We were staying at Peter’s Flat on the Rua Terhal courtesy of Rita and Miguel through Airbnb.(https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/2606042). It was very good value and extremely central. We never met Rita or Miguel and I’m not entirely convinced Peter ever existed. Anyway, flying in from Liverpool meant a quick metro hop to Avenida and then a five minute walk to number 9, Rua Terhal. Navigating almost vertical wooden steps, we found the flat on the first and second floors of an old building. Downstairs, we did wonder at the young lady with long black hair and a rather seductive outfit who sat for hours on end in the window of a ‘shop’ and never seemed to have a customer. Two days later, we discovered that it was a wig-makers! At least, that’s what we were told…..
Anyhow, it was ideal for the city centre and all the sites.
Lisbon in May can be cold. We dressed for late spring and early summer, but the night chill made us regret not bringing warmer clothes. Certainly, a jumper, fleece or thin jacket would have been most welcome.
Being central means you have ready access to small supermarkets and bakeries. Pastel de natas, a typical part of a Lisboan breakfast or snack is wonderful. Small delicate egg custards in sweet pastries. They originated in the 18th century and were the product of the nearby Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. In the 19th century they were sold on the streets by the monks as a way of raising much-needed funds when the religious orders were closed down and the monasteries were under threat following the 1820 Liberal Revolution. They are enjoyable at any time of day, but for breakfast with croissants and good coffee, they are a must.
Jeronimos Monastery / Tower of Belem / Traffic and Chinese food
The bus from the end of the road took us right out to West Lisbon and the Jeronimos Monastery. It’s an enormous tourist trap with a large plaza at the front and an airport-sized coach park for tourist buses. It’s in coastal Belem, a suburb of Lisbon, and is manged by the order of St. Jerome, as you’d expect.
The first impression is of white grandeur. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and no mean feat of architecture. Tickets weren’t necessary in advance, although this was very early in the season and I can imagine it being extremely busy come high season.
The bulk of it is 15th century, richly ornate with complicated structural themes. It has withstood revolution and earthquake, so someone knew what they were doing when it was commissioned and built.
It was the site of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, responsible for much of the more recent reform of the European Union.
From the Monastery, it’s only a short walk to the Belem Tower. This is another UNESCO site and comprises a highly ornate tower, jutting out into the sea. It was built during the Age of Discoveries in the early 16th century as part of the defence system at the mouth of the River Tagus. Strangely enough, this was busier. It’s a photographer’s dream with its archways and bastion. Nearby is the Age of Discoveries monument….exquisitely carved to celebrate Lisbon’s maritime past.
The Tagus, all 645 miles of it, starts in Spain and runs the length of the Iberian peninsula, making its way into Portugal and emerging into the sea at Lisbon. The poet, Fernando Pessoa, write: “The Tagus is more beautiful than the river that flows through my village. But the Tagus is not more beautiful than the river that flows through my village”. Clearly a man who knew his own mind! I think Drake probably had a clearer perspective when he lurked around the opening to the Tagus in 1597 on his return from successfully raiding Cadiz.
On our way home, we stopped to watch the World and his Wife having an opinion on parking. In a one-way side street, where cars were parked on both sides, somebody had thoughtfully managed to block the way trying to parallel park in a space that was far too short for a large BMW. Presumably, after taking advantage of the Lisbon ‘park and catch a taxi to the kerb’ service, they had nipped off to do a bit of shopping. Of course, the tram that came along couldn’t get past and stopped, as did the car behind that, and the next one, and the next…and so on. By the time the police arrived, there was as much chance of getting a tow truck in to remove it as there was asking Virgil Tracey to hoike it out using International Rescue 2.
Nobody seemed to be in too much of a rush. The street led off from a main thoroughfare, so nobody felt inclined to reverse into a stream of on-coming traffic, even if they could have done so legally. The policeman scratched his head and waited. True to form, crowds gathered. People passing, stopped. Shop customers came out to look. People eating in restaurants emerged, napkins still tucked into shirt tops. People walked round the vehicle, tried the doors, lent on the bonnet and boot and tutted. Everybody had a view. Everybody had an opinion. Everybody felt the need to share it with the policeman. Voyeuristic tourists, there were but two of us, lurked in shop doorways.
I noticed a smartly-dressed middle-aged woman loitering on the edge of the crowd. Two rather expensive white carrier bags and a glossy black and gold handbag. It turned out she was the driver. I might have been tempted, had I been her, to walk on by and bid farewell to the car…but no..She had clearly plucked up sufficient courage to be brazen and walked to the drivers’ door, opened it and got in. For a split second, I was convinced that had she driven off, people would have been so consumed with the sharing opinions and the waving of hands, they might not even have noticed. The spell broke, however, and the law went into action. She was escorted fifty yards up the street and pulled over into a convenient, and considerably larger, space
Traffic moved and the street settled down. It was surprising how, what had almost become a ‘lynch-mob’, failed to follow the policeman and just dissipated, returning to shops, cafes and restaurants. Likewise, we sloped away and looked for somewhere to eat.
Somebody once told me that you should always eat Chinese food in a restaurant where the Chinese themselves eat. We found one such the same night. The Restaurante Hua Ta Li on Rua dos Bacalhoeiros.
It was absolutely packed. Tables of four, of eight. Banquet groups of 16. Was this the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Portugal, if not the World outside of China itself? They managed to squeeze us onto a small table for two, just by the heavily ornate black and gold lacquered dresser in the corner. A waitress provided menus and chopsticks, sanitised in waxed wrapping.
Suddenly, as though there had been a secret signal, every single diner stood up, reached for coats and bags…and left. I’ve cleared rooms in the past, but never this fast. The light from the front window disappeared as a huge, double decker tourist coach arrived and collected what was clearly China on Tour.
As the dust settled, it became only too apparent that, whilst there might well have been a dozen or so waiters and waitresses hovering around the edges of the room and all eyes fixed on the heavily ornate black and gold lacquered dresser, there were only two customers. There would only be two customers for the next forty minutes while we had the total and somewhat oppressive attention of an entire staff.
When we had finished, and I fear we ate quickly, we left them to themselves. No doubt, the staff of the kitchen paid special attention to the washing of just two more plates and glasses. Food wise, it was not plentiful and it was rather expensive. But at least it was authentic, and the service was ‘attentive’.
Cais de Sodres and the Cristo Rei
From Avenida it was a straightforward walk right through the middle of the town to the coast. It passes many coffee shops, so coffee and pastel de nata , once again, was clearly the order for the day. The route also took us past Lisbon’s old Post Office. It must be one of the loveliest post offices in the world. How excited can anyone get with a post office? The one on O’Connell Street in Dublin is historically significant and the scene of so much rebellion during the Easter Rising. There are so many in New York that are architecturally different and individually important.
In Lisbon, the beautiful eight arches that form the facade of the Old Post Office do not even warrant a mention in many guidebooks. However, it sits just off the junction between where Praca Marques de Pombal meets Avenida de Liberade and it’s simply stunning. Try and catch it by night when the stone work is illuminated and it’s a holiday photograph you’ll treasure.
A little further on, at the end of Rua de Santa Justa is the Santa Justa Lift. Presumably, there was a large volume of Lisboans who, in their declining years, found it difficult to make their way from the lower Baixa areas to the upper street levels of Carmo Square via the steps. The city fathers made the rather strange decision to build a iron lift to carry pedestrians from one level to another. Being in such a public place called for something highly ornamental and impressive and, although started in 1882, it was nineteen years later before it was completed and open to the public.
Today, it’s a tourist attraction. During high season, the queues form early, everybody patiently waiting their turn to step into the metal cage and be transported up to the Largo do Carmo. I say ‘up’, because the queues to travel back down to the Baixa seem to be non-existent. Mind you, ‘fun’ doesn’t come cheaply and we decided that for the cost of travelling the 147 feet from ground level to ground level, we could probably fund lunch. So we walked up the steps. Actually, stopping at several points, for breath, and looking back, provides far better photo-opportunities than would be gained being squeezed up against someone’s sweaty back, sharing the aroma of semi-digested sardinhas, in a vertical elevator.
Back to sea-level and ever onwards. To reach the coast, you cross under the Rua Augusta Arch and the memorial to Christoper Columbus on Commerce Square. The arch was built in 1755 as part of the reconstruction after the earthquake that reduced considerable areas of Lisbon to rubble. Columbus based himself in the city from 1477 to 1485 and sailed from here, developing his skills in dealing with oceanic winds.
Along the water’s edge and with your back to the open sea, it’s a short walk to Cais de Sodres where you can catch a ferry, the Cacilheiro, across the Tagus to Almeda and make your way to the colossal Cristo Rei.
Lisbon’s Christ the King statue really is colossal and is a major landmark overlooking the bay and providing constant solace to mariners, citizens and visitors alike. It’s very much modelled on the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, which, in turn must have been a source of inspiration for the ‘Gateshead Flasher’, Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ in Tyne and Wear.
The Cristo Rei in Lisbon was conceived back in 1941, but it wasn’t until 1984 that the Chapel within the nearby Sanctury was first inaugurated. It stands 436 feet above the river, overlooking the 25th April suspension bridge. The monument stretches up a further 270 feet, supporting a figure of Christ, itself 92 feet tall. It’s impressive! What is even more impressive is how close you can get to the top and to the carved face of Christ. It cannot fail but to leave you with a feeling of being very insignificant and in wonder at the sheer scale of the venture. The views back across the Tagus take in the 25th April bridge, itself a feat of modern engineering and the bay. The navy was navigating gunboats up the Tagus when we were there. I don’t suppose there was a Portuguese Generale Gordon waiting to be rescued, but they were clearly on a mission.
Alfama / Castello de Jorge
The Alfama is the oldest district of Lisbon and is spread out on the slope between the Rover Tejo and Sao Jorge castle. Like many places in Lisbon and across Portugal, the influence of the Arab invasions can be seen and heard in the place names. It’s an area that can be easily walked, whilst admiring the Moorish architecture. Whilst its buildings with their white facades might not be as attractive as Granada or as striking as Ostuni, it’s welcoming and manageable and would probably be so, even in the heat of a summer’s afternoon. It’s the home of many miradouro, terraces that provide vantage points from which to take in panoramic views of the city.
The Castello de Jorge stands at the very highest point within the Alfama. There’s been a fortification here since the 2nd century BC and the Romans were here in 45 BC when Portugal was a Roman municipality. The castle that stands today dates back to the 12th century second crusade and was renovated in 1300 by the marvelously named King Denis the First.
By the 16th century it had ceased being a desirable residence and had been converted into a military barracks and prison. Earthquakes have meant that parts of the original buildings have disappeared and other parts have been developed. There is still more than sufficient standing to appreciate the architecture and its effectiveness as a defence and a stronghold. Another walk up narrow steps, and always anti-clockwise up narrow towers, brings you to further vantage points and some excellent views out over the city.
How many tourists wonder why towers were constructed so that you have to climb them in an anti-clockwise direction? Bear in mind that they’re being defended from above and that the vast majority of solders were right-handed. The Arab custom of considering the left hand to be unclean meant that all soldiers were trained to hold their swords in their right hands. Now consider this. If you were defending a tower and you had a marauding piece of villainy heading upwards to you – and not calling for afternoon tea – having their sword arm against the wall meant they were less mobile and more vulnerable to a counter attack . Makes eminently good sense. Likewise, if you were descending clockwise and in an attack, your sword arm is free and in space and your left side is hard against a wall for support.
Just a thought!
Of all the trams that there are to catch in Lisbon, by far the most interesting must be Tram 28.
So many visitors catch the highly-decorated and slightly more modern tourist trams Locals will always tell you that the Tram 28, which takes a regular circular route around the city, is by far the cheapest, the oldest and the one with the best selection of views.
Whether you sit on the right or the left makes no difference, the circular route ensures that what you miss on the way out, you catch on the way back.
Tram 28 is a 1928 electrico and in exceedingly good order. A blend of timber and iron, it rattles its way along the streets with very little care for comfort while you perch on the hard wooden benches. One consolation is that the windows drop open fully and this allows you to lean out, taking in the sights and sounds of the city.
Halfway along the journey, the tram stops at a terminus. Everybody is asked to get off as this is the ‘end of the line’. We hadn’t a clue where we were. We were certainly not back at our starting point. Still, there seemed to be others in the same position. Everybody got off and, in the same order as they left the tram, they walked slowly in procession for a whole ten yards and then stopped, forming a queue.
Thirty seconds later Tram 28 started forward and came to a halt at the front of the queue. We all got on, and resumed out journey in the same seats. How peculiar.
If you are in search of souvenirs from your visit to Lisbon, you could do a lot worse than avoid the usual city centre outlets and head over to Santa Apolonia. It’s easy to get to by metro and the railway station is the oldest in the city and worthy of a look.
The whole area surrounds a cruise terminal and has been converted from commercial warehouses into a tasteful and rather upmarket shopping experience. There are several stores, an art gallery and a few boutiques. A number of the shops sell artisan food goods and wines. If you’re there on a Tuesday or a Thursday, then the flea market at Feria de Ladra is also worth a visit.
Back in the city and just inside the Rua Augusta arch, if the Design Museum on Rua Augusta is open, try to find time for a visit. It’s an eclectic collection that, if you’re over 50, will fascinate. It celebrates the style of the times with its Isetta ‘bubble’ cars, advertising materials and furniture.
Just up the road we found a small restaurant that seemed to have a very strong connection with Christian Ronaldo. Photographs adorned the walls of him shaking hands with the patron on what seemed like several occasions, unless he had kept nipping into the back for a costume change!
We came to Lisbon for two reasons. The first and the most obvious was that we had never been before. The second was that, a couple of years before, we had been in southern Portugal and had driven close by but had not had time to call and do it justice.
As we packed and made our way to the airport, we began to see the city in a different light. It fascinates and welcomes but, as you look upwards and take in the second and third floors of buildings, you realise that it’s somewhat dilapidated. There is much work to do. Many upper storeys are derelict and in a sad state of disrepair. It’s not a rich European capital city. Police officers are rather ‘down at heel’ and, to be honest, a bit scruffy. So many beggars line the streets and the striking number of maimed or disabled who openly confront you for a few cents could be off-putting. They are certainly visible. We were warned about the abundance of pickpockets and were naturally on our guard.
However, the other side is there as well. Many are elegant and well-dressed and with lots of people clearly living in within the city itself, it can feel more like a town.
It’s easy to wonder whether this can be blamed on the Carnation Revolution of the 1970s. Certainly, although the standard of living prior was high and in line with what was happening across Europe, the impact of the military interventions in Africa and the military coup at home must have impacted on investment in the infrastructure over a considerable period.
There is grandeur, there is opulence. But there is also striking and shocking poverty. Step off the main thoroughfares and explore the back streets and you’ll see another side to Lisbon. In daylight it’s absolutely safe. At night? I’d keep to the main drags.
Off the beaten tracks, you see people living their everyday lives. Some do look desperately poor, certainly against Parisian or Berlin standards. After all, this is a capital city in 21st century Europe. It just feels that it lacks investment; it’s as though, out of sight is almost out of mind. It’s certainly Europe’s poorest city but money was found for Europe’s longest bridge , the 25th April suspension across the Tagus, and new stadia for the 2004 World Cup.
In places, it still reeks of poverty.
Would I return? Probably. Would I live here? No. Have I enjoyed it? Most certainly, it’s been fascinating, if a tad chilly. It’s not all picture postcard, though.