Lisbon is one of those cities that’s not exactly high on the American checklist of European cities to visit. It’s one of those places that doesn’t quite make it into the conversation of Americans discussing the latest European trends. However spending 4 months in southwest Spain, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take the 7 hour bus ride to the Portuguese capital.
Thursday (25 March) – It started with an afternoon bus ride for Sarah and I. We were excited for a border crossing but we’ve begun to realize, once you’re in a European country, there’s no big imposing border to cross into the next one. The only signs that we were in Portugal were that the signs changed from Spanish to Portuguese. Because the languages are so similar, unless you have a basic knowledge of either language, you wouldn’t even realize you were in 2 different countries. We got into Lisbon about 9pm, hopped on the metro, and navigated our way to our hostel in the Bairro Alto (High Neighborhood). We dropped our things and headed down the street to look for food. We figured using Spanish was our best bet since we definitely didn’t know how to say more than thank you (obrigado/a) in Portuguese. Spanish turned out to be a good option, I ordered arroz con mariscos (seafood and rice). Obviously Portugal has great seafood since half of its border is the Atlantic Ocean. I had shrimp, prawns, octupus, shellfish, and probably some squid in my dish. It was FANTASTIC!
Arroz con Mariscos
Friday (26 March) – Sarah and I got ourselves up, enjoyed the lovely breakfast of cereal, toast with nutella, and cafe con leche at the hostel. We headed for the Belém district to check out a monastery and the Belém tower. After more navigation of maps and a bus line, we were standing in front of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. It was your typical old European structure, a huge cathedral, tombs of important people, a courtyard with cloisters, and fountains. We did see the tomb of Vasco de Gama…the famous Portuguese explorer who you might remember from 5th grade Social Studies. We left the monastery in search of the tower…which was nowhere to be seen. We realized we were on the wrong side of the road (according to my trusty guidebook) but we couldn’t figure out how to cross the road. There were train tracks running down the middle as far as we could see with no way to cross. We went to higher ground to find an outlet before Sarah decided to ask a random security guard. We made it across the road and up to the tower. We got some great views of the bay and ducked inside when a rain cloud passed. We also saw the Cristo-Rei monument across the water. It’s more famous counterpart is Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Both monuments face each other across the Atlantic Ocean…pretty sweet. We decided to try to get to it which was a bit difficult considering we didn’t even know the name of it at the time or how to get to it. Sarah discovered after asking someone that we needed to take a ferry across, then take a bus to it. Great…right? Wrong, we found the ferry but it made a few stops and we weren’t sure which one to take. We decided to just get off and try to ask someone. Failure…the ferry guys claimed to speak Spanish but neither of us could really understand each other. We went to the bus stops to see which bus to take and that failed too. We ended up walking around a tiny little town for a few hours, got some pastries, and then hopped back on the ferry. Sarah wanted to find another palace in Belém so after following a sign and asking more security guards, we made our way up a ginormous hill to the Ajuda Palace only to find that it was already closed for the day. We walked around, got more great views of the city, then took a long yellow tram ride back to our hostel. By this time, it was dark and we decided to walk around the plazas and wait for Erin and her friend to arrive from the bus station. We picked them up at the metro, dropped their bags, and headed out once again for food. We walked around our little neighborhood and stumbled into a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant. The guy who worked there was very helpful and explained a few Portuguese eating traditions. At the restaurants, they serve you appetizer type things and you only pay for what you eat. Who would have ever known?
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Torre de Belém
Saturday (27 March) – All four of us headed for the Lisbon sights starting with the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora. We toured the monastery there, saw more important tombs, and more views of the city from the rooftop. We headed for Feira da Ladra (Thieve’s Market) right down the street. It was basically blocks and blocks of a giant garage sale. They have everything from clothes, food, art, refrigerators, underwear, trinkets, music, and old pocketwatches. Some things were obvious junk, other were rare finds. If I lived in Lisbon, I would be there every week. We walked by the National Pantheon then found another little hole-in-the-wall place for sandwiches. After lots of pointing and trying to understand Portuguese we ordered coke and a basic ham sandwich. Language barriers can be difficult. We walked up to the Castelo de São Jorge which looks out on the tallest hill in Lisbon. Castle ruins, and more views of the city, then we headed down for the Sé Cathedral. We were there the Saturday before Palm Sunday so they were busy hanging palms inside while the tourists flooded through. By this time, it was late afternoon and we decided to head for a cemetery that was in my guidebook before it got too dark. After figuring out another tram line and taking it to the end, we found the cemetery closed for the day…story of our lives. We snapped a few pictures and then decided to walk back towards the hostel. It was probably a 30-40 minute walk but we stopped in stores, a park, and ran into the Portuguese Parliament Building along the way. We would have never known it was the Parliament Building, except that Erin’s friend decided to walk up to the night security guards and ask…she was gutsy. It’s amazing what you discover when you just…walk. We walked up and down Lisbon’s hills through the city before we reached familiar territory. Sarah wanted to find a place to see Fado and get some food. After more gutsiness on her part, she found us a cute little restaurant with both. I ordered bacalhau com natas (cod with cream), a very traditional Portuguese dish, we got a pitcher of sangria, and enjoyed the Fado singers. Fado is to Portugal what Flamenco is to Spain. It’s usually one singer with a guitarist singing long ballads. We enjoyed it but of course didn’t understand the words.
Feira da Ladra
Palm Sunday Preparations
Sunday (28 March) – We all split up with Sarah and I going to Sintra and the other 2 girls going to Belém to see what we had seen a few days earlier. More navigation, a metro ride, and a very confusing 1hr train ride and we were at the tiny train station in Sintra. The girl who worked at our hostel said everyone calls it Tolkien’s town because of its fairy tale charm. I haven’t read much Tolkien but I would say from seeing the Lord of the Rings movies that a fair bet. It was absolutely adorable. We decided on doing a day bus pass which turned out to be a life saver. The town is set in the mountains so anything we wanted to see would literally be a hike up a mountain. There were a few palaces to see in the city but we decided we only had time for 1. We took the bus up to the Pena National Palace. It was different than any other castle I’ve been to, very picturesque painted in pastel colors and interesting turrets. It had an eclectic mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Moorish architecture. We did the full tour, saw the furbished living quarters of the old Portuguese monarchy and of course had some unbelievable views. After walking through the gardens, we decided to head back down the little city and walk around before our train back to Lisbon. We enjoyed pastries and eating our traveler’s lunch of a loaf of bread and a wheel of cheese. It was great day trip and one of those places that is a gem to find.
Pena National Palace
We headed back to the city, met a cute Canadian couple on the train ride back, and met up with the other girls. After grabbing some more food and enjoying our last few hours in Lisbon, we picked up our luggage from the hostel and set out for the bus station. A few metro lines later, more questions asked, and a quick passport check. We were on our way back to Sevilla. The bus ride was somewhat miserable. We were all stuck in the aisle seats on a full bus from 9pm to about 3:30am. No sleep and lots of uncomfortable positions. There was a group of old Portuguese ladies who were adorable though. After one of our rest stops in a random unknown town, they were all trying to climb back on the bus with their canes. They were having a time of it but were cracking each other up. Everyone on the bus couldn’t help but laugh at their laughter and funny Portuguese conversations.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Portugal. It reminded me a lot of Spain upon first sight but after only 3 days there, I could tell how different it was. Some of the flats along the streets and covered to the roof line with tiles. I never knew before but Lisbon is a VERY hilly city. Everywhere we walked seemed to be up a hill. The old electric yellow tram cars are famous throughout and carry tourists and locals through the winding hills. The tram tracks helped us many times when we weren’t quite sure where we were going…just follow the tram tracks and you’ll get there. It was also a cool feeling to be able to use both Spanish and English to get by as tourists. I kept forgetting that after trying to ask in English with no success…Oh yeah! I can ask in Spanish too. Europeans are so used to doing that, switching from French to Spanish to English to German depending on where they are and their language skills. It was a very interesting place that I’m happy I got to experience for a few days.