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Here is a city that’s not on the radar of most American travelers: here is why it ought to be. I hadn’t visited Portugal in about thirty-five years, and that was a quick ten-day excursion from north to south. My sabbatical leave in Brazil came several years later, so my Portuguese was less than minimal on that visit. After discovering Brazil and gaining some confidence with the language, I don’t know quite why I wasn’t tempted to return to Portugal sooner. The incentive to revisit was a Silversea ad for a 1000-dollar discount for first-time passengers. An itinerary search for May turned up an enticing sailing on Silver Wind from Monte Carlo to Lisbon. I booked it and added an extra four nights on my own in Lisbon at the end. I found many quiet moments in ten days aboard ship to wade into my Portuguese review book and I felt pretty confident about the language at the end of the cruise. What a surprise to discover in Lisbon that almost everyone speaks some English, a godsend for notoriously monolingual American travelers. but not conducive to my linguistic objective. But I got in as much practice as I could, mostly with restaurant wait staff and cab drivers, as I rediscovered one of Europe’s eminent capitals.
I had scoured newspaper and magazine articles on Lisbon so I knew I wanted a hotel in Bairro Alto or the Upper District, on the heights overlooking the port and the commercial area. I chose the Hotel Bairro Alto, recommended in the New York Times, not particularly fancy with only 55 rooms, but right in the center of the district on the Praza Luis de Camoes whose statue dominates the plaza. Camoes is Portugal’s national poet (ca 1524-1580). I chose a single room for about 200 euros a night. It was probably the smallest hotel room I have stayed in though the bathroom was quite spacious. An upgrade to a deluxe king room was much more expensive and I would have had to move out after a few nights, so I stayed put. My window looked out on the attractive plaza and double-glazed windows kept out the sound. Breakfast is included as well as fast internet. The Breakfast buffet is modest but has more than enough choices for a tasty meal, and the wait staff will bring eggs or hot cakes to order. The International New York Times is available as well, though I preferred to read my subscribed-edition online. A terrace bar on the 6th floor with a splendid view of the port is open from mid-morning until late night with a modest menu, a delightful place for a nightcap.
Tues. May 31
The cab driver from the port dropped me in front of the hotel at 9:30 am and I was surprised to find the room ready that early. That would not likely have happened on a weekend. After getting settled I got helpful instructions from the doorman who pointed across the plaza to a steep street that would lead me to the botanical garden, part of the University of Lisbon. The twenty-minute walk passed many interesting shops and two lovely parks, one with a splendid view of the city. The garden is a pleasant oasis off a busy street, but disappointing if one is looking for flowers because there wasn’t much in bloom. I was disappointed to find mostly scores of trees from different native and foreign habitats, including varieties of palms, several species of ficus, and a few flowering hibiscus. The entrance fee for seniors was just one euro, so no complaints there. While a bit disillusioned with the garden, I did enjoy the sunny excursion and a nice orientation to what lies near the hotel.
On my return walk down the hill, I looked at many menus posted outside restaurants and found one whose special of the day was a nice vegetable soup and breaded fried cuttlefish. To cap off the morning, I found painted on the restaurant wall this inspiring verse by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Lisbon writer, poet, and critic.
O valor das coisas nao esta no tempo que eles duram, mas na intensidade con que acontecem. Por isso existem momentos inesquesiveis, coisas inexplicaveis e pessoas incomparaveis. (Sorry, the Portuguese accents are missing but perhaps you’ll understand that Portuguese and Spanish are not the same).
The value of things is not measured by the time they endure, but by the intensity with which they happen. That’s why there exist unforgettable moments, inexplicable things, and incomparable people.
The rest of the day was filled strolling past side-walk cafes and store windows filled with stylish clothing and sophisticated decorative arts rather than tacky souvenirs. That evening I had a pleasant dinner date with three new friends I had met aboard ship who were spending just one night in the Avenida Palace hotel in the commercial district. It appears to be a better bargain than my hotel, but I wouldn’t change location.
Wed. June 1.
After a wonderful hotel breakfast I walked for 20 minutes to one of several venues where one can buy tickets for the hop-on/hop-off bus. There are at least three bus companies each with different routes. I took the Red Bus for 20 euros, good for 24 hours. It made a wide circuit through the city for over two hours, longer of course if one gets on and off. I decided to stay aboard and decide which places I would visit over the next two days. I got to see many parts of Lisbon with quite diverse architecture and ambiance. I enjoyed the contrast between the older part of the city rebuilt after the devastating 1755 earthquake and the 20th and 21st century modern districts. It’s not easy to get decent photos from the top deck of a moving bus, but below is a small sample of sights.
I got off the bus where I boarded it and wandered some bustling pedestrian streets asking directions to eventually find several hundred stairs to the Bairro Alto. I sought an alluring outdoor restaurant I had passed in the morning and collapsed there at 2:45 and devoured a pizza before the short walk back to the hotel for a siesta. After catching up on world news online, I savored a light supper at the hotel’s terrace bar, enjoying the view of the illuminated cityscape.
Thurs. June 2.
After breakfast I discovered how deceptive tourist maps can be if you don’t study the scale. I assumed I could walk from the hotel to the Monastery of San Jerónimo that I had passed on the bus the day before. It didn’t seem like that long a ride and it looked close on the map. The Monastery faces the river which I could see from the hotel terrace. The Tagus River, Rio Tejo (táy zho) in Portuguese, passes by the city for miles before emptying into the Atlantic near Cascais. The paved promenade along the river offers many miles for enjoyable walking, biking, and jogging. with lovely vistas of fishing and recreational boats and ferries that carry commuters to and from the bedroom communities across the river. I passed the Cristo Rey monument, inspired by the one in Rio de Janeiro, dedicated in 1959 in thanks for Portugal being spared the suffering of WWII due to its neutrality. Adjacent to it is the 25th of April bridge between Lisbon and Amada, celebrating the date of the 1974 restoration of democracy in Portugal.
After an hour of perspiring in the sunny-morning heat, I was still quite short of arriving at my destination. Time to flag a taxi. The driver said I was five kilometers distant from my goal and I would have been too tired to do a large museum had I continued to hoof it.
The Monastery of San Jerónimo (St.Jerome) was begun in 1501 in the reign of King Manuel and completed 100 years later. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and deservedly so. The Jeronimites were charged with protecting the voyages of the Portuguese explorers, the most famous in the world until Columbus. Inside the church are the sepulchers of Luis de Camoes, the national poet, and Vasco da Gama, the first explorer to find a sea route to India by sailing around Africa (1497-1499).
In addition to a splendid church and one of the most magnificent cloisters of the many I have visited in western Europe, the building houses an excellent archaeological museum with superb remnants of the Roman occupation of Lusitania. One can easily spend several hours here, but other sites await nearby.
A nice garden separates the monastery from the road where an underpass allows pedestrian access back to the river walk where one finds the Monument to the Discoveries. It was dedicated in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Henrique, the third son of King John (Joao), promoted Portuguese maritime trade and explorations that really began the Age of Discoveries that led eventually to the Americas. The monument is shaped like a vessel and in the prow stands Prince Henry holding a ship while other luminaries are sculpted behind him on both sides. I skipped the small museum inside and was too tired to walk another kilometer to the Torre de Belém that I had visited on my previous trip. The Belem Tower (1519), a bastion and a four-story tower, was part of the defense system to protect the mouth of the Tagus River. By now I reflected smugly on how much work I had saved my hundreds of tour clients by providing rides to all destinations in deluxe motor coaches with knowledgeable guides.
Another reason for skipping the tower was sighting a waterfront restaurant, Portugalia, facing the monument. It looked like a nice place to rest my feet and quench my thirst. A tender and delicious octopus salad, two dozen mussels in a rich sauce, crusty bread to absorb the sauce, a small beer, and a bottle of mineral water cost 22 euros. That’s actually a high price for Lisbon but it is smack in the middle of a heavily trafficked tourist zone with a pleasing view of the river.
My flat feet would not bear nor my brain absorb another museum so a flagged a taxi and returned to the hotel for siesta. Later I enjoyed a stroll in the neighborhood, ending at a highly-touted Argentine steakhouse (tripadvisor), La Paparrucha, that I found over-rated. The unexceptional ribeye came with just a bowl of potato chips and cost 24 euros without beverage.
Fri. June 3.
The consensus in the travel literature is that one of Lisbon’s “must see” sites is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. It is supported by a foundation in Gulbenkian’s name after his death in Lisbon in 1955. He was of Armenian origin but came to Portugal during World War II. His collection of over six thousand pieces resulted from over 40 years of collecting. The exhibits contain works from ancient Egypt, Persia, Turkey, Syria, and China, as well as European pieces from medieval to the Renaissance, including ceramics, sculptures, paintings, furniture, jewelry, and fabrics. A morning here is akin to a class in the art history of the world, and all pieces are captioned in Portuguese and English. While much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, it has none of the mobs that overrun those museums, and the quality of the collection is equally superb. The Gulbenkian shares a tranquil garden with the foundation’s other museum, that of Modern Art, which exhibits works of mostly lesser-known contemporary artists that didn’t inspire me. Unfortunately the Gulbenkian is fairly remote from the tourist areas of the city and not easily combined with other sites. The taxi did pass a large shopping mall and Iberia’s most famous department-store chain, El Corte Inglés, which is always fun. I left several other highly-recommended sites unvisited, but one must always do that as an excuse to return.
For my farewell dinner I chose the oldest restaurant in the country, the second oldest in the Iberian peninsula, located less than a block from my hotel. The interior of Tavares (1784) reminded me of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles with its enormous mirrors and crystal chandeliers gilded with gold leaf.
While I paid considerably less than I’d have to shell out at a fine restaurant in Manhattan, Tavares is certainly for special occasions not casual dining, and portions are small. There was only one other table occupied on a Friday night, though I left at 9:00 pm which is still early in Europe. But Portugal’s economy has been hurting and that would certainly affect expensive restaurants. For me, it was a classy send-off after a first-class vacation in a world-class capital.