For weeks, I had been picturing a city gleaming white in the sun, brilliant blue skies above–as it’s shown in all the guidebooks and online photos. And until a few days before we left, that was the forecast. But on Tuesday morning, we arrived to a Lisbon shrouded in clouds, with more clouds in the forecast ahead. D and I have a knack for getting unseasonably bad weather on our vacations, so I tried to stay positive and hoped that at least the rain would stay away.
Our plane touched down at 8:20 AM, and we deplaned right on the tarmac down a staircase. Then we all boarded buses to the arrivals terminal. I don’t know if that’s standard for a United flight in Lisbon or if heavy traffic at the airport prevented us from pulling up to the gate.
We were through passport control and baggage claim in roughly forty minutes. I had requested a transfer to the hotel, and D immediately spotted our driver, a gregarious older gentleman who spoke about as much English as I speak Portuguese. After a short drive, having passed by a Staples (I had no idea they were international), a few car dealerships, a supermarket, and shipping containers, we pulled up to our hotel, the Eurostars Museum on Rua Cais de Santarém.
I had requested an early check-in; happily, the hotel had a room ready for us. The room featured a large wall map of Vasco de Gama’s 1498 route to Calicut and full-length windows with a view of the Tagus river–and the huge Neue Mein Schiff 1 cruise ship. The proximity of the cruise terminal made me wonder if we’d find hordes of passengers tramping past our doorstep every day, but they must have taken a different path into the city center, because it was relatively quiet on our block. We ended up loving the location and actually felt a little removed from the hurly-burly of the most crowded tourist areas.
Eager to begin our own discovery, we quickly unpacked, showered, and changed into fresh clothes. We took a moment to admire the archaeological exhibit of a Roman floor mosaic in the hotel lobby and then set out for a day of walking.
Right next to the hotel, we walked through the Arco de Jesus. This is one of the gates through which one enters Alfama, and it’s hard to describe how magical it felt to pass through that arch. During our visit, as we learned about the defensive walls that had surrounded Lisboa and learned to look for the explanatory plaques that mark the wall’s boundaries, walking through the gates or the narrow postigos never failed to summon a sense that I was slipping into another world.
Looking down through the Arco de Jesus. The back of our hotel is on the left.
But before I could get lost in reverie, I had to eat. It was now 11:00; we needed sustenance and weren’t feeling too picky about where to find it. We stopped at one of the first places we saw, Pois Café, where nearly every customer seemed to be a visitor, including us. No matter–the service was friendly and quick, and the room with its thick stone walls and milky light streaming through windows had a hipster bohemian charm. My yogurt with fruit and granola was tasty, as was my first meia de leite, which would become my go-to morning drink. I took one look at D’s tosta mista and chips and thought he might regret it, but I held my tongue. I wasn’t about to nag if he made foolhardy dining choices.
Satiated and caffeinated, we left the cafe and continued up the street and around the corner, skirting the bulk of the Sé Cathedral. Somewhere I read a description that compared the Cathedral to a fortress, and that was how it seemed–a forbidding, imposing structure. We didn’t enter it that day but instead wandered up the Rua Augusto Rosa, learning to negotiate the narrow sidewalks while taking in the atmosphere.
Eventually, we found ourselves at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, where we climbed up the short flight of steps to take in the view. There was hardly anyone there at that time, just a guitarist, an artist selling drawings, and a couple taking selfies. The sky was still overcast, but I could see what a lovely spot it would be in the sun, with the bougainvillea draped over the pergola, framing the view of the river. It was at this romantic spot, with the busker strumming gently in the background, that D announced he was feeling a little unwell and maybe we should return to the hotel for a brief rest before our walking tour.
I knew that sandwich was a bad idea!
Quick stroll back to the hotel so D could have a brief lie-down and I could check emails and make sure nothing was on fire back at the office (I was unable to completely unplug from work during this trip). Then, after getting help with directions from the front desk clerk, we left to meet our guide at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara for our 2 P.M. tour.
We walked over towards Praça do Comércio and gaped at the wide, open square surrounded by those canary and cream-colored buildings and the king on horseback looking out to the river. We turned and began to walk up Rua Augusta. I am sorry to say I did not enjoy this part of our walk at all. It seemed very crowded, and the vendors and street performers reminded me of Times Square or Las Ramblas. If I had been interested in doing some shopping, I probably would have had more fun strolling along the storefronts, but I just wanted to get out of there. We stopped only to get cash from an ATM and made our way as quickly as possible to Rossio.
D recognized the wave-patterned mosaic from a television program we had seen, and as we crossed the square, looking down at the waves, I think I did begin to feel a little dizzy! That surely explains why I had trouble figuring out which way to go. At this point, I should have been leading us to the Elevador da Glória, but somehow I got confused and ended up resorting to looking at my phone, which led us up a steep flight of steps and some even steeper streets until we made it to the meeting point.
Our WithLocals guide arrived in a few minutes, and right away we appreciated his humour and passion for his city. Although a temporary fence kept us from going to the edge of the terrace, we looked out over the city below us as our guide gave us a brief history of Lisbon from the Phoenicians through the great earthquake. We noticed a number of construction cranes as well, and this led to a chat about real estate and development. This became a continuing theme throughout our visit, and it was hard not be aware of the sense that we were visiting a city undergoing rapid change, and to feel some ambivalence about how we might be contributing to that. I don’t know enough about the local situation to opine further on what we saw, but New York has an affordable housing shortage of its own, so it’s an issue we’re attuned to.
A map on a wall we passed on our walking tour
The tour was supposed to be three hours, going through Bairro Alto, Chiado, Baixa, and Alfama, but our guide spent four with us, and we never felt rushed although we covered a lot of ground. I will not try to recount the whole tour here but will just call out a few highlights:
We stopped at the Church of São Roque, where the austere exterior belies the baroque splendor within. I am neither a religious person nor a fan of baroque art, but it was impossible not to be awestruck at the craftsmanship and artistry of the carvings, the tilework, and the inlaid marble, and by the sheer extravagance of the gold leaf in the chapel of Saint John the Baptist.
We browsed at Livraria Bertrand, a beautiful, historic bookstore, took a peek inside A Brasileira and the statue of Pessoa outside, and then rounded out our literary mini-tour with a stop at Praça Luís de Camões.
At Largo do Carmo, we not only admired the skeletal roof of the church and convent, but our guide spent a good bit of time in the square itself, describing the events of the 1974 Revolution, and how the carnation became its symbol because of one woman.
Plaque honoring Salgueiro Maia for his role in the Carnation Revolution
Looking down towards Rossio from the viewing platform
We stopped at Ginjinha Sem Rival for a taste of the local specialty with the fruit included. I liked ginja much better than I expected; it was actually less sweet than I thought it would be. D said it was all right but didn’t think he would want to drink it again.
In Largo de Sāo Domingos, we stopped to visit the Memorial to the 1506 Jewish Massacre and discuss the Inquisition in Portugal and the history of the families who “converted” but secretly maintained their traditions. With that context in mind, we proceeded to the Church of Sāo Domingos, which was badly damaged by the earthquake, rebuilt, and then destroyed by a fire in 1959 and restored. I never would have thought to visit this church on my own, but this ended up being one of the most memorable experiences of our trip. I don’t think photographs can convey the eerie power of just being inside that atmosphere, which I can only describe as a living ruin. The impression it made may have been even stronger because it was juxtaposed with our earlier visit to the well-preserved Church of Sāo Roque.
In the Praça da Figueira, we took a quick tour through the outdoor Mercado da Baixa, sampling some delicous cheeses, blood sausage, and sangria. D and I made a note to return when we had more of an appetite.
We took the free elevators up to Alfama–our guide pointed out the way to the castle, but we didn’t stop there–and then wended our way through the streets and back to Miradouro de Santa Luzia, which was now full of visitors, vendors selling artwork, and a lively band. We stopped to examine the tiled panels depicting the pre-1755 Terreiro do Paço and the reconquest of 1147, which we had missed on our first pass through.
At the close of the tour, we stood in Praça do Comércio looking up at the Arco do Rua Augusta as our guide explained who the figures at the top were. He asked if we had seen the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Yes, we certainly had. “And is this not a much more beautiful, impressive arch?”
We agreed it was.
Arco da Rua Augusta
It was after 6 P.M. when our tour ended. I suggested to D that we descend into the Metro station to buy our transit cards so that we’d have them ready and loaded for the next day.
We had not planned anything in advance for dinner and were starting to feel the long day, so we wanted something simple and close by. The hotel staff suggested we try Restaurante Alpendre, but they were packed with an hour wait, so we walked a few blocks towards the Baixa and ended up at Maria Catita, which seemed geared towards tourists, although the couple next to us were speaking Portuguese. D had a grilled fish that he said was very good, but I couldn’t finish my cod and was starting to feel quite tired, so we called it an early night. Brimming with impressions of all I had seen that day and bone-tired from all that walking, I was thankful for our quiet hotel room and comfortable bed.Written on September 11th, 2018 by smallfrog