Berlin was apparently ‘the place to be’ summer 2015/16, but its seems this year’s title has gone to Lisbon. Whether I was talking to friends or work colleagues, every time I mentioned I was going there on holiday it elicited first and second hand stories of people who had been. Despite all the hype my trip to Lisbon was purely serendipitous, chosen by my parents (who have an immunity against all that is in vogue) as the destination to stage a family reunion.
From the reports that had reached me, my impression of Lisbon was a slow-moving artists’ city with a speciality for rooftop bars. Lisbon and I were going to get on just fine.
One of the sweetest parts about travelling are those irretrievable seconds when a place reveals itself for the very first time. For the first time, ideas and imaginations are replaced by real, concrete images. As my metro train emerged from the mouth of the underground tunnel Lisbon reveals itself as a city of colours; bulky apartment blocks were disguised in sunny yellows, pinks, purples and greens, colours I was more accustomed to seeing in a children’s playground.
Drained from my 6.45 am flight (a mistake I am destined to repeat – but the cheaper tickets are never worth the exhaustion!) I head straight to my accommodation on the outskirts of the city. My accommodation of choice is an AirBnb flat, eponymously named ‘The Photographer’s Apartment’ by its owner. The apartment is a welcoming haven for a weary traveller. Sparse white walls served a backdrop to stunning photos, and vintage cameras and travellers’ trinkets decorate the apartment. I feel instantly at home.
That evening I wander around the Roma neighbourhood, constantly distracted by the flamboyance of the buildings. Lisbon’s brand is undoubtedly shabby chic. Bright colours of pale pinks, olive greens and baby blues truss up dated architecture, with one lone-standing building exuberantly painted in flamingo pink.
My introduction to Portuguese food hit a speed bump on the first night when it was decided by popular vote that we would eat Chinese for our first meal out. The Portuguese seafood I was so eager to try would have to wait until tomorrow!
Day 2 – Old Town – Grace + Alfama
Bright and early on day two I venture into the old town to do some exploring, beginning my expedition at the edge of the city at Praca de Commerciado. Overlooking the river Tagus, the square is flanked on three sides by traditional government building painted in canary yellow. Set against the backdrop of a blissfully blue sky and fluffy white clouds, the richness of colour has the lavish quality of a fresco
Lisbon’s Great Earthquake (and subsequent fire and tsunami) in 1755 reduced most of the city’s structures to rubble, the rebuilding of which has lent a certain homogenous quality to its architecture dominated by the 18th and 19th century style. Building facades in many places share an identical blueprint, featuring square windows laid out in linear, evenly spaced rows. The monotonous, vaguely Communist design is countered by beautifully intricate geometric azujelous tiles that decorate the front of buildings from top to bottom. The kaleidoscopic colours in bright, neutral tones brighten the city at every turn, bringing art onto the streets and earning Lisbon its reputation as a city of timeless beauty.
I spend most of my time in Graca and Alfama districts where the Old Town are concentrated. Much like Rome, Lisbon is a city built between seven hills, and comfortable shoes and a moderate stamina are a pre-requisite to tackle it by foot. As I weave my way up winding, sloping paths the streets begin to shed its modern characteristics. Cars and traffic thin out to be replaced by Tuk-Tuks and trams, modern brands replaced by speciality local shops.
Halfway up the hill I pause at a viewing point, taking in the sea of ochre tiled roofs and cheerful buildings clamouring for space on top of one another.
With the sun beating down, a visit to the Sé de Lisboa Cathedral offers the perfect restbite from the heat. An imposing building built in the Romanesque architecture style dating back to 1147, it is one of the few structures to survive the Great Earthquake.
One of main points of attraction (according to guidebooks, although not, according to the tour guide), is the Castelo de Sao Jorge. The group jostles to the end of the long queue trailing from the entrance where a rambunctious group of musicians gather to play rhythmic carnival style music and flirt with the crowd. After a brief team huddle we opt to avoid queuing in the midday sun, choosing instead to take the famous 28 Tram which brings its passengers on a scenic route of Lisbon.
Crammed full of tourists, the 28 Tram is not for the faint-hearted as it jolts its way around Lisbon’s steep slopes and bends, emitting a loud hiss each time it comes to a stop.
As the tram chugs its way to the outskirts of the old town and into more residential areas, symptoms of Portugal’s failing economy begin to show. The majority of the residents I spotted were elderly and grey haired, slowly inching their way past graffiti covered abandoned buildings most likely left behind by the disenfranchised youth. The Tram 28 is infamous for its mercurial timekeeping and after half an hour I give up waiting, and make my way back to the centre of the city on foot.
That evening I finally had the chance to try some Portuguese cuisine, opting for fish of the day and washing it down with plenty of sangria.
Day 3 – Belém
Lisbon is not a large city and so its has tourism has spawned into neighbouring port districts that can be reached by train within half an hour. Sintra, Cascais and Belém are the most frequented. On the train journey to Belém I see groups of manual labourers working outdoors digging into the hot and sticky road. They look weary and fatigued as they shovel piles of black, glistening tarmacadam.
I had plans to be back in Lisbon before dark so my list for Belém had to be ticked off expediently. One of the first sites was the Padrão dos Descombrimentos, a fifty meter monument shaped like the prow of a ship standing at the shore. Carved into the bow of the ship are the statues of over thirty male figures deemed to have played an integral role in Portugal’s history of expolaration. The title of the carved ship is translated as ‘Monument of Discovery’, suggesting a biased interpretation of Portugal’s colonial past.
I pay lip service to the Monastery of Jerome and Belém Tower, both UNESCO sites since 1983. The Tower fell short of my expectation. Prior mention conjured fanciful images of a grand and imposing maritime fortress but what materialises is a miniature tower, built on a tiny island in the Tagrus River about a stone’s throw away from the shore. A long queue of dutiful tourists stand in line, but I decide to cut my losses and give it a miss. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from travelling it’s to know when the guidebook should be thrown away!
I devote most of my day to the Botanical Gardens, home to over 600 species of lush trees and plants from all corners of the worlds. Keep with the theme of Belém, the gardens carry the stench of colonialism. Shamelessly still referred to as ‘Colonial Garden’, its initial function was to house plants and trees imported from Portuguese colonies. While the gardens and greenhouses showed signs of having gone into disrepair, the excess and exoticism it once represented is still evident.
Walking along the palm tree boulevard it wouldn’t require a stretch of the imagination to picture myself in Hollywood, or somewhere equally as opulent and moneyed. Portugal still carries memorabilia of its past as a wealthy colonial power (or a nation of “discovery” as it prefers to define itself), but today much of it lies neglected, serving as a symbol of its fallen state of grace.
By pure chance the previous evening I had stumbled upon the venue for the Concert de Lago, a daily music festival during the month of July comprising of free classical concerts for the public. Performing that night is a soprano and tenor, accompanied with gusto by the Portuguese National Symphonic Orchestra. The soprano steals the show, singing high notes so powerful yet fragile they hang like icicles in the summer air.
I end the night in the rooftop bar PARK, named in reference to its location on the top floor of a car park. The connection between the name and the location clicks only after I spend minutes scrabbling around alleyways trying to find the entrance. Although it’s a word I shy from using, ‘trendy’ is the most apt description for PARK. The lighting is dim save for chunky candles drowning in a pool of their own dripping wax, the DJ plays feel-good, crowd-pleasing hits, and almost everyone I come across is a tourist.
I don’t hang around for long.
Day 4 – Cascais
No holiday to a hot and sunny climate is complete without a trip to the beach.
On day four I venture to the neighbouring town Cascais, known for its beaches and unusual rock formations. Without the pressure of a list of tourist attractions, it is the ideal place to spend a slow day away from the city.
For those seeking a little adventure, the Boca de Inferno cliff formation is roughly a twenty-minute walk away from the old part of Cascais. The name is a translation of ‘Hell’s Mouth’, with ‘mouth’ referring to a hole in the cave carved out by the ferocious waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Cascais raison d’etre is relaxation and pleasure, with everyone moving at an andante pace and lots of good options for places to eat. My choice of cuisine is an all-you-can-eat vegetarian menu at the restaurant ‘Garden of Wonder’, whose broad selection of food is creative and delicous. Feeling indulgent I treat myself to a renowned Santini ice-cream for dessert, opting for coconut and hazelnut scoops. I savour the punchy flavours while watching some locals playing beach volleyball, killing time till my train back to Lisbon.
Lisbon has been described as a city to get lost in, which is lucky for me considering I followed the wrong bobbing orange t-shirt halfway through my walking tour. In keeping with the city’s spirit I give into my misadventure, liberating myself from the constraints of maps and tourist attractions. Guided only by the whimsy of curiosity I am free to wander where I please, traipsing up and down alleyways and ducking into whatever shops catch my eye. It is exhilarating.
Around the corner leading up to the entrance of the Castelo del Jorge I come across an encampment, which appears to be a cross between an artist’s enclave and a political statement. The artwork took various forms and was constructed from an assortment of scavenged, recycled material. Brightly painted stones piled on top of one another formed lone-standing installations, and the walls were decorated with love heart motifs in trippy colours. At the edge a colourful mat bore the word ‘welcome’, but no one dares cross periphery.
Lisbon is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Ever the trademark tourist, I found myself constantly reaching for the camera around my neck. While a relaxed long weekend can be spent in Lisbon, something tells me the city’s true magic is locked in its lifestyle, reserved for its locals and creatives seeking artistic refuge.
Who knows, if inspired you might end up staying longer than expected.