Just over a week ago, Jon and I traveled to Portugal with our friends, Kate and Ray, who visited us from San Diego.
My impression of Lisbon based on the 3+ days I was there is that it’s what you’d get if San Francisco and Seville got married and had a kid. There are steep hills climbed by a series of quaint, creaky (still-functioning) electric street cars and funiculars, and you never know when you’ll crest a hill and be treated to a view of the gorgeous blue waters of the Tejo River. And there’s even a suspension bridge (the 25 of April Bridge) whose reddish coloring and graceful shape make it a dead ringer for the Golden Gate.
Lisbon’s Seville-like features are the winding cobblestone streets, the warm-colored, clay roof tiles, the popularity of bacalao, and most importantly, a feeling of faded glory.
There was a time, as many Lisbon monuments remind you, when little ol’ Portugal controlled bits and pieces of every continent in the world (Brazil and India, for example). Rich from the spice and slave trade, the Portuguese were able to afford spectacular squares and buildings, like the Praca do Comercio (pictured above).
While Lisbon is a pretty popular destination for European tourists, there hasn’t been much else going on in the past 500 years since Portugal’s world domination days, and so you end up with a square like the Praca do Comercio, which is eerily empty – no pedestrians strolling shops and cafes or some such. Where are all the expensive shops and cafes? I suppose whoever made St. Mark’s square into the beautiful tourist rip-off it is today should take note and look into the primo real estate at the Praca do Comercio.
We had a lazy, relaxing trip. I knew we were off to a good start when our taxi driver from the Lisbon airport used his limited English to convey the important information that Beyonce (one hot lady, he’ll have you know) was in town that night in concert. I thought Lisbon was great for aimless walking and relatively cheap eating (nothing fancy, but a paradise if you’re a bacalao fan). Lisbon wouldn’t be the best European destination if you’re big on fancy shopping or major museums.
Here’s what we saw by way of sights:
The Castelo de Sao Jorge is *the* big sight in central Lisbon. As seems normal for this part of the world (i.e., the Iberian peninsula), the castle was controlled at different times by Moors and Crusaders. From a tourist’s point of view, there’s not much to see once you get inside the castle walls. A much-touted “multimedia” show consists of a wall of TVs all showing the same video of Lisbon history. Not sure how it’s multimedia – maybe the fact that there’s more than one TV?
There are ten impressively-tall towers that you can climb around on, which was pretty fun at first, but there’s only so much climbing up and down that I find entertaining. More amusing was the guy posing in glamour positions for the benefit of his camera-toting girlfriend. Jon kept hoping the guy would do a handstand on the castle wall, as he promised out loud to do. No such luck, alas.
Funiculars (aka trams that run up and down steep hills) are much fun. I can’t help but want to sing the Rice-a-Roni jingle while being jostled around with the Japanese ladies gleefully passing their cameras back and forth around me. Our guidebook claimed that “locals” ride these things, but in our experience, the guidebook can only be correct if the Japanese ladies with the camera happen to be Portuguese. Possible, but no probable. Still, it’s pretty fun to ride the funiculars at least once.
A 20-minute tram ride from the Praca do Comercio puts you in Belem, which in Portugal’s heydey was the departing point for the much-celebrated Vasco da Gama and his adventurous peers. As was discussed by our little group (we’re very serious conversationalists, you see), Magellan was Portuguese, but you never hear about him in Porgtugal. Well, it turns out what Magellan did his thing for Spain, so I guess that would explain why it’s all about Vasco in Lisbon. We didn’t spend much time in Belem, but we were unimpressed by the Monument to the Discoveries (photo above), which had a look only a 1960s dictator could love. Plus the waterfront is industrial and therefore not a pleasant place to walk.
The Jeronimos Monastery, located across the street from the Monument, is pretty impressive-looking (photo above). The tourist tale (i.e., likely not true) is that King Manuel I promised to build this thing if Vasco da Gama returned from India safely, which he did. A man of his word, that Manuel. We couldn’t go in because of course we decided to visit on the one day a week the monastery is closed (Monday).
We took a day trip to Sintra, which, among other things, was the vacation getaway of choice for the Portuguese royal family. It was an easy trip by train from Lisbon (a 40-minute ride and about 3 euros for a roundtrip ticket), but we were disappointed because of: (1) the rainy and cold weather that day; (2) the lengthy distance between castles considering the rain; and (3) the fleets of tour buses in town.
We ate a really heinous lunch in Sintra ville. So that didn’t help. But then we had a pleasant, largely uphill, 45-minute walk through damp parklands to reach Pena Palace (photo above).
The Palace is Exhibit A for why it’s crazy to have royal families around spending taxpayer (serf) dollars. We just imagined some Portuguese prince watching Disney movies (if they existed hundreds of years ago, of course) and deciding he’d build one of those castles for himself. There was no particular style to the palace – just a lot of mismatched architectural elements. An Aladdin-like minaret here, a Gothic-style cloister there. Jon and I now refer to Pena Palace as “the Candyland Castle.”
So that’s all we really “saw” in Lisbon, which was fine by us. There’s no limit to the wandering and eating we can do on a vacation, so more on that in the next post.