I went to Lisbon, Portugal the weekend of March 9th-11th, and man did I love it there. However, before we even got there, we ran into some trouble. Our flight was supposed to be Friday morning at 7:30am, and since we couldn’t make it from Toledo to Madrid the morning of we had to spend Thursday night in the airport. It started out fine, we got there around midnight, the group of 5 of us found some chairs in a cafe to sleep on and I actually got a little rest. However, at 3am suddenly the police show up with a cafe worker and they kick us out of the cafe since we were just squatting and not buying anything —which makes sense. From there we preceded to sit on the cold floor against the wall, not much happening there either. Now you may ask, why don’t you find a bench/chairs to sleep on near a gate? Well, the weird thing about Madrid’s terminal 1 (my least favorite terminal to date) is that they have zero benches outside of security, and you can’t go through security without checking in at the desk first to get a stamp of approval on your budget airline ticket. And to complicate things further, you can’t get a stamp if the desk isn’t open until 4am, hence our dilemma. It’s actually quite the scene, though. Hundreds of people just laying around waiting/sleeping/talking. In fact, some people lay down near the desks where you go to weigh your luggage — apparently the airport police don’t care about that. After a uncomfortable night we unfortunately had difficulties with our tickets and were unable to board our original flight out; I will spare you the details, but feel free to ask me in person if you would really like to know. Needless to say our 7am flight turned into a 11:40am flight to Lisbon and by then we had nearly spent 12 hours in the same terminal, hurrah!
After a extremely short 1 hour flight we arrived in Lisbon exhausted from the get go. However, we did gain an hour since Lisbon is in a different time zone than Madrid. Since the moment we stepped out of the airport, Lisbon reminded me of a much older San Francisco and I carried that sentiment throughout the trip. For example, it’s also located in a bay, they have many steep hills, and they even have an identical golden bridge that replicates the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Now, I don’t which came first but it was hilarious to see this bridge especially after my thoughts on how similar the city’s appearance is to San Francisco. Furthermore, the weather was perfect everyday: highs of 70, sunny, and a slight ocean breeze.
Ali and I got to our hostel late and met up with rest of the group we were traveling with from the Fundación. Our hostel was located within the old central train station of Lisbon. The two floors of the station had literally been transformed into cafes, restaurants, a Starbucks, and our hostel. there were still train lines that were used daily for short trips to the surrounding towns. How cool is that?! The hostel was excellent too. Friendly staff who spoke various languages; impressive atrium lounge that was surrounded by the habitations; clean rooms with excellent views of the city; breakfast included (always a gold-mine when hostel hopping) that even had crepes and raspberry jelly (oh, how I missed thee).
The first day we walked down towards the port of Lisbon and caught a tram to a famous neighborhood known as Belem. Belem is a historic district known for its monasteries and age of exploration. The local monastery, which was huge, housed the remains of the great Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. We ventured along the coast to walk to the Tower of Belem, which like many towers in the Iberian Peninsula, was built by the Muslims many centuries ago. Here is where many of the great Portuguese sailors, explorers, and merchants gathered before their voyages to the New World, Africa, or India. We were at the tower around sun-set and the Atlantic coast just lit up the tower with a golden hue…it was quite magical. After the tower, Ali and I made our way to the famous pastry shop in Belem. The shop was originally owned by the local monks who produced pastries to raise funds for the church; however, today it is a local and tourist Mecca for some of the best pastries you’ll find in Lisbon. Their signature pastries are fresh and hot egg tarts that one would put tons of powdered sugar and cinnamon on. The pastries were amazing and literally felt like the Minnesota State Fair had come to Europe — it was a treat! After the delicious pastries, we got a very cheap and delicious dinner next door at a sandwich shop (can you say garlic butter!), and then headed back to the hostel for the night…we were pretty exhausted from the night before.
The next day the group headed out to Sintra for the day. Now, Sintra is an old town located in the foothills about an hour away from downtown Lisbon. Luckily, we only had to step out our front door of the hostel to catch a train up to Sintra. There we found a quaint Portuguese town that was filled with shops, statues, winding streets, and forests all nestled under the foothills and castles that lay on top of them. We saw Sintra’s national palace, strolled the streets, and got lunch at a local place. Unfortunately, however, the lunch ate up most of our day (2 hours to be exact). Unlike the States, Europeans, and especially the Portuguese, like to relax and have longer meals. I love that idea to a point, but we were in a rush so it was sort of a bummer. We continued our hike up the foothills to La Regaleria, an old Portuguese aristocratic manor and gardens. The mansion was decked out in Victorian fashion, and if you climbed the towers you had an excellent view of the coast; however, the true treat of this place were the gardens and caves that scattered the property. Winding through the twisting paths, we would stumble upon greenhouses, castle walls, chapels, and underground cave networks. It was relaxing and adventurous afternoon exploring the gardens and cave formations. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to climb to the top of Sintra’s foothills where the Moorish castle and a cathedral were situated — one of the top reasons I want to return to Portugal!
However, the next thing dwarfed everything in comparison, and was truly the best part about the trip to Lisbon. We had to run back to the main town, and catch an extremely packed city bus headed toward Cabo da Roca — the most Occidental (most Western) point of continental Europe. As I had mentioned earlier, the weather had been perfectly sunny, warm, and clear which created the optimal viewing experience for the best sunset I have ever witnessed. Standing on the rocky cliffs of the “Edge of the Earth”, I felt almost unworldly, as funny as that may sound. You could stare for miles and miles and witness the sun collapsing into itself, almost as if the sun was falling into the heavens. The sunset created an illusion that the sky and sea were pink just for those few precious minutes. We were all taken aback by the beauty of nature at this particular moment in time and it made you feel very small. Now, I’m not trying to sound too sappy or romantic, but it truly was an enlightening experience.
After Cabo da Roca, and a few bus/train rides back to the city-center of Lisbon, we all decided to go out to dinner. After walking around the terracing steps, streets, and plazas of Lisbon we happened upon an excellent restaurant after being relentlessly ushered to sit down by one of the waiters. Luckily, we chose the right place. We sat outside on terracing steps that overlooked Lisbon, while a street performer played classical Portuguese melodies on his guitar. Once again, we waited an extremely long time to receive our food, and it seemed even longer since we were all starving, but in the end it was totally worth it! We all got some sort of steak, sirloin, turkey, or grilled salmon. All of it was extremely reasonably priced. I would have to say Ali won with her choice of a turkey steak smothered in garlic butter — literally the best turkey I have ever had (I’m looking at you, Mom. We need to do this for Thanksgiving!). After the delicious meal, we grabbed a few beers and relaxed in the hostel for the rest of the evening.
Sunday morning, Ali and I got up earlier and spent the last few hours that we had in Lisbon walking around its different neighborhoods and plazas. We eventually made our way up to the top of one of the tallest hills where St. George’s Castle (yes, I know, it has an English name) is located. Although we didn’t make it inside the castle, we got excellent views of the rooftops of the city and of the harbor.
After that, we had a smooth flight and short flight home to Madrid.
Random thoughts on Lisbon:
I loved the Portuguese culture. I was also glad that it was distinctly different from the culture next door in Spain, and that it embraced its own culture. Although it had it similarities due to its proximity in the Iberian Peninsula, it was kind of like comparing Canada and the United States. I enjoyed the Brazilian influence in Lisbon, where as in Spain the Latin American culture isn’t as apparent. Overall, I got a more relaxed vibe in Lisbon.
I would like to return sometime in the future and spend more time there. Lisbon was more spread out than the other European cities I had visited and requires more time to travel to the distinct areas. I feel that 4 days or more would have done the city more justice. After listening to all the people at the hostel, I would love to return in the summer when surfing season is in full swing.
I loved the sidewalks of Lisbon; random, I know. Everywhere you went, neighborhoods, downtown, surrounding towns, all had hand laid stone sidewalks that usually made some sort of graphic. Although very slippery, it was awesome to see beauty everywhere you walked.
Lastly, I’m not sure what the drug laws are in Portugal, but many times during the trip I was offered cocaine, hashish, or marijuana. It was almost funny how the vendors would approach you in a plaza or along the street. First off, you could tell who was a dealer or not by how fast they would make eye contact with you and then start approaching you from 15 or more meters away. Then, they would quickly flash their product and always explain how their product was the best. Usually, if you said “No” firmly, they would leave you alone, especially if you don’t make eye contact; however, there were a few pesky stragglers who would follow you to the stoplight. Overall, it makes for a great conversation piece at dinner.
This weekend I will be traveling to Tangier, Morocco. So until then……OFF TO AFRICA!