21 October 2016

Adventuras em Lisboa

By train, it takes a few short hours to get down to Lisbon (Lisboa, in Portuguese).  While the friendly atmosphere and sunny weather were the same between the two cities, Lisbon definitely has a distinct international "capital city" feel.  Its urban area is rather large with an extensive metro system, and the center of town includes several unique neighborhoods which each take time to explore thoroughly.  It is said that Lisbon was built on seven hills.  One of the most charming parts of exploring is getting lost in the winding streets and finding endless surprise views of the city, covered in signature red rooftops.  One of the least charming parts is slipping and falling on the too-smooth traditional mosaic-like sidewalk stone, so good walking shoes are a must (I snapped my only pair of sandals and had to hobble into the nearest shoe store on one foot).  Lisbon is situated at the mouth of the Tagus River, over which the 25 de Abril bridge is built, which was made by an American company and bears uncanny resemblance to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

Tagus River and 25 de Abril bridge

Still-standing house
in Alfama
Not having much prior knowledge about Lisbon, I decided to go on a free walking tour given by a native; it only covered about four neighborhoods but lasted more than four hours.  Lisbon is one of the oldest capitals in Western Europe, predating Paris and even Rome.  Over the course of history, it picked up influences from pre-Roman era tribes, Romans, Muslims, Africans, Indians, and others; it was one of the most important port cities of the Silk Road.  In 1755, Lisbon was hit with a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami several minutes later and finally fires that almost completely destroyed everything within a matter of five days.  A handful of buildings in the Alfama district dating back to the Middle Ages survived the disaster, and their facades still show the Muslim influence of that time.  Some appear to be painted as a porcelain piece.

Another of my favorite bits of history was Napoleon's attempted takeover of Lisbon in the early 1800s.  While his troops physically did take the city, the royal family fled to its South American colony of Brazil beforehand, essentially transferring the Portuguese crown across the ocean so that Napoleon had no political dominance over Portugal and its empire.  For thirteen years, Rio de Janeiro functioned as the head of the Portuguese empire instead of Lisbon, and Brazil gained more power and independence out of the deal.

One classic tour stop (and the ultimate tourist center in Lisbon) is the Praça do Comércio, or Commerce Square.  It is a giant square situated on the river, complete with signature giant statue, signature colorful buildings, and giant fancy arch.  Several tram and bus lines pass through, and across the street, stone steps lead straight into the water.  You can sit on them and admire the view, but watch for rising water levels and waves made by passing boats.

A must-visit is the district of Belém, located a bit down the river near the Atlantic.  You can get there the easy way by tram, or the difficult way by metro and train, which is what I did.  There are several popular attractions in the area and it's worth spending perhaps 3/4 of a day there, depending on what season it is and the length of lines.  I was most attracted by a free modern art museum, Museu Coleção Berardo.  While it again had some art that was way too far out for my taste, I enjoyed seeing works by some major artists like Kline, Picasso, Dali, and Warhol.

Beyond the museum lies the Belém Tower, a fortified tower sitting at the mouth of the Tagus which originally had defense and ceremonial purposes.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site and a beautiful piece of architecture, enhanced by the color of the water, sky, and hills in the background.  However, when I passed by, I was met with the line you can see in the photo on the left...and decided to simply admire the outside.  I was glad I did, as I later was told that there isn't really anything inside; you wait in line for a long time and ultimately pay for a view of the Atlantic.

Walking back to the train stop, I came across another UNESCO site, St. Jerome's Monastery.  The next time I find myself in Lisbon, I will definitely brave the line to see the inside, but this time it was too hot and I was still a little under the weather from being ill in Porto.  I did admire the outside of the place, which is already stunning and made up of intricately-carved white stone.

Monet at the Gulbenkian
A few metro stops outside of Lisbon in the opposite direction of Belém is the Calouste Gulbenkian art museum.  It's a private collection that is not overwhelmingly large, but it does cover many eras and styles of art, starting with Ancient Egypt.  There are tapestries, intricate Chinese vases and pottery, and paintings, including some impressionist works.  The highlight of the experience happened in the Chinese vase room; I overheard two French women near me speaking rather quietly, describing the colors and patterns on the vases in an overly romantic, flowerly, delicate, poetic way.  Cue the American tourist who appeared at the doorway, map in hand and camera around his neck, who loudly announced to the room, "Look at all this STUFF!"

Back in the center of Lisbon, the São Roque church is worth a quick visit.  Inside, it is one of the most insanely decorated and intricate churches you can visit; there are many small chapels on both sides, each covered in statues and gold carvings.

São Roque was right next to my hostel, also near to a lookout point on one of Lisbon's seven hills.  The lookout point, called the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, was also home to food stands, artists, music, and dancing at all hours of the day.  Another of my favorite lookout points was on the opposite side of town, the São Jorge castle.  While you do have to pay to enter, and while the castle itself isn't much to marvel at, the view at sunset is not to be missed.

View from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara
View from São Jorge castle

As far as eating your way through Lisbon and Portuguese coastal cities, I found that fish and especially cod dishes are the main specialties.  In Lisbon, there is a block of restaurants on the way to the train station and not far from the center of town that all have outdoor seating and specialize in the fresh fish catches of the day.  The servers are also very animated and fun.  I had one of the best meals of the trip there, and went back a couple of evenings later for the best steak I've ever had in my life.

Another specialty I particularly enjoyed was the bifana, a simple but mildly spicy beef sandwich.  The best I found was actually at a fast food place near a train station on the outskirts of Porto, but pictured at the left is a sandwich from a stand at the lookout point in Lisbon.

Two other not-to-be-missed food items are the heated breakfast ham and cheese croissants at cafés, which are much doughier than their French counterparts, and the pasteis de nata, a small custard pastry.

Lisbon is also known for a cherry liqueur called ginjinha, which we were able to sample on our walking tour.  Our guide brought us to the home of a woman who makes it herself; she opened up the top half of her front door and started pouring from a plastic pitcher.  Ginjinha is good but very sweet.

Any visit to Lisbon is incomplete without at least a day trip to nearby Sintra, which can be accessed cheaply by train.  Sintra is a small but charming town surrounded by coastal foothills and castles.  It's one of the most picturesque places I've ever been to; I only devoted a half-day to it but would certainly return for more.  Sintra has its own castle, but you can also hop on one of several bus circuits through the hills to visit other castles and views.  It's efficient, but the lines of people during tourist season can get very long.  With the time that I had, I chose to visit the Palace of Pena.  It's a fascinating multi-colored castle nestled in the hills; you can go on a short tour of the inside, but the main plug is the breathtaking view and interesting architecture.  It began as a monastery built around the year 1500.  Various kings and queens later inhabited it until the early 1900s, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Portugal certainly merited a place on my list of places to return to.  Everyone I met was kind and welcoming, and the country has a unique beauty that can't be found elsewhere.

At the end of August, I boarded a flight from Lisbon to Lyon, and the next day took a high-speed direct train to Lille to begin a new life chapter.