It’s a shame I visited Lisbon immediately after Porto. I’m enjoying my memories of the city more retrospectively than when I was actually there. I think I naturally fell into the trap of comparing the two cities and I consequently became underwhelmed by Lisbon’s scenery as it failed to match how amazing Porto’s was. That was an unfair valuation however as Lisbon is still an attractive and interesting city, with its own character and differences to its northern rival. Nevertheless, I still had an excellent time in Lisbon and would once more recommend this city for any European itinerary (although not as passionately as for Porto!).
Lisbon is of course the capital of Portugal and its largest city with some 3 million occupants. It traces its roots further back than almost every other major city in the world, as it was originally settled by the Phoenicians (I forget the date, but well before Classical Greek civilisation anyway), which certainly surprised me! It was conquered and occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Moors before being entwined into the modern Portuguese state. Unfortunately though, the city suffered the worst earthquake in recorded European history in 1755, which decimated almost the entire old city and thus obliterated much architectural evidence of the previous societies present there. The only vestiges of the past in the central part of Lisbon are the skeletal remains of the former cathedral, which I stupidly forgot to see. The government at the time responded rapidly and designed a revolutionary new plan for Lisbon, becoming the forerunner to the modern city. To replace the compact district with its disorganised tangle of narrow lanes, typical of older European cities, they established a grid layout featuring wide roads, buildings with uniform height and divided the area into sections which would specialise in specific goods or services. The grid was built on the flattest area of central Lisbon and begins with a series of squares at the base of a gradual ascent and terminates at the largest square in Europe, which is located river side.
Lisbon is strewn along a wide river near its mouth to the Atlantic and almost appears as though its located on a bay. The river is so large that it requires a suspension bridge, harrowingly similar in appearance to the Golden Gate Bridge, in order to cross. The central area of the old town of Lisbon is the aforementioned grid, which has become the city’s primary shopping and restaurant district, and on either side of the grid are steep hills overlooking the river. My hostel was located in a district on one of these hills, the Alfama. The layout of this area contrasts with the grid substantially as it maintains the narrow and winding street plans and features a diversity of building typologies (in comparison to the uniformity of the grid). One of the most attractive sights in Lisbon is seeing the old trams scaling the slopes of the Alfama along the narrow streets; so narrow in fact that the trams occasionally travel over the pedestrian paths. St. George’s Castle (I can’t remember the Portuguese name) is located above the Alfama and provides excellent views of Lisbon and the river. Most of the buildings in Lisbon are either white or light shades of cream or brown, with much less tile-clad facades than in the North of the country. The terracotta roofing omnipresent in the Iberian Peninsula is universally used for all the buildings in the town also, as thankfully there is a lack of modern structures in this part of the city. Consequently, the view of Lisbon is essentially a vivid trifecta of red (roofing), blue (river and sky) and white (buildings). I spent my first two days in Lisbon exploring this area and also visiting an excellent interactive-media museum which described the city and the country’s history.
Further along the river from the central part of Lisbon is Belem, an area featuring several distinguishing buildings that celebrate Portugal’s Age of Discovery and are famous for purportedly the world’s best custard tarts. Two of its most celebrated buildings are World Heritage-listed, the Jeronimos Monastery and the Belem Tower. Both of these structures were built at the height of Portuguese cultural prowess and wealth, and consequently exhibit exuberant Manueline architectural style. This is essentially related to European Baroque, with particular incorporation of natural motifs. The monastery featured a church that was nice yet uninspiring and a magnificent cloister that was easily the largest I have seen. Personally I found the architecture that was adopted to be unusual and intriguing, as the structure is unusually light in colour for a Catholic edifice, natural elements are incorporated liberally throughout the design and symmetry is not actually achieved (as each column and arch is different decoratively). The Belem Tower was constructed as part of a defence network to protect the Portuguese capital from naval attack along the river. The stone fort is around four storeys high and is built just off the shore. The building is the iconic symbol of Lisbon, but is hardly worth the fee for entry into the structure. Unfortunately I had a rather poor experience with Belem’s supposedly amazing tarts. After queuing for 15 minutes to pay and get my coupon for two tarts, I handed one of the staff behind the tart counter my coupons and waited patiently for my tarts. Dozens of other customers were subsequently served as I mentioned to some other staff that they owed me two tarts, with no luck. The only person permitted to deliver the tarts is the person you give the tarts to. Finally I managed to alert her of the heinous situation and she gave me the tarts and the accompanying cinnamon and sugar. I then lost the cinnamon and sugar and found a clump of hairs in one of my tarts.
On my final day in Portugal, I went to the World-Heritage listed town of Sintra, which is just an hour by train from Lisbon. I idiotically planned my daytrip to Sintra to coincide with the only day of rain and overcast conditions. Consequently, my day in Sintra was wet, cold and miserable, which was a terrible shame as the town is spectacularly situated on a mountain overlooking the river and within a landscape similar to the Dandenong Ranges. Sintra’s main attractions are the 19th century palaces, which feature architecturally dramatic buildings and whimsical gardens.
Time to assault the culinary front. The national obsession in Portugal seems to be the consumption of fish, particularly of the white variety. I heard a statistic bandied around that apparently the Portuguese people are the world’s biggest consumers of fish (if we ignore sharks, bears, pelicans, penguins etc). In order to achieve “cultural immersion” in Portugal, I was thus obligated to adopt their dietary preferences and sample the local harvests from the sea. I enjoyed a smoky mix grill of delicious fresh seafood, including two unidentified types of fish, octopus, cuttlefish (I think) and squid. I also had (possibly) the national dish; Bacalau (salted cod), cooked probably in milk and served shredded together with scrambled egg and fried potato strips, an exotic but enjoyable meal. I also chomped away on cheap cod patties as I had done in Porto.
So long for now,
PS I’m on the edge of the mighty Sahara Desert.