Lisbon part I : What goes up….

Lisbon part I : What goes up….

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Lisbon. The City of Seven Hills.

(Read: the city with cobblestoned alleys that go up&down steeper than the curves on Vixxie’s body. Ah you didn’t think that was possible? Heathen ;)).

While normal people take home a souvenir or some sardine plushes, I brought home a nasty cold – why thank you random stranger sitting next to me in the plane; loudly snorting, snotting and coughing in my general direction. Do they even screen flight passengers for Ebola?  Now I’m sitting here, writing my review, surrounding myself with a wall of used tissues and manflu medication.

Fortunately I also brought back the memories of what was a surprisingly successful citytrip. Not because I doubted the charm of Lisbon, but because it was the first time I journeyed abroad in the company of other women. Not one, not two, but no less than THREE other women. Me, the selfish solo-traveler, who usually leaves the room at 6 in the morning, who seeks refuge in the shadows of massive archaeological landmarks or hides away in musea all day only to come out at dusk when it’s time to satisfy a big appetite. Me, the deviant human with less-than-common interests and a walking speed even tortoises can appreciate, whose holiday vocabulary typically consists of the words “blisters” “soar feet” or “oh-look-there’s-a-bench-to-sit-while-I-soak-up-the-atmosphere-of-the-city” every odd 25 seconds. I survived. And they survived me, which is even more of a miracle. In fact, despite of obvious differences in priorities and my lack of turbo, I enjoyed their chatty banter.

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Most people I told about my upcoming journey asked me “but why Lisbon, you have been to Portugal before?”. True, but I was never in Lisbon! And neither were the other three colleagues (read: friends) that I traveled with so that was an easy choice. For me, going back to Portugal, much compared to seeing a dear old friend after a long period of absence, and you know how damn intense it feels to hug someone you’ve loved so much but haven’t seen in a long time. I was so happy to see my beloved palm trees again.

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One of the things I always liked about Portugal (and especially Lisbon), is the fact that despite the obvious beauty and the rich history buff of colonial superpower that once ruled many nations overseas, the Portuguese cities never had the ego that many of its bigger European cousins have. Yet Lisbon easily deserves its place next to heavyweights like Barcelona, Rome or Prague, despite the relentless negative media reports of a country in deep financial trouble. You know what they say about the underdog 🙂

Actually, take a look for yourself.

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The cityscapes are truly picture-postcard gorgeous. Every climb up (and gosh, there are so many of those…) will reveal a bit of the city’s sweeping panoramic beauty like a puzzle. Not the polished, brushed-up fake beauty but that of raw real life, rundown aged charm without being gross or grimy. Colorful little houses – like I’ve seen them dotted allover Portugal before-, with facades covered by pretty painted tiles rolling all the way down the hills where the horizon meets the Rio Tejo in generous winter sunlight.

 

Alfama

Our AirBnB flat was located in the center of the Alfama disctrict, the root of the Fado music, in a maze of tiny, meandering, cobblestoned streets. And yes, they curve and wobble, they climb and drop and leave you (or at least me) huffing and puffing. I only have shear determination to get on top of a hill because my sporty side has been dormant since birth. (Lisbon isn’t exactly user-friendly to over-sized tourists or aged citizens, climbing flights of stairs around every corner. I laughed, remembering Peter in Barcelona; he would have surely died to cardiac arrest a couple of times in Lisbon =))

The flat we chose via AirBnB was amazing! Maria reminded me of all the locals I met in Portugal prior to my Lisbon trip. They were super friendly, warm, and welcoming just like Maria. I remembered Joao’s mom, who always took the time to help me and try to explain Portuguese customs to me.

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The first real climb of the weekend was up towards the historic Castelo de Sao Jorge. Fortunately, there is no need for speed in Lisbon. The Portuguese like to take it slow, they’re never in a hurry. You can try to be the hectic tourist but you’ll probably just end up being annoyed with the lady at the till in the supermarket who likes to have a chat with every customer. Instead of killing yourself climbing like a nutter, you just find yourself a little pastelaria on a pretty street, sit in the sun, order a coffee, watch the people and enjoy life. You can take on that easy going pace and bask in the narrow, old-city streets paved with sturdy stones, sometimes mingling with other-color stones making beautifully artistic motifs. Buildings with curving balconies and water-stained paint, facades littered with colorful tiles, with freshly washed laundry hanging out of the windows. So much personality, so many stories told just by gallivanting through the Lisbon streets.

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The tiles of Lisbon are partly why this capital city maintains that intensely old school charm. All the buildings and sidewalks are covered in these tiles, and form designs or patterns, or even larger murals.

Some of the most amazing decorative tiles (the Portuguese call them azulejo and love them so much, they even have a museum dedicated to them!) I’ve spotted in Lisbon:

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Speaking of the castle… it’s an old Moorish fortress (built in the mid-11th century) atop a massive green hill towering proudly above the Alfama and consists of the castle, the ruins of the former royal palace and gardens. The fortification was the last defensive stronghold for the Moorish governor, but after Dom Afonso Henriques conquered Lisbon and became the first king of Portugal, the Castelo de S. Jorge began its golden age as home for the royalty. The old Moorish period buildings were modified and enlarged to receive the king, his court and the bishop. Once the Portuguese kings had transformed the Castelo into a royal palace, it was chosen to hold many festivities as well as coronations during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. During the reign of the Spanish Crown, the castle took on more of a military purpose. After the great earthquake in 1755, the ruins of the former royal palace were rediscovered and major restoration works followed. Today, you can enjoy a stroll along the ramparts or visit the insides with gardens and archaeological excavations, revealing the Roman and Moorish presence. Also the presence of many peacocks so tame you can gently stroke them! It’s possible to climb all the way onto the lookout towers, which give you the finest panorama’s over the city of Lisbon. Even with a couple of drops of rain during our visit, it was still incredibly magical – especially with a rainbow at the utmost perfect moment! But y’all know how much Princess Vixxie loves her castles, Cardiff anyone? 🙂

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The streets around the castle are swarming with cats. Really friendly, clean and adorable cats that know very well how to score a treat! They were soooooo cutesy, rubbing against my legs, letting me pet them and scratch them behind the ears.  Sadly, I couldn’t pet all of the kitties. If I had done so, my company would have walked to Belém and back by the time I descended the wet, slippery footpath hills of Alfama.

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Word of the day: “woaahh!”, every time Kristien made a little slip down the cobblestones (new sneakers can be challenging ;)). Quite surprised actually, none of us went flat on our bums or took a tumble downhill.

 

Baixa – Bairro Alto – Chiado

After picking up some umbrellas and an extra pair of sweaters, we continued our descent into the heart of Lisbon: Baixa… (quite literally) Downtown. Ironically, though neighbors in district and keeping the negative annotation of the word “downtown” in mind, the contrast between Baixa and Alfama could not be greater: broad elegant squares and perfectly parallel pedestrian streets flanked by uniform, neoclassical buildings. An imposing main commercial district and a fine example of one of Europe’s first results in urban planning: cafes, shops, street performers, more tiled Art Deco shopfronts and lots of beggars never taking no for an answer. It’s the kind of beggar that would not even budge should you place a water canon straight in their face … Sure there’s a special charm to the area although much less authentic than Alfama, where we just walked down from.

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We walked through the Rua Santa Justa, and up – past the famous Neo-Gothic elevator built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel (which explains some iconic similarities to Paris’ Eiffel Tower). It was the first time I saw typically Gothic style elements made from iron and steel instead of the usual stone. It had quite the special feel to it.
The elevator is basically a very pretty but pricey tool for the lazy, the cripple and the old. It connects the lowest point of downtown Baixa with the highest point of Bairro Alto. But since two of my colleagues have at some point been mini marathon runners, they can’t really be considered lazy… and thus we climbed. On foot. And then some more, again, all the way to the top where we reached Igreja do Carmo.

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We’ve all seen beautiful Gothic churches but this one is really special. When you look up, instead of looking at the typical lancet arch roofings, you see the sky. It’s a somewhat somber experience to visit the ruins of the Carmo church but it’s one of the more poignant of Lisbon’s historic sites. It was once the city’s grandest church. But on the morning of All Saints’ Day in 1755 a violent earthquake struck the city and the among the many buildings destroyed was this church as well. At the time, it was full of worshipers and most people perished under tons of masonry. The surviving Gothic arches of the convent serve as a reminder of that fateful day and it almost feels as if you time-travelled to a catastrophic future, when ruins date back to the more recent past. Even more so on a day where the eternal blue skies of Portugal have turned gray – like today. The insides have now been converted into an archaeological museum and you can see a miscellany of sarcophagi, tombs, statuary and mosaics.

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The district of Bairro Alto is quite cultural and bohemian at heart, which I can obviously appreciate! Lovely to walk around in, despite the stubborn raindrops and peek inside the windows of colorful and graffiti-ridden façades. Neighboring Chiado district is a lot more sophisticated with its elegant theaters, bookshops, old-style cafes and art nouveau jewelry shops. A lot of fine porcelain shops as well, I saw some pretty designs.

Chiado is dotted with reminders of its intellectual past, with statues of many literary figures of which I (sadly) only remembered Fernando Pessoa from long lost art history lessons at university.

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We seeked shelter and took a little break in the Armazéns do Chiado, a modern (but typical) shopping mall in a beautiful building, right in the historic center of Lisbon. When we came out, the sun had set and we saw the Baixa district at nightfall.

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I don’t remember much of the way home. It was raining pretty hard, I was once again climbing up half the hills of Alfama towards our flat, and at that point I honestly had it upto my eyeballs with them narrow staircases. My knees broke down somewhere on the way to Carmo and something started stabbing me in the spleen repeatedly halfway Baixa. In this city of elevators and cable cars, you can find one every square meter, except when you would actually like to take one UP instead of down. My colleagues ventured onwards to find a Pingo Doce supermarket while I went straight back to our flat, took my shoes off and broke down until dinner time. Lisbon… very tiring.

The dinner was not spectacular, even though the restaurant was suggested to us by Maria. There was supposed to be a live Fado show, but exceptionally not that evening. We were quite early for Portuguese standards and there was no one else in the restaurant but us, which didn’t really feel as cozy as it could have. I guess the Portuguese don’t like cold wet weather either 😉  The food was okay though, but the drinks terribly overpriced. Better luck tomorrow!

 

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