself) just why I enjoyed Portugal, especially Lisbon, as I did.
Part of it was timing. After a month of partying in Córdoba but not going anywhere, I was ready to break out. It had started to get hot, most of the other foreigners there had returned home while all of my Spanish friends were still working. There was also foot fetish weirdo in my elevator, but he can be considered little more than a footnote.
Arriving in Lisbon, I was pleasantly shocked by the hostel, a renovated mansion with hardwood floors and IKEA styling. (read my Everywhere magazine “place” blurb here). My room was on the top floor, with skylights, high ceilings, and small patios overlooking the river. For 20 euros, I felt like I was staying in some sort of resort (although I guess sleeping in a bunk bed and sharing a room with 9 strangers could pull the plug on that fantasy..I just went with it).
I walked all of two minutes up the hill to Noobai Café, where I experienced the first of many international menus, a real treat after living in the very Spanish south for so long. Although everyone told me Portugal isn’t as cheap as it used to be, it remains Western Europe’s bargain spot, cheap even as compared to Andalucía. If I wanted to, I could have eaten really cheaply (and well) throughout my stay, but instead chose the “more bang for my buck” approach, paying what I might normally but feeling like I was eating the best thing on the menu, over and over again. Back to the resort mentality.
For some contrast to the trendy Santa Catalina-Bairro Alto area, I spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the Alfama district, the only part of Lisbon spared from the 1755 earthquake that rocked the city. (get it?) Everyone was gearing up for the Festa do Santo António, hanging papier-mâché fish and colorful paper streamers as part of the celebration honoring Lisbon’s patron saint. It occurred the day I left Portugal, sadly, but I did catch a bit of the Festas de Lisboa while I was there. I capped off the night at A Tasco do Chico, a fado bar close to the hostel. After seeing Carlos Saura’s amazing film “Fados” at Córdoba’s Filmoteca, I had been really curious to hear the traditional Portugese music sung in person…and not at an overpriced, strictly for tourists place in the Alfama, either. Amateur night at A Tasco do Chico was perfect–one of many examples of old fashioned Lisbon mixing comfortably with Lisbon as Europe’s new hot spot. The people at the next table were eating traditional sausage, which is lit on fire at the table, while the singers were wearing sweatshirts and Members Only jackets. The young Portugese guy across the table from me was a fado fan, a genre so rooted in the past, but then spoke perfect English, was there with a friend from one of Portugal’s former colonies, and offered to translate for me as the songs were just beginning. (For a Spanish speaker, written Portugese is easy to understand, but seeing as how it has nine vowels and everything seems to have a strong “shhh” sound, it’s really difficult to understand spoken, and even worse sung.)
See the scene from the movie here:
The next couple of days were spent wandering, eating, and taking pictures at my own pace, enjoying the people watching and the perfect weather. I made the trek to Belém, as much for the famous pastéis de Belém pastries as for the Torre de Belém, a center of Portugese nautical pride that just happened to be all dolled up in what appeared to be a huge necklace, I assume for Santo António. I rode the Elevador de Santa Justa for the chance to see Lisbon’s terracotta colored roofs from a good vantage point. I whizzed through all of the ancient art at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian museum in favor of some of the rugs and Arabic art on loan. I skipped the Convento do Carmo at the last minute, instead rooting through second hand book stores in a fruitless search to find English or Spanish books.
The next morning, the French giant FNAC offered a huge selection of English books, more than I had seen at one time in eight months or so, and then I made a pit stop at Swedish H&M without having to feel guilty for missing any key Lisbon spot in the meantime. One of the greatest parts about Lisbon is that it somehow all felt like it fit–from trendy boutiques and international menus to dusty old bookshops, tile front houses with laundry out to dry, and streetside stands selling bifana sandwiches. It managed to be one of the cities most stuck in time one minute and most up to date the next. How all of these people peacefully share Lisbon’s seven hills is really beyond me.
On my last night in town, I experienced the cool community feel of Bica, a pedestrian-only hill where students gather at night to chat and drink the 1 euro beers on offer from state fair-like stands along the way. One of the random Aussies I was with bought a veggie burger from a guy toting an Eliza Doolittle looking basket on his arm. After a little while in Bairro Alto, we took a taxi to the waterfront and hit some discos there, managing to get in despite inadequate footwear on my part.
One of the highlights among a number of highlight days: Quinta da Regaleira. Once again ditching the mainstays for something a little different, I passed up the most famous sites in Sintra, a charming, albeit touristy, city outside Lisbon in favor of the Quinta da Regaleira. As I wrote here, it was like something out of a fairy tale. Since I already wrote about the treasure hunt feel of tracking down sites A through X, I’ll just plan to post some photos in the next week or so. I’ve gone on long enough. Next up: Porto.