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In love with Lisbon


“Sounds almost like you’re in love”, smiled a friend when he heard me talk about Lisbon. It might very well be true – Lisbon took my breath away. It stole my heart on day one, and it doesn’t look like it will ever give it back. I was going “wow” every five minutes for five days – and that’s a whole lot of “wow”. Besides, who could resist Lisbon, when it dazzles with a whirlpool of narrow winding streets, charms with the rhythm of capoeira, samba, and rattling trams, and romances with sun, colors, smiles, azulejos, pastéis de lata, and southern-style courtesy?

LisbonThe love affair with Lisbon begins with stepping off the plane. There isn’t time for the usual “let’s drop off the bags and take it easy tonight” – in Lisbon no one rests. Our host takes us straight to Colombo, the biggest mall in Lisbon, which, at 11:00 pm on a Sunday night, is busting with people trying on dresses, making friends, having drinks, flirting, spending money, and enjoying life together. Coming from Denmark, just the thought of trying on a dress at 11:00 pm on a Sunday seems unreal. After dinner and shopping, it’s time for a drink with a friend of a friend – in Portugal, people live to socialize. We head to Bairro Alto, the best party neighborhood in town. On a good night here people can barely pass each other on the narrow streets, buying their drinks in the bars, but drinking them outside while making new friends under the hanging laundry. This, however, is an unusually quiet night, and the legendary drunk and high crowds are nowhere to be seen. Our host explains – it has rained earlier in the day and people don’t go out on rainy days. Another unreal thing if you’re coming from Denmark.

Lisbon skylineThe next morning there is no trace of rain, and we are standing at Praça da Figueira, looking at a diverse crowd of Africans, Arabs, and Europeans. The crowd is looking back at us, Portuguese-style – with smiles, waves, whistles, and kisses blown our way. From there, we take a short walk to see Praça Dom Pedro IV, nicknamed Rossio. After admiring the statue of Brazil’s first emperor (and turning down an offer to buy some hash), we pass by the Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria II (the building is the former seat of the Portuguese Inquisition), and the Moorish-looking Rossio train station, to reach Praça dos Restauradores, with an obelisk commemorating the restoration of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640. This part of the city, called Baixa Chiado, was re-built after the big earthquakes of 1755 which, together with the fire and the tsunami that followed, destroyed a big part of Lisbon. Мarquês de Pombal, the chief minister at the time, spearheaded the reconstruction, taking the opportunity to make the streets wide, straight, and flat, and the buildings – tall, ornate, and solid, thus giving the area a majestic look, in contrast to the atmospheric, labyrinthine streets – today’s signature look of the areas less affected by the earthquake.

Elevador de Santa Justa

Elevador de Santa Justa

The main city thoroughfare, from Praça dos Restauradores to Praça do Comercio, is the pedestrian and tourist-packed Rua Augusta, where the main attraction, besides the cheesy cafes and the shops, is Elevador de Santa Justa – a weird-looking iron elevator designed by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel and therefore supposed to look similar to the Eiffel Tour – except it looks nothing like it. In Lisbon, elevators are considered part of the city transportation network – it is a city of seven hills (yes, yet another one), and all are very much intact. Elevador de Santa Justa, connecting the lowest and the highest points of the city (Baixa Chiado and Bairro Alto), is the only one that looks like an actual vertical elevator – the rest look like trams, but only go from one end of a street to the other and cost as much as a regular tram ride.

Rua Augusta leads to Praça do Comercio, which used to be the gateway to Lisbon back in the day when most people where coming by boat. Before the earthquake, a royal palace stood on the square, but has been replaced with bright yellow buildings, an equestrian statue of Dom José I, and the glorious Arco da Vitória, crowned with statues of people important to Portuguese history, such as Vasco da Gama. The smell, however, falls short of majestic – the square is at the waterfront and has the smell to prove it, especially on hot days. In 1910, when the monarchy was abolished, the last king, Dom Carlos I, and his son were assassinated at this square. The day we visit, October 5, is the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of the Republic, and the celebrations involve a parade with giant dancing puppets, samba music, and marching bands.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

With tourist-style sightseeing done for the day, it is time to experience the more “local” side of Lisbon. My friend’s landlord offers to take us to a local bar in the spirit of Portuguese-style hospitality. He also greets us Portuguese-style, with a kiss on each cheek, and then takes us on a surprise car tour of Lisbon by night, which looks even more stunning than Lisbon by day. On the way, he tells us about the centuries-old rivalry with Spain (“They have been trying to push us out to the sea for centuries, but they never succeeded, yet they consider us a third-world country”), about the equally dramatic, albeit not so old rivalry between soccer clubs Porto and Benefica, teaches us a few words in Portuguese, runs a couple of red lights (“Portuguese style”, he smiles, explaining the concept of “shallow red” referring to a green light that has just turned red), and earns all my admiration for being able to navigate Lisbon traffic and keep his cool (“I lose it several times a day, but never with ladies in the car”).

Miradouro de Santa Luzia

Miradouro de Santa Luzia

The next morning we head to Alfama, the old Arab neighborhood right beneath Castelo de São Jorge. First along the steep climb from Baixa Chiado is Sé, the oldest cathedral in Lisbon, built in 1150 on the site of a former mosque after the city was reclaimed by the Christians. Next comes Miradouro de Santa Luzia, offering us a view of Alfama’s pastel-colored houses tumbling all the way down to the river Tejo in the joyful afternoon sun. Behind us is the Santa Luzia church, decorated with azulejos – Portugal’s signature tiles, the Arabs’ contribution to Lisbon’s unique ambiance. Across the street a bunch of shirtless guys with six-packs are dancing capoeira, clearly enjoying the attention of the crowd, and especially ours, as we cross the street on our way to Castelo de São Jorge. However, once we get to the castelo, we are unanimously unimpressed – Castelo de São Jorge may very well look beautiful at night, glowing in gold over the twinkling lights of Lisbon, but during the day, it doesn’t offer much. I mean, remains of old fortification walls with a nice view of the city are hardly worth leaving dancing guys with six-packs behind.

Torre de Belém

Torre de Belém

Next on the list is a ride on the legendary Tram 28, which runs across town from Graça through Alfama down to Baixa Chiado and up again to Bairro Alto and Estrella. Over the years, this tram route has become so popular with tourists that there are special sight-seeing trams running it in addition to the regular ones. The latter offer a much more authentic experience as they rattle down the narrowest of streets at high speed, the windows open, the walls of the buildings so close you can touch them, the passengers blabbering away, and the occasional fare-dodgers holding on to the rail on the outside of the tram, blowing kisses to the women on the sidewalks.

Our last day in Lisbon takes us to Belém and its Age-of-Discovery gems – Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Torre de Belém, and the legendary pastéis de Belém, sold in a pastry shop next to the monastery. The first two are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the third should be one. The pastry shop is the size of a college dining hall (and, much to my delight, all covered in azulejos), but we have to wait for a seat. There is also the option of a take-out, but that will also take time – the line goes well outside the shop and winds down the street. The recipe for the pastries used to be a well-kept secret of the monks in the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, and they only shared that blessing with the general public in early 19th century, when the liberal revolution of 1820 saw to the closing of all monasteries in Portugal and sent the monks looking for survival. Someone started selling pastries to people coming to Belém on other business (back then, Belém was not part of Lisbon), and eventually a shop was founded in 1837. The year is marked on the history line in Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, along with the year of the signing of the treaty for Portugal’s membership in the EU, the official ceremony for which took place in the monastery gardens. The recipe is still a secret, known only to the head chefs of the shop, and the pastries are pieces of heaven disguised as pastéis de lata. Today Belém is part of Lisbon, but it still sits somehow away from the city center – except now people come here specifically for the business of eating pastéis de Belém.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, like most of the other exuberant sites in Lisbon and the surroundings, owes its exuberance to King Manuel I. I don’t know where this king found the artists commissioned to work on the buildings, but he left Portugal with palaces, monasteries, and towers unlike any other in Europe. The ornate details and the play of light and shadows on the walls and floors of the monastery have been fascinating kings, poets, travelers, heads of state, diplomats, photographers, and regular folks since the 15th century, and the church is stunning with its tall ceilings, heavy chandeliers, and intricately crafted altar. The nearby Torre de Belém, also built in Manueline style, was meant to both protect Lisbon and serve as an official gateway to the city. The walk from the monastery to the tower passes by the contemporary Monument to the Age of Discovery, the testament to the fact that King Manuel I had more imagination than contemporary artists.

As our visit draws to an end, we head to the airport Portuguese-style – in a taxi under the pouring rain, with heavy traffic and actively honking drivers, with our driver managing to keep the conversation going in a mixture of Portuguese and broken Spanish while skillfully meandering between the other cars in order to get us to the airport on time. Our last sight of Lisbon before entering the airport – two policemen furiously blowing their whistles while chasing a car driving in the opposite lane, and the palms waving goodbye to us under the first rays of sunshine after the rain.

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