view over Lisbon

Learning to be a Lisboeta

I have a love/hate relationship to “top 10” lists.

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Yes they are a handy way to in short form find the most popular (and/or touristy) past times for a first time visitor. As Lisbon was new to me I viewed, compared and compiled my own list of sights to see, things to do and food to eat over four days.

Alfama and Castelo de São Jorge (Castle of St George)
Fresh off the flight we came out of the subway at Martim Moniz and gleaned a first look of the Castle up there on the hill. The plan was to take Tram 28 which stopped outside our hotel door, but here is why we did not. With our suitcases in the back of a Tuk-Tuk the friendly girl in the driver’s seat asked if we wanted the scenic route or the straight shot, same price. We went scenic as the September sun warmed us in the backseat. Along the way she told the story of Alfama and how it originally had been built to house rural workers flocking to the city after the Industrial revolution. Many had come to work in the booming tile industry and the fruits of their labour were literally written on the tile covered walls everywhere. She told us that the décor on the tiles is a by-product of the main purpose to keep heat out in the summer and in in the winter. Time moved on and the tile industry moved out of town changing the neighbourhood to today’s mix of colonial, North African and Asian immigrants. After a brief stop at the overlook Miradouro da Senhora do Monte we passed through ups and downs, ins and outs before she dropped us off at the Alfama Lisbon Lounges Suites.

Going to the top
The centerpiece of the hood perched at its highest point is the Castelo de São Jorge a stronghold for millennia. When the first stone was laid is unknown, but as more were cut and piled on top of each other a medieval castle took emerged. The legend of the knight Martim Moniz sacrifizing his own life to oust the moors in 1147 is told on tiles and the destruction by the 1755 earthquake is written in books. After the devastating quake followed by a tsunami and fire the old castle was left in ruins but the fortress rebuilt. A spectacular 360 view of the city and the River Tajo below is the reward for climbing to the top of the tallest of the ten towers. A more relaxed version is to get a glass of wine and take a seat at the Miradouro (overlook) in the late afternoon and perhaps listen to a performance amongst the shading trees.

On the way down we passed by a few colorful tables on the sidewalk. A whimsical gat logo proclaimed that this was “Bistro Gato Pardo” and a peek inside at the vintage interior intrigued us to a dinner reservation for the evening. Over a carafe of Sangria we learned that the “Brown Cat” offered a mix of Swiss pedigree and purely local flavor. Eating octopus in good company with a view of the massive Sao Vincente church made the eve and us repeat customers a few evenings later. On Saturday morning we walked beyond the imposing church and explored the Feria da Ladra where we tried out the Lisbon specialty Pastel (de Belém) with our coffee after milling about amongst the numerous wares spread along the streets.

The view from the Castelo had drawn my attention to a few monumental buildings in the city below. To explore further I made my way downhill passing the Portas do Sol and onto the Praça do Comércio also known as Terreiro do Paço (palace yard – which it once was). The 1755 triple whammy earthquake, tsunami and fire had razed the palace and most of the low lying surrounding city. In its place came a u-shaped plaza with palace-like wings filled with government offices supporting the city’s increased trade, hence the name change. As I crossed the square in the shadow of the large statue of King José I, a young business man approached and offered recreational drugs. After rejecting the offer I made my way under the imposing arch up the pedestrian Rua Agusta and Rua da Prata to Praça Da Figueira. There King João I sit on his bronze horse overlooking the busy traffic crossing the plaza. The Portuguese called him John “the Good” but the Spaniards who tried to oust him referred to him as “the Bastard”, so much for friendly neighbours.

A block over is the more imposing “Rossio” or “commons” officially called Praça de D. Pedro IV (Pedro IV square). The “commons” had a history of revolts, celebrations and bullfights. During the Inquisition in the 16th century it was also where opponents were burned at the stake. All traces of such atrocities were removed by the earthquake and the square rebuilt with the rest of the downtown area of Baixo. As I crossed the square pigeons swept down from the center column crowned by Pedro IV for a sip or bath in one of the two massive fountains.

At the far end of the “square” beside the National Theatre a road leads off to the 19th century Rossio Railway station (not to be confused with the Metro station on the other side of the square) where trains leave to the historic city of Sintra. The station with its two horseshoe shaped portals is best seen from outside as the interior offers little but a modern train hub. Another grand elongated open space nearby is the Praça dos Restauradores (Square of the Restorers) with a center obelisk commemorating the ousting the Habsburgs in the mid-17th century. Here in a break from the traditional architecture the grand art deco façade of the former movie palace Eden stood out.

Bairro Alto
Had I known about it I could next have saved myself some effort and taken the funicular Ascensor da Gloria at the far end of the Praça dos Restauradores. But I did not and instead doubled back across the commons and into Rua Aurea where the cast iron Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa Lift) offered a lift. A monument to industrialism it steamed into action in 1902 to hoist people up to the Carmo Square. It is the only remaining vertical left in Lisbon and was wired up with electrical power five years later. The line of tourists waiting for a lift convinced me to instead pass under the horizontal walkway and use my own legs to elevate up the steep Rua do Carmo.

Panting I was up in Bairro Alto (Upper district) some twenty minutes later with two sights on my list The first entailed a bit of rest on a bench at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. This became my favourite view of the Baixa area below and the view of Castelo de São Jorge. The overlook is two tiered and also offers a bar with refreshments. For a longer stay the Independente Suites and Terrace hotel/hostel across the street have turned the former residence of the Swiss ambassador into vintage heaven with spectacular city views from the Insólito Restaurant & Bar. Clearly an option on a return to Lisbon.

The second stop was the old plague cemetery which had been allotted to the Jesuits after their arrival in 1540. Of the cemetery nothing is left and in its place stand the externally austere São Roque Church, named after the patron saint of plague victims. A walk through the door reveal a magnificent auditorium style church with eight small offshoot chapels, each with its own dedication. The forth on the left dedicated to John the Baptist is built in rococo style decorated with semi-precious stones, mosaics and laden with Portuguese colonial gold from Brazil. Completed in 1752 it was “the most expensive chapel in the world” which was luckily left unscathed in the earthquake three years later, like the rest of the Bairro Alto. Looking around it is easy to be taken in by the opulence throughout the church but don’t forget to look up in the ceiling as this is a masterpiece of its own.

At the bottom of the slope on the river front or more precisely by the Cais do Sodre railway station an old market building caught my attention. Too late to see the daily food market in full swing but perfectly timed for lunch we were in luck as the Mercado da Ribeira which opened in 1882 had been converted in 2014 to one large eatery. The communal tables in the center are surrounded by 24 restaurants, 8 bars and a dozen shops. The concept was developed by the editors of Time Out magazine in Lisbon and all the restaurateurs are mouth picked to offer a variety of quality food at affordable prices. We ended up in the “Academia” a secluded area where chefs from a cooking academy filled our bellies with a delicious meal with roast beef on a cucumber “pasta”, chocolate mousse and wine.

Parque das Nacoes
On a Sunday morning we boarded at the old world railway station Santa Apolónia and headed north along the coast to Oriente. Having conjured up an image out of the exotic name it was a bit of a culture shock when we arrived as Oriente had no palm trees, no sandy beach or exotic people. We crossed no camel tracks but lanes of diesel spewing buses taking cover in the shadows of this concrete monstrosity. Eventually a mirage appeared on the horizon, a shopping mall across a wide lane, beyond and beside it office towers, high rise apartment blocks and hotels. This certainly contrasted the cobble stoned hills of Alfama we had gotten used to.

We made our way through the shopping mall to the quay side. The area, a monument to the Expo 98 with the worlds flags flying high above felt a bit out of touch with today’s austerity climate. We trundled on along the somewhat eerie waterfront, met a few bikers, some joggers and spotted the cable car on our way to the Oceanairium which looked like the HQ of a Bond villain. With tickets in hand we sniffed the Atlantic as we walked up the ramp to the entrance. Inside the darkness we strolled by tank after tank of exotic and familiar sea life. A diver myself I love the peace and quiet of the underwater world however on a Sunday it was necessary to in the dark maneuver between strollers who’s passengers were not quiet. But seeing the gracefully perfected adapted sharks and rays effortlessly gliding by the large panorama windows of the main tank really tickled me and I wanted to “get wet”. To remedy the situation it was time to head out of town and down the coast.

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