08.04.2017 - 09.04.2017
In In Argentina in August, I met a couple on a bike tour who told me I needed to visit Portugal. That's all it took to convince me to visit this country. After a few months of convincing Marshall that Portugal would be a good choice for our a vacation, here we are in Lisbon! This is really a test to see if makes my short list of international travel companions. Obviously, he will never surpass Erin (see Iceland and Brazil) or Alyssa (Peru, Brazil and Argentina), but he may come in a close third place after this week.
We arrived Saturday morning at the International Design Hotel. It is in the Baixa district of the downtown which is the less noisy area but still conveniently located. It turns out that is only one block from the Rossio subway station and Rossio train station. When Marshall told me good job on the location, I pretended I researched locations before booking and accepted the compliment.
Day one, we were jet lagged but forced ourselves to stay awake. We went on a Sandeman New Europe free walking tour to orient ourselves with the city. I have done these tours in various European countries. You simply tip the guide at the end instead of paying for a tour and then tipping on top of it. I am sure you can pay for better tours, but the Sandeman free ones do the trick.
Our guide Ricardo was born and raised in Portugal and gave us a good overview of its history. Here are some fun facts:
1. In 1755, there was a horrible earthquake and tsunami that wiped out the entire downtown.
2. Buildings with a nail sculpture on the front of them survived the earthquake.
3. Downtown Lisbon was the first planned downtown area in a grid system and the example many cities later followed.
4. St. John the Baptist chapel is the most expensive church in all of Europe. It was dismantled and moved from Rome. There are mosaics that look like paintings, but close up, you realize they are made from micro tiles.
5. Bairro Alto is a downtown neighborhood that used to be where all the dock workers lived. It later became the area all the students lived in. To support their education, 130+ bars opened in the neighborhood, and now it is the party area. All of Lisbon (as far as we can tell) has a sip and stroll policy meaning you can order to go alcoholic beverages and walk around town.
6. Sidewalks in Lisbon are black and white mosaics. The Copacabana sidewalks are identical to the ones here because the exiled monarchs brought the tradition with them to Brazil. While the sidewalks are cool to look at, they are very slippery both when dry and wet.
7. Portugal was ruled by a dictator until the 1970s when there was a bloodless revolution to overthrow the dictator. While they did not like the dictator, they did appreciate him for certain things, such as keeping them out of WW1 and WW2.
8. Lisbon claims to be the city of seven hills. If you Google this, Rome and couple dozen other cities also claim this name. As a result of being built on seven hills, there are many miradouros (viewpoints) throughout.
9. The San Justa Elevator is an elevator that connects Baixa to the Chiado neighborhood that is located on a hill. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel's apprentice, so there are some similarities to the Eiffel Tower. Your metro card covers the elevator ride, and for an extra euro, you can go to the viewing platform. Luckily, our tour guide told us not to waste our time or money. There is a bridge connecting the Santa Justa elevator to Chiado that is free. You get the same view without the wait or money!
After our tour, we ate at Cervejaria Ramiro which is a famous seafood restaurant. We arrived at 7 which we thought would be very early since most Portuguese people don't eat until 8:30. To our surprise, there was a long line, so we got a number (like at the meat counter at Central Market), and luckily, the line moved quickly and we were seated in 20 minutes. Marshall ordered shrimp, and I ordered clams. Both would have cost much more in America than they did here. The lobsters and other shellfish looked delicious. Too bad I am slightly allergic and couldn't try them! We also ordered vinho verde which is made in Portuguese using young unripen grapes. Thus green describes the nature of the grapes, not the color of the wine. The wine is a light refreshing white wine that costs $4 per bottle at your local Specs.
Our travel day wiped us out, and we ended up sleeping until 10 am on Sunday. Our sleeping in gave us the chance to see how regular tourists do things. By this, I mean that we waited in many lines that we could have avoided if we woke up earlier. The first line was waiting from Tram 15 a block from our hotel. We, along with every tourist in Lisbon, waited for Tram 15 which carries passengers 45 minutes to the suburb of Belem. A few stops in, we saw a sign on a tram stop that said "€10 euros for taxi to Belem." We felt really dumb at that point since we paid €5.80 to be on a tram crammed with a billion other people.
Alas, we ended up at the Jerónimos Monastery where we were greeted with yet another line. Actually there were 3 lines and no signs explaining what each line was for. We learned one line was for tickets, one was for entrance to the monastery, and one was still unknown. We got in the ticket line, and after 30 minutes, we discovered the unknown line was actually a much shorter ticket line. We felt really dumb at this point because the other line had no more than 20 people in it all times, while our line had about 100 people. We then got to the front of the ticket line where it branched into two more lines. We were confused, but then just took a chance and got into one. Luckily we could buy tickets there.
As mentioned earlier, one of the three original lines was for entrance into what we thought was the monastery. We queued up in that line with our tickets and learned that the entrance line was the free entrance into the church, not the line to get into the monastery. Luckily many people had this same confusion, and the security guard let us cut to the front of the monastery line.
Was the monastery worth the 40 minute wait? No, not really, but we did like it! It was built in the 1500s Andy as intricate gothic stone work. There were a few exhibits inside too that taught us more about Portugal which was beneficial since we knew nothing about Portugal other than all the famous explorers lived here.
After the monastery, we walked along the Tagus River to the Tower of Bélem which served as a fortress for the city and a political prison in the past. It was short (for a tower) and looked rather simple from the exterior. When we saw yet another line there, we decided to pass on the tower.
We headed back to town to eat the famous bifana sandwich at O Trevo. It turns out O Trevo is closed on Sundays, but luckily, I had researched back ups before the trip and directly across the square from O Trevo was the Bairro Alto Hotel. They have a terrace that serves lunch and drinks and overlooks the water. We both go delicious salads and drinks and enjoyed the view.
Later, we made our way to the Alfama neighborhood. This neighborhood is set in the hills, and it used to be where all the crooks, prostitutes and other undesirables lived. In 1755 when Portugal had its terrible earthquake on All Saints Day, the Alfama was the only neighborhood not affected, mainly because it is built on hard rocky surfaces unlike the rest of the city that is built on sandy ground. All the Catholics in the rest of the city were in mass for All Saints Day when the earthquake happened. They did not understand why the Alfama with all the sinners had been spared and started questioning God as a result.
The Alfama has narrow cobblestone streets and many viewpoints (Lisbon really takes advantage of its hills and has many miradouros (viewpoints) throughout). We stopped at Miradouro de Graca and Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. Both had excellent views. Afterward, he headed down to one of the many plazas and had caipirinhas (an ode to their Brazilian heritage).
I finally stopped at one of the nine billion bakeries by our hotel to try the pastel de nata which is a vanilla custard tart that is very popular here. Monks at Jerónimos Monastery originally sold these pastries to produce income for the monastery. In the late 1800s, a bakery in Belem started selling ones based on the monks' recipe. That bakery claims to serve the best ones, but we missed it this morning. The ones served in the city are delicious, so I am not too sad about missing the original which likely involved standing in another line. Meanwhile Marshall was enjoying his version of dessert. He has thoroughly enjoyed trying Portugal's fortified wines, and his current favorites are moscatel which is fortified muscatel and white port. Not to mention, he has enjoyed how in every plaza, they sell mojitos, sangria and caipirinhas to go.
We ate dinner at Cafe do São Bento which has won best steak in Lisbon for the past few years. The best steak in Lisbon does not even come close to the top ten in Houston. It was good, but we need not revisit. I did enjoy the restaurant's playlist of 1980s American music. The restaurant banned smoking inside recently (so progressive), but it still reeks of cigarettes that have seeped into the red velour furniture that has not changed since its opening in 1982.
Main takeaways from days 1 & 2: don't eat at Café do São Bento, do visit the San Justa elevator for free, and eat all the pastries you see.