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A two-day jaunt to Portugal’s capital throws up a heady brew of pleasure in the city and a sharp perspective about the virtues of Portuguese
By SIKEMI IFEDERU
In some inexplicable ways, I felt haunted by the postcard-pictures of Portugal’s capital city. The collage of coloured city walls, white buildings, terracotta roofs and intricate tile work that is Lisbon has always been on my bucket list of must-see cities of Europe and I’d read a thousand and one stories about its mesmeric coastal views, historic architecture, and ground-breaking museums. Lisbon, I knew so much about.
Lisbon is unlike other cities that you have to see graphically to retain a vivid portrait in your mind. The Portuguese capital easily lends itself to words, so much so that down the centuries, it has been poets’ favourite. A poet, enraptured by its beauty, once decreed that Lisbon is a city that demands to be written about. The poet, Amos Mallard attempted it himself. He writes: “Lisbon is gentle, warm, sad. The walls are waxed in carnelian light, the sky is brass. Each cobbled stone is white and weary and undulates a woven path toward the sea.”
For a more graphic viewpoint, read Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s ode to Lisbon: “For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region.”
If you’d read Pessoa or other gifted writer’s perspective about Lisbon, it will cushion the blast of the Eureka effect you’d encounter upon stepping into the into the city. Going into Lisbon after reading so much about it is “like walking into another’s dream and seeing the landscape they built with their thoughts, only to watch it shift into a place you almost recognise.”
In simple words: You are awash with déjà vu!
I practically knew every district in Lisbon before I visited. Writing this piece, I could recall vividly even the minute detail of my trip by merely looking at videos, photos and various write-ups.
My brother and I embarked on the Lisbon trip in May. It was really a spontaneous odyssey, a short one too, but nonetheless, a tour I had long dreamt of. Most tourists prefer a summer Lisbon tour. We visited in spring, and as a result got very good bargains for our hotel and flights. Spring or summer, Lisbon has got a fair weather that is ever soothing for a tourist’s itinerary.
Our journey from Birmingham was quite long. After we missed our train, we hailed a taxi to the airport and were in time for the take-off of our two-hour morning flight. After the touchdown at the Lisbon airport, we easily got to our hotel using the trains. Lisbon’s transport system, like London’s, is efficient and easy to figure out. Our hotel was close to the metro––that made getting around convenient.
We spent the first day indoor: sleeping, eating and soaking in the amazing views of the city from our balcony. Lisbon is a city built on hills. So you have to be ready for the amazing views. It was really exciting. Everything I had seen online looked exactly the same. I felt excited. I could already tell I was in a vibrant city, a city of history, and I yearned to see the story.
The next day was for sightseeing. We woke up early, breakfasted and set out to explore the city from where the old and famous Portuguese maritime explorers took off to discover the New World. The best way to explore Lisbon is not to have an itinerary, but just go wherever the wind blows. You will definitely touch on the important sites.
Lisbon is known for the famous Tram 28, which looks like a yellow trolley. Operational since 1914, the trams are to Lisbon what the red bus is to London. Tram 28 takes you round some of the historical sites in Lisbon. When on board, you get an idea of how living in the 20th century.
Our first stop was Alfama. This oldest district of Lisbon spreads down the southern slope from the Castle of São Jorge to the River Tagus, where you see a lot of cruise ships and tourists getting on and off. Alfama, derived from the Arabic Al-hamma, means fountains or baths.
There, the beauty of Lisbon awed me. The kaleidoscope of white buildings and red roofs was absolutely breathtaking. The slow-and-rattling tram complemented the medieval outlook of Alfama. Tram 28 turned out the most practical mode of transportation as it easily maneuver through the narrow, winding streets of this Old Quarter of the city. In Alfama, the tram stops at important sites: Castle of St. George, The Cathedral, and Church of St. Antonio, Miraduoro das Portas do Sol and Miraduoro de Santa Luiza. Tucked among these major attractions are smaller finds of museums, restaurants and open market.
Alfama makes you understand how the locals in Portugal live. Peopled majorly by fishermen, and regarded as the neighbourhood of the poor, Alfama is a good introduction and a brisk immersion to the Portuguese culture. In our wanderings, we discovered abandoned houses.
I found the Portuguese to be one of the nicest and free-spirited people I have ever met––so welcoming and willing to help at no cost.
One of the locals offered to take us round in his tricycle, called Tuk Tuk. This made our tour easier. While we rode through the hidden alleys of Lisbon we could spot trees with oranges, my first time of spotting the citrus fruits growing on trees.
Our next stop was Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. A neighbourhood with some of the best views of the city. It has a romantic feel. It harbours one of the city’s important landmarks: Sao Jorge Castle, home to the first king of Portugal. The Castle perches at the highest point of the city. Getting to Sao Jorg Castle was almost like an adventure. We rode in, in our Tuk Tuk. Because of the city’s hilly geography, you get amazing views and perspectives. The Tuk Tuk gave it a touch of India.
Sao Jorg Castle is a beauty of medieval architecture. There are restaurants, gardens and museums on site. A really good place for a photo-shoot. If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, you will appreciate the castle. It was built with a defensive wall and it commands an amazing view of the Atlantic. There is not much to do at the castle, but it is a good place to visit and learn about the history of Lisbon.
Next, we went to Baixa, the Heart of Lisbon. In the lively, vibrant atmosphere of Baixa, there is less of history and more of culture. As soon as we hit Baixa, we saw a group of people dancing to drums, led by the famous street performer Gasper Silva, known for his unique African sound with drums. It was fun. Oh boy, we danced!
Someone once said, “to explore Lisbon, eat your way through it.” There were rows of restaurants. Rows upon rows. We decided to randomly pick one, which turned out to be a good one. Lunch was fish, potatoes and wine. The fish was one of the best ever! Did I mention earlier that the Portuguese are extremely nice? For the second time, they proved it again. We met a man who just loved my brother and I. He gave us a good luck bracelet, which I still keep till now.
Portuguese are famous for their desserts, especially, custard tart (pastéis de nata) that is sweet and crispy. I had to queue at Pasties de Belem, a world famous place for custard tarts, to get gelato. Food in Lisbon is cheap, and you can eat like a king. Aside from being a foodie haven, there is a lot more to do in Baixa. In case you want to do a little bit of shopping, there are modern stores for your shopping delight.
After all the snacking, we walked down to Praca do Commercio, Lisbon’s major square that lies along the Tagus River. It is a very interesting square. In old times, it was the commercial heart of Lisbon where traders met. Right in the middle of the square stands the statue of King Jose I. The panorama was picturesque. So beautiful. A place to relax. We took some pictures and interacted with other tourists.
After two days, our bags were packed early the next morning, ready for the airport. We decided to take the train in order to make the journey faster. There were a few minutes of anxious wait, during which I fretted badly. I was so anxious not to miss our flight. When the train finally came, over-excitement got the better of me I forgot my bag on the bench. That bag held my valuables: laptop, passport and phones. We were halfway to the airport when I realised my bag was missing and I had to scramble out of the train in panic, not as fast as I would want to because I had to describe to the train officials that I left my bag on the seat. That was the moment it struck me that I was indeed in a different country. It took some efforts to convey by sign language my predicament. To cut a long story short, my bag was found intact by an old couple who picked it up and handed it to the officials. I guess this can only happen in Lisbon. It reinforces my profile of the Portuguese character.
I have fond memories of Lisbon, and I rate it one of the best cities I have visited in Europe. Everything about the city––tiled buildings, hills, culture, street arts, food, architecture, history and people––is in a special place in my heart. My experience in Lisbon was an eye-opener. I think Portuguese are one of the most hospitable people you could ever meet.
Hey, did I tell you that Lisbon is good for solo travel?