Lisbon: The Land of My People

Everybody has a favorite. People I meet, it’s the first question they ask me and I ask them. But of course it’s a dangerous assumption to make that after traveling all over the continent, you can settle on just one favorite. Therefore, I always try to remain ambiguous in my answer; something like “How can I pick a favorite?”, but this ambiguity is often met with the common rebuttal of the “top 3”. So, since I have been made to choose, Lisbon is in my top three. As for the rest of the list, I will keep you in suspense.

One of the many amazing views of Lisbon
One of the many amazing views of Lisbon

Like I said, Lisbon was a happy accident. So my research time was very limited, especially when you consider that my time spent there was equally finite. With one day spent touring the southern coast of Portugal, I had less than 12 hours to explore Lisbon proper. And where to begin? A walking tour of course!

Walking through one of the oldest neighborhoods in town, where they just recently had a small festival (hence the tinsel)
Walking through one of the oldest neighborhoods in town, where they just recently had a small festival (hence the tinsel)

GoodMorning Hostel, along with it’s delicious waffles and scrumptious cheese toasties, also offered a daily free walking tour around the city. The tour was not lead by hostel staff but was instead contracted out to another company by the name of Wild Walkers. This was welcomed breath of fresh air from the ubiquitous Sandeman’s tours. Though they aren’t a bad option, I have come to find that the smaller tour companies are more authentic, informative and genuine. So in true Portuguese fashion, Pedro the tour guide took us out on what I would call more of a “talking tour” than a walking tour. Nonetheless, it was a lovely tour. And, we got to try Portuguese espresso, for only 60 euro cents. A combination of South American beans and Italian style, it is definitely the strongest coffee you will ever drink. So of course we had to try it, at a liquor store of all places! But Pedro assured us that the quality of the goods was the same wherever you decided to buy, so he ordered a round of shots for the whole group. Running out of change, I was short about 10 euro cents but a lovely girl from Manchester offered to help a sister out so I wouldn’t miss the chance for a caffeine jolt of a lifetime. Donna, my English sugar mama, had only just arrived the previous evening and this was also her first day out on the town. We continued talking as Pedro kept us walking and the tour was off to quite the start, especially after that coffee!

Portuguese humor: this sign says "Garden of the Flat Genitals (for lack of a better word) and it just so happens to be the place where old men gather to play board games...
Portuguese humor: this sign says “Garden of the Flat Genitals (for lack of a better word) and it just so happens to be the place where old men gather to play board games…
Street art mosaic
Street art mosaic of the famous Fado singer Amalia Rodrigues

Unfortunately, the tour was slightly less exciting after the coffee run. We did learn a lot about the history of Portugal’s foundation as a nation, and we were told of the politics, wars, and peacetimes. But, these lectures often took place at a relatively insignificant landmark. But despite the lack of physical sights, Pedro was an energetic and enthusiastic guide who took great pride in his job and his country. I was only slightly disappointed not to see more during his two and a half hour tour. At the end of our route, we came to a large flea market that apparently only takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Being as it was a Tuesday, we were lead right to the spot of all the hot bargains in town. For me, having seen enough markets on this trip already, I opted out of the spectacle but it looked like a pretty popular activity.

Remnants of a neighborhood after an earthquake
Remnants of a neighborhood after an earthquake
One of the most photographed murals in Lisbon depicting the role of Fado in the community
One of the most photographed murals in Lisbon depicting the role of Fado in the community

Though I didn’t see many of Lisbon’s historical sites, I did get to experience some of Lisbon’s lesser known corners and cool cultural street art. One notorious mural depicts the Portuguese tradition of Fado, one of the most significant aspects of the local culture. As Pedro explained, Fado is how the people of Portugal both celebrate and mourn the loss of their dead. The Fado group consists of a guitar player who plays the unique Portuguese guitar specific to this musical genre, and a Fado singer, or faddist, who is responsible for conveying the melodious and melancholy truth of everyday life, and death. Unfortunately, with such a limited time in Portugal, I was unable to see live fado but it is something that will remain on my list of things to do upon my return.

More of Portugal, couldn't resist
More of Portugal, couldn’t resist
Pedro explained that houses in Lisbon used to be constructed out of inexpensive materials and thus were poorly insulated. To better trap heat, the outsides of the houses were covered in ceramic tiles, like this house for example.
Pedro explained that houses in Lisbon used to be constructed out of inexpensive materials and thus were poorly insulated. To better trap heat, the outsides of the houses were covered in ceramic tiles, like this house for example.

Walking around Lisbon, I sensed a certain familiarity, as though I had visited this place before. After hearing about the city and its people from Pedro, and giving it a tour myself, I came to the conclusion that (to me) Lisbon felt like a conglomerate of all my favorite places: Mexico, Spain, and San Francisco. The neighborhoods, like Mexico, all have an individual feel to them as well as being super laid back and relaxed in response to the activity of this Portuguese capital. But, like Spain, this city has a rich history that can be reflected in the architecture of its most prominent squares and buildings. Lastly and perhaps in the most likeness, Lisbon embodies the same energy and style as San Francisco. I never would’ve guessed this to be so, but it is the San Fran of Europe. In fact, they even have the Golden Gate Bridge! Designed and implemented by the same company as that of the Golden Gate, Lisbon has what they call the Ponte 25 de Abril (although I think it should be more aptly referred to as the Silver Gate Bridge). On top of that, they also have street cars to help its citizens tackle the immense hills that the people of Frisco can most certainly sympathize with (and now, so can I)! In fact, just like its twin sister city, these cable cars are one of the top attractions in town, specifically Tram 28. With more time I would have tested out these little babies, but at this point it just wasn’t in the cards.

Some of that Spanish architecture
Some of that Spanish-style architecture
Our tour guide, Pedro
Our tour guide, Pedro

After the tour, Donna and I talked about heading out to Bélem to try the world famous pastel de nata, or pasteis de Bélem (depending on where you try it!). At any rate, it is a dessert staple in Portugal and if you’ve learned anything about me by now it’s that I’m all about that local food!

The Tower of Bélem
The Tower of Bélem, with the Ponte 25 de Abril in the background.

The neighborhood of Bélem will remind many of the Embarcadero of San Francisco, if San Francisco was established in the twelfth century. There is a monastery church and museum that is a major draw to the neighborhood, but most importantly a cafe with extremely high TripAdvisor ratings. This popping place is the sole creator of the the pastel de Bélem and therefore, there is an outrageous line to get a table.

Jerónimo's Monastery and museum
Jerónimo’s Monastery and museum
Inside the cathedral
Inside the Jerónimos monastery cathedral

imageThe Antiga Confeitaria de Bélem has tried to make life easier by offering a “take away” option. But it is no use; the power of the good review is too great to reign in. However, it has become an axiom of truth that the longer you wait in line for something the better it is. So, we stood in line and eventually were seated.

That line though!
That line though!
There's even a line for the take away!
There’s even a line for the take away!
The pastel de nata, or pasteis de Bélem
The pastel de nata, or pasteis de Bélem. A flaky crust filled with a delicious egg custard that is then baked to perfection.

Having to be on my way to the airport by 4:30 in order to correctly check in for my 7:00 flight to Rome, I wanted to start heading back to the hostel around 4 pm. We were seated around 3:00 after waiting nearly a half an hour for a table. Once seated, we seemed to be some of the most invisible patrons in the restaurant. The service was terrible! Donna and I were a bit in shock at how long it took to not only get menus, but order food and pay the bill. It was a bit of a tense time.

But, despite the bad service, I want to stress that the food was amazing! And cheap, so I suppose it wasn’t all for naught. It is a touristy place, but for good reason yet again. I would hope that we had just chosen a busy time and an inconvenient table because it appeared that the tables around us were receiving exceptional attention. I wholeheartedly recommend going to this bakery. The line is discouraging but once you get that tasty little Bélem nugget in your mouth, you won’t regret the time you spent waiting for it, I promise.

Ginja in a chocolate cup! What a tasty combination!
Ginja in a chocolate cup! What a tasty combination!
Duty free in the airport recognizes the importance of the chocolate cup! Unfortunately, the price wasn't quite right for me.
Duty free in the airport recognizes the importance of the chocolate cup! Unfortunately, the price wasn’t quite right for me.

Another unique Portuguese item to try is a toothsome libation called ginjinha, or ginja for short. Though it may taste like a cherry liquor, it actually comes from the specific ginjinha berry which has a flavor similar to that of a sour cherry. It is a minute distinction but one that remains very important to the integrity of the ginja. And again, even thought it’s popular, it’s super cheap! For €1 you can get a shot of ginja served to you in a cute little chocolate cup. What a deal! And it’s really good. I was a bit weary at first because everyone made it sound awful, but in all actuality it was surprisingly palatable. If I wasn’t restricted by my carry on bag, I would’ve bought a bottle to take with me the rest of the trip; complete with the chocolate cups of course!

Words to live by
Words to live by.
More street art
More street art

There is more to Portuguese cuisine, mind you. Chorizo, port wine, baccalo, a million ways to cook pork; all that jazz. But time was short and money was scarce so it will have to wait until my next trip to Portugal. I assure you it will last more than 32 hours because Lisbon is amazing and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the country has to offer.

imageYes, everyone has a favorite; and Lisbon was mine.

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