Tourist Info Desk

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Iberian Adventure: Portugal

[UPDATE: Pictures now available in my Picasa album!

Mm, Portugal. I had been determined, when this trip was in the planning stages, to go to Lisbon, despite the fact that it was actually pretty far out of the way. Now, I'm very glad we went, and I'd love to go back, but going to Portugal presented a new problem. Up till this point, my Spanish had been sufficient to get us by, but neither us spoke a word of Portuguese. Gestures and smiles, here we come!

Another day, another new city. We arrived in Lisbon and stared eagerly out the windows of the bus at the sun-drenched metropolis flashing by. The bus left us in the massive Praca do Comercio, presided over on one side by an enormous white arch and opening out on the other side into the water. We went to our hostel to check in, forgetting it was barely 10am and we wouldn't be allowed to check in, and instead dropped off our stuff and, on the recommendation of the clerk at the hostel, headed towards Belem.

Belem is a suburb/neighborhood/somehow or other a part of Lisbon, and is generally frequented by tourists for its beautiful church and cloister and its waterside promenade. There was a bit of a faff getting there (we missed the first tram, then the second tram stopped before Belem and we had to take a very crowded bus the rest of the way), but this turned out to be because of another mounted parade. We seem to have been stalked by mounted parades...Anyway, unlike the one in Madrid, this was some sort of military demonstration, complete with rifles and uniforms and horses and everything. We watched the band march around for a while and then wandered on, partly because one of the regimental dogs was barking incessantly, despite the efforts by his handler to make him stop. He was probably too hot in that long coat sitting in the sun, poor thing.

We stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch which, though touristy, was friendly and cheap. (Get your head around that, if you can!) We made it to the church/cloister and I left Bethany standing in line while I went to check out what the deal was. It took the guard a couple of tries to communicate to me that the entrance to the cloister was free before two o'clock. I went back for Bethany and we made our way inside.

The Belem cloister is one of the most gorgeous religious edifices I have ever had the honor to lay eyes on. The ornate two-storey structure surrounds a grassy courtyard with a fountain; above, the sky was pure and unblemished blue, and the midday sun dusted the white stone walls with gold. The cloister consisted of arched walkways facing the courtyard with intricately carved pillars and columns, each one different. Even in the shade, even filled with tourists, the whole place just radiated warmth and beauty and peace. It was an effort of will to force myself to eventually leave.

Since 1) we would have to pay and 2) there was a line, we skipped the church and headed straight down to the waterfront. Beside the towering monument to Portuguese seafaring explorers, the promenade sloped down into the water, and across a narrow channel, the green hills rose up from the waves. (Didn't know this, but Lisbon is built on the estuary of the Tagus river into the Atlantic; the Tagus spreads into a wide sea before narrowing into a small channel before it issues into the ocean. This was briefly disorienting, you know.) We slurped up some quick-melting gelato and then lay on the warm pavement with our heads pillowed on our backpacks, took off our shoes, and soaked in the sun.

Eventually, we had to peel ourselves from our comfortable spot and continue on our way along the water. Our next goal was the magnificent Tower of Belem, a fortress on the river. We explored from the dungeons all the way to the top of the winding staircase, where we curled up on the benches and admired the play of the sunlight on the sparkling waves. There wasn't much else to do in the Tower except admire the views and take dramatically angled pictures, but that's plenty to keep me amused.

By this time, it was getting later in the afternoon, so we began the long slow trudge back toward the tram. My foot was aching so much that we were forced to move at a painful limp, but that didn't stop me from looking at every single booth in the open-air flea market in the park between the Tower and the tram stop. I bought a few gifts before we finally made our way back to the center of Lisbon proper, although on the way back, I stopped for postcard stamps and had this delightful exchange:

Me: "I'd like three postcard stamps, please."
Younger lady who speaks good English: "Where to?"
Me: "The U.S."
Lady: *in Portuguese to an older lady behind the counter: something about Europe*
Me: "Will those go to the U.S.?"
Lady: "It's in Europe, yes?"
Me: ""
Lady: "Where?"
Me: "Um...America?"
Older lady: "America? America!" *digs around and gets me the right stamps*
Lady: "Isn't that in Europe?"
Me: "...No."
Proving once and for all that geographical confusion is not solely an American trait.

We'd not slept much the night before, and we were both exhausted, so when we finally checked into our room, I crashed for an hour or two. When I regained consciousness, it was dark outside, and both Bethany and I were very hungry. We consulted the desk attendant and got a recommendation for a nearby restaurant in the Chiado district, so I told Bethany to get us there (she was in a traveling-on-a-budget apprenticeship/crash course) and we wandered that way together. The place that we finally found was an almost literal hole in the wall--a tiny, warm, close-quarters kind of place that looked, to me, just fantastic. Even better, as we were looking about with the kind of pathetic pleading that begs for someone to offer to let us sit with them, we were invited to sit with three very friendly Canadian woman who instantly made us feel welcome. We spent a couple hours laughing and drinking wine with them and eating really wonderful food--I had a sort of seafood stew with rice. The three ladies were sisters who travel to Europe together every year. They gave us recommendations on what to see in the city (since I had no RFS to guide me!) and made me laugh until I cried--they reminded me of the kind of carefree, wacky joviality that my mother and her friends share.

The city, which had been sun-soaked and quiet during the day, was coming awake as we left the restaurant. The streets were bright, and many pedestrian alleys were almost completely blocked by the tables of restaurants spilling out into the pleasantly cool night air. Bethany and I strolled down the streets where the whim took us, admiring the facades of churches and the music of buskers playing for wine-sipping diners. We would've liked to explore more, but we were both very tired and had a long day planned the next day, so we wandered our way back to our quiet room and got some much-needed sleep.

We started our day with an amazing breakfast at the hostel: sausage and eggs, coffee and tea, toast and jam, all free (!!) and very delicious. Our first objective was to get tickets for a performance of fado, traditional Portuguese music, that night, but we hiked all the way up to the theater to find it closed. We finally got our tickets at a nearby mall and were ready to begin our sightseeing for the day.

Our Canadian friends from the night before had recommended that we visit an old church, only the skeleton of which remained after being destroyed in an earthquake, and an elevator that afforded a view of the whole city. We walked to the top of the elevator and had some very nice views from the bridge out to it, but they wouldn't let us up on the top viewing platform without a ticket. Screw that, we said (or I did; Bethany doesn't talk like that), and continued on.

We walked through the steep and winding streets down to the main square, Rossio, a very impressive public space framed on all sides by tall, pale, majestic buildings. Our aim here, though, was around the northeast corner of the square: a small hole-in-the-wall shop selling only cherry liqueur, which had also been suggested by our Canadian friends. We each had a taste (very sweet, with cherries floating in it!), bought some pastries at the bakery next door that had also been recommended, and continued on our way.

Our two main objectives of the day were the cathedral and the castle. Our map suggesting a walking route that connected the two through the beautiful Alfama neighborhood. I'd given Bethany the map for the day, and she got us safely to the cathedral, which was pretty but somewhat forbidding and gloomy. We didn't stay too long, since the day was bright and clear and we still had a lot to see. We wound our way through narrow alleyways between towering red-roofed white buildings, up and up the curving staircases, under laundry lines and flags, catching through narrow cracks occasional glimpses of the water shining in the sunlight below. We finally came out to a main street and marveled at the view: the jumble of red and white sloping away to the sea, crowned by majestic white churches in the distance. We paused here for a while to soak in the sun before continuing uphill.

We got a little lost, but a helpful security guard and a friendly Dutch tourist got us back on the right track, and we were soon inside the walls of Lisbon's castle. The castle sits hunkered down on the highest hill overlooking the city; the elevator that had seemed so high that morning was a small grey smudge far below. Bethany and I walked every inch of the castle complex: we visited the obligatory museum tracing the history of forifications on that spot; we visited every wall and turret in the castle itself; we visited a dig site for Muslim ruins; we even visited the cafe. The sun was bright and warm but not scorching, the sky a perfect blue, and the white city below, speckled with green and red and yellow, gleamed and shone. I could've sat up there all day in the sun, leaning on the warm stone, smelling the fresh air, breathing in the ocean and the sunlight and the beauty.

Time was short, though, and we needed to head out. We made our way back down the hill to our hostel, where we picked up our stuff, then we went by a grocery store and filled up our packs with food. Staggering back up to the Chiado district, we made our way to the theater and sat back to hear fado. This had been one of my priorities in Lisbon. Fado is a famous, very Portuguese musical style, full of sadness and longing, and the performance, though clearly aimed at tourists, didn't disappoint. Neither of us could understand a single word of the Portuguese lyrics, so we listened instead to the music of the words themselves. Fado would make any skeptic of phonaesthetics a believer; as far as I can tell, every word of Portuguese is euphonic.

From the theater we had to book it to the metro out of town. When we'd been planning our trip, I'd only really booked up to Lisbon, though we were planning to go on to Sevilla from there. Turns out that although Lisbon and Sevilla are geographically not far apart, and both major tourist attractions, there is no convenient direct transportation link between them at all, and taking either plane or train would lose us an entire day that we couldn't spare. The only solution was to take an overnight bus, departing from Lisbon at quarter to eight and arriving in Sevilla at five in the morning. Yippee.

After the plush, quiet theater and soulful music we had just experienced, it was a bit of a shock to sit in a garishly lit bus station, dreading the long trek ahead of us. We managed to find and get on the bus and settled in for a long night. I did not want to leave Lisbon at all, and watched as long as there were still lights going by. The seats were too small and, like airplane seats, seemingly designed to be as uncomfortable as possible, but sometime during the night we both managed to fall asleep and left Portugal behind in the darkness.

1 comment:

  1. I can almost feel the warm and hear the music! I hope we can go there together sometime!! Mom