As soon as I stepped foot in Lisbon, I knew I loved it. This may have had something to do with the mouth-watering pastry shop I entered as soon as we exited the airport. But seriously, over a four day period Lisbon worked its charm on me, and was a real surprise package. It had a grittiness to it which gave it a cool old-school feel, with its charming old streets of patterned cobble stones footpaths, tiled houses, atmospheric squares and graffiti scrawled walls. It felt like a place that had been lived in rather than run down, giving it character and charm.
The city of Lisbon is spread over seven hills, which makes the streets very windy and narrow. To get around the city there are trams, giving it a San-Fran feel. Our accommodation was in downtown Lisbon, in the neighbourhood of Baixa. We stayed in a hip apartment, which was owned and lived in by a 30 year oldish Portuguese couple, who were well travelled and between them could speak more languages than the number of countries we have travelled so far on our trip. This accommodation was our first try of renting a room in someone’s home, and sharing the bathroom, living area and kitchen. It proved to be a cheaper alternative then renting a whole apartment, especially when we were out and about exploring most of the time. Plus the host were able to give us some inside local information about Lisbon as well as some tips about our other future travel destinations. The apartment was right on the down-hill stretch of one of the tram lines and each evening when we went to bed we could hear the rattling and swooshing as each one went by.
To get an introduction to the city, we do a free walking tour of Lisbon which was a little more strenuous than usual given the seven hills. The tour group we end up choosing turns out to be different to previous companies we have chosen. For starters we have two tour guides, a male and female and they are both born and bred locals. All other tour guides we have had previously were usually expats working or studying in a country they had fallen in love with. Portugal had been hit hard from the Global Financial Crisis and a lot of people lost their jobs, including our two tour guides. The male guide decided to combine his entrepreneurial skills and love for Lisbon and start his own free tours.
Over a few hours, we meander through the charming windy streets which open up into tiny or large plaza areas. Our guides tell us of the 1755 earthquake that hit Lisbon and point out signs of still unrepaired damage. Experts estimate that the earthquake measured about 8.5 on the Richter scale and was catastrophic to the population. For decades it also had a profound effect on the religious feelings of those in the staunchly Catholic region. Why would god do such a thing? Why would the areas of the non-believers be spared the majority of death and damage? It was hard work for the Catholic hierarchy in this period.
One of those areas that survived relatively unscathed was Alfama. This neighbourhood is a muddle of tiny lane ways, white washed houses and tiny churches, with most of the residents living here their whole life. You can feel the sense of community as the older residents are decorating the laneways for a religious festival. The residents even speak Portuguese with their own twang to it, and apart from overhearing speaking inside their houses and in the streets, the rest of this neighbourhood is silent and no tourists are in sight.
We stop along the way to sample ‘ginjinha’ (a sour cherry liquor which is a speciality amongst Lisbonites) by a lady who home makes the liquor and sells it from her window. A cute story the tour guides share is that as they would bring a tour group through to her each day to sample the liquor, she asked them what do the people do with the photos they take of her and can she see a photo. They explained to her they may put them on Facebook or on the tour groups page. Intrigued by this, she bought a tablet and joined Facebook, so she can see the photos. She has become a bit of a local celebrity now.
We make a trek to the top of a hill, to end the tour with a spectacular view over the whole city. As Lisbon is so hilly, after each steep hike you are rewarded by a panoramic view of the shabby red tiled roofs and beautiful blue water off in the distance.
We make a day trip to Belem about an hour away on the tram. Belem is one of Lisbon’s most historical areas where many great explorers have embarked for their voyage of discovery. There is a fortress and the Belem Tower on the waterfront, a huge monument dedicated to all explorers, a monastery and a palace as well as many museums. You can see across the water the 25 de Abril bridge which is the spitting image of the San Francisco bridge – not surprisingly we find out it was the same design team behind both.
Belem is also very famous for its bakery Pasteis de Belem – known for making Portugal’s best-loved pastry. These are a flaky pastry with custard filling baked to a 200 year old secret recipe that you then top with powdered sugar and cinnamon. The bakery is huge, with about six large dining areas. Rumour has it they sell over 10’000 pastries on an average day and even more on weekends. I get to see the little custard delights come fresh out of the oven. As you can see from this photo, I’m not the only one devouring these little tarts.
Fado music is another great tradition of Portugal, so to check out this style we head to a show entitled ‘Fado in Chiado’. It involves a male and female pairing singing melancholic and powerful lyrics to the backing of Portuguese guitars. In the background is a large screen showing beautiful pictures of the areas around Lisbon which are relevant to the story being told in the music. The performance lasts about 75 minutes and is spine-tinglingly beautiful. A bit of research after the show turns up that the performers are all amateur – they work day-jobs and do this by night to keep up the Fado traditions passed on to them by their families.
Our last night in Lisbon happens to be the Europa League Final being held in Amsterdam between local team Benfica and English heavy-weights Chelsea FC. The main plaza is all set up with big TV’s to watch the game and the place is buzzing with about 10’000 people. Aaron also discovers his new favourite beer, but at 1 euro for just under schooner size it might just be everyone’s favourite. The local team are underdogs against the big spending Chelsea and despite being on top for most of the match suffer a heart-breaking last minute defeat.
The food is just all so good and consists of lots of fresh seafood. Their national dish of bacahlau which is a salted cod fish was delicious and teamed with their local green sparkling light wine, it was a hit. And of course the Portuguese grilled chicken was super tasty. One night, Aaron couldn’t decide whether he wanted fish or Portuguese chicken for dinner, so he got both. It was just that cheap. And their amazing pastries and baked goodies were the best!
We would of loved to visited other areas of Portugal, such as Porto, Lagos, Douro Valley and Sintra, but thought it was better to give Lisbon a decent crack. It proved to be the right choice.