Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Trip Report: Lisbon, Portugal

Trip dates: Sept. 16-20; Full photo album here

Both of us were heading to Lisbon to cover a conference. We originally intended to get there a few days early to visit the picturesque Sintra, west of Lisbon. However, after our somewhat spontaneous trip to Alicante, we decided to get there just a day early and focus on Lisbon.

Somehow this trip, which had been in the works for nearly a year, crept up on us. I had done my usual preparation of absolutely nothing, and JT had done his usual prep of printing out every article in internet existence on Lisbon. I skimmed one of our charity shop guidebooks cover to cover on the plane, plus all the articles he had printed. I brushed up on my Portugese "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry," "where's the bathroom," and "two beers please" (language fluency, by KT's Rules), and landed in Lisbon late Saturday afternoon with some confidence that I knew enough to fill in the small breaks around the conference.

We got to our hotel (Novotel, which was a fantastic business hotel, but not near downtown), got changed, and headed for the metro stop. We weren't in central Lisbon, but we were on a metro line that went straight there. After paying all of 75 cents (euro cents, that is) each for our ride, we were on our way on Lisbon's extremely clean, punctual metro.

I navigated us to Cervejaria da Trindade, a beer hall in a former monastery. We had to wait a bit, but we were rewarded with nice atmosphere, good food, and cold beer. We left there in search of the Solar do Vinho do Porto--the port wine institute. We found the address--and closed 12-foot-high doors that had graffiti on them. We were victims of an out-of-date guidebook, we decided. So, we thought we'd descend the hill from Barrio Alto via the Gloria Elevador--a tramcar that does the hill work for you--but alas, that was closed, too. So we walked down the hill and had a pleasant walk windowshopping and marvelling at sights.

The next day, we set out for the Basilica de Estrela on foot, which looked to be a mile, mile and a half walk. What the map didn't show were the giant hills along the way. Lisbon is built on seven hills--very big hills. Us here in the fenland aren't used to such serious climbing. The tiled buildings along the way gave us something to distract us, but it was quite a hike. We were rewarded, though, with the beautiful basilica, which was enchanting both inside and out. We got there just as Sunday mass was starting, so we sat in the back quietly for 5 or 10 minutes, and then snuck out for a pretty walk in the Jardin de Estrela.

From there we caught the historic Tram #28, which takes you through the most historic districts of Lisbon. The tram cars are yellow on the outside, wooden on the inside, and a welcome break from having to climb hills on foot. We rode the tram up to the Castelo da Sao Jorge. Lisbon was born on this site -- a strategic location on a hill that overlooks the River Tagus. The castle was built up by the Romans, then Visigoths, then Moors, then finally Afanso Henriques, Portugal's first king, drove out the Moors in 1147. Most of the structure that remains dates from the 12th to 15th centuries.

We walked back down, stopping at the Se cathedral on the way. The cathedral was begun in 1150. In the back courtyard, archaeologists have dug up structures and remains that go all the way back to 400 B.C. Very cool.

After a walk to the Praca do Comercial, we hopped in a cab back to the hotel. Our conference began that evening, so the next two and a half days were business. The conference itself took place at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, one of Lisbon's best museums. That we, unfortunately, did not see. Instead we were stuck in the museum's conference facilities for most of the time. The most striking thing I can say about them is that you can still smoke inside. Seems so weird these days.

Our meeting wrapped up on Wednesday, and we both worked that afternoon. That evening, we decided to make another attempt at the Solar do Vinho do Porto, this time asking the hotel staff to call ahead. Sure enough, they were open. So we hopped in another cab and headed back to Barrio Alto to find the port bar most definitely open. We were handed a book of the different ports--all incredibly cheap. Awesome! We liked this place a lot and would definitely go back. Also: The Gloria Elevador was now working as well. Excellent!

After our port apertifs, we headed to a fado restaurant. Fado, uniquely Portugese, is "a melancholoy form of traditional singing accompanied by guitar." We ended up in a decidedly tourist trap fado restaurant, but enjoyed ourselves anyway.

The next day, JT headed back to London. I used my last day to go to Belem, a half-hour tram ride west of central Lisbon. First stop: Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos. The monastery and its attached church were absolutely breathtaking. The church was built in 1502 in honor of Vasco da Gama's successful voyage to the West Indies.

I walked along the river for a bit, visiting the Padrao dos Descobrimentos and the Torre de Belem. Then I heard the deep, booming whistle of a ship's horn. I turned to see the Queen Mary 2 leaving port. I watched for probably a half an hour as the ship made its way under Lisbon's grand suspension bridge and down the river to the sea. Very cool.

I headed back to Lisbon and decided to treat myself to a nice dinner in the main plaza where I could people-watch and write out postcards. I did have a great time, and when I was nearly finished with my dinner, a woman who I'd met at the conference walked by and waved. Her name was Olga and was from Russia. She had spent the day sightseeing with another conference attendee, Boris. (Also from Russia.) (Also, I am not making this up.) They sat down with me and we all had another drink. It ended up being a rather nice visit. My favorite part was talking about how cold it gets in Siberia, where Olga lives. I said to her, "you must have to dress in a lot of layers." Her response, which you must say out loud in a thick Russian accent: "Like a cabbage."

I left for Barcelona the next day, which you will hopefully get to read about soon. Overall I liked Lisbon, but will probably only return if business takes me there. It was an interesting trip from a personal perspective, though. Lisbon was the first non-English-speaking city I ever went to, on a business trip in 2001. This time, as I walked around on my last day, some of my first trip came back to me, but it was more like deja vu than memories. We even stayed at the same hotel I stayed at six years ago--and I don't remember it at all. I do remember eating at McDonalds on day 3 or so, because in the previous days I was served food I didn't recognize--and didn't like. I remember just going from the hotel to the conference center each day and spending the evenings at the hotel. I remember that I only took a half-day or so to venture into the city and go to the few "must-dos" in my tour book.

This was a striking contrast to this time, when I led us downtown on the metro within an hour of getting to Lisbon. We wandered around the city to get our bearings, something we now do whenever we visit a new city. I confidently asked strangers if they spoke English or Spanish. I ate more food I didn't recognize, and this time ordered it on purpose. These days, not only do I seek out the most important sites, I also take walks in neighborhoods just to see what life is like in that city.
Who says people don't change.

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