My initial impressions of Lisbon centre around rain. It was raining the day that I arrived and it really only stopped on the day that I left. With a range between torrential and mist, the rain was a constant presence and probably didn’t help me form an unbiased impression of the city.
I took the bus from Lagos to Lisbon. I prefer to avoid the bus wherever possible, but the bus service was direct and cheaper. The train required a transfer and cost a bit more… the overall time, however, was the same for either choice.
There was a New Sandeman’s free walking tour advertised at the hostel (the Goodmorning Lisbon, which was amazing) and they picked us up at in the common area. We were warned that everything ran on “Portugal time”, which was a little bit slower than scheduled. Sure enough, the 10:15 departure time was only a suggestion and we left a full twenty minutes earlier.
The guide, Luis, was excellent and he told us a bit about his personal history, including the fact that he studied several subjects – including acting – at different universities in Europe. We were a reasonably large group, attending the tour under an overcast sky with intermittent rain, and he helped us to forget the miserable weather.
We walked primarily through the downtown, historical area but Luis pushed us to visit Alfama which is the old part of Lisbon that (based on my understanding) mostly survived the 1755 earthquake. The streets are very narrow and twisted with many staircases and alleyways and one must always be wary of the tram cars.
Unless you decide to take a tram on the day that they inexplicably stop about a quarter of the way through the route. I had met some people from my hostel on the walking tour and we decided to spend the day exploring the city, complete with tram ride, before joining up with the hostel dinner and the Portugal-USA World Cup game.
We had no choice but to get off the tram and decided to explore the neighbourhood we were in. The tram driver had to explain to all of us tourists – as the tram was laden with tourists – that this was the end of the line and we had to get off. He kindly pointed out where we were on the map, so at least I had some geographical awareness.
Based on how Luis was talking, I had expected a lot more out of Alfama. It could have been the weather, the day… bad timing… but it seemed really quiet and, frankly, overhyped. We had missed the festival of St. Anthony and walking through Alfama it felt like we were at the party the morning after. There were lots of decorations hanging from the buildings, but they just looked a bit sad with all of the empty streets, the dark skies and the shuttered stalls.
The closer we got to the main part of the city, however, the busier the streets became. There were a few more shops, more restaurants and some people grilling sardines outside of their bars. We didn’t stop to eat, however, since we were attending the hostel dinner that night. The neighbourhood of Alfama must pick up during the evening hours as I know there are a lot of fado bars (fado is traditional, melancholic music) in the area and it is considered one of the best places to attend a fado show in the city, if not the country.
I was surprised about a few things in Lisbon, namely the number of tuk-tuks driving tourists around, the hills throughout the city and how slick the roads and sidewalks were in the rain. Lisbon has a lot of mosaic patterns in their sidewalks and roadwork, made with rocks that have been worn smooth with the passage of time, but that translates into treacherous walking conditions!
There are a lot of tiles on the houses in Lisbon, an architectural detail that was taken from the Moors. The tiles have a purpose, beyond aesthetics, as they apparently help to keep buildings cool in the heat. I find it interesting to see how people survived without air conditioning for centuries with nothing more than a bit of innovation. Window shades, tiles… I’m sure it would help the environment if we adopted a bit of old technology into our modern housing.
I spent another day in Lisbon exploring the other side of the city, walking towards the Estrela Basilica. It was constructed after the earthquake of 1755 and work was completed in 1790. You could go up to the top of the basilica for a nice view of the city, but I’m still in recovery mode from St. Peter’s Basilica and that traumatizing experience.
On the way to the Basilica I stopped into lots of small local shops. There is one, La Vida Portuguesa, which sells only products made in Portugal and, specifically, items from vintage brands. I noticed a great deal of encouragement to “shop local” in Portugal and shops proudly proclaimed that their products were locally made. La Vida Portuguesa goes a step further by stocking items from classic Portuguese brands – pencils, soap, sardines, textiles… it was interesting to see the number of brands available that are still producing things the way they used to 50 years ago. I can only think of a handful of factories, if that, who have remain unchanged by technology in Canada.
I try to buy items made from local artists, and there were a lot of local shops I could choose from, but unfortunately everything I liked was just too big, fragile or unwieldy to get home. There was some art I liked, but it was sold in a bulky frame and priced accordingly. I left that there – the last thing I need is to haul a framed print around with me for the next few weeks! I also didn’t want to pay the premium price for a framed piece of art and then leave the frame behind.
From the Estrela Basilica I hopped on the tram, hoping that it would complete its run and take me back to the starting point, near my hostel. Things worked out for me this time, even though I had to repeat a bit of the trip, and I definitely enjoyed myself. Part of the fun was being in tourist photos – the trams are picturesque and everyone takes pictures of them. I can’t blame them – I did the same thing! I’m glad to see that there are still a few tram lines in use even though they aren’t the most efficient form of transportation due to size and speed. There are a few areas of the city where the trams no longer go, despite the fact that there are tracks still laid down.
I did enjoy the few hours of sun and clear skies that I managed to catch in Lisbon and I did make the best of the city despite the weather, but I’m really in no rush to return. It’s a fairly easy city to explore on foot and the architecture is incredible… just be sure to bring shoes with excellent grips and an umbrella in case of rainy, miserable weather!