The courtyard of Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon.
As I write this, it’s a little before lunchtime on March 15, 2018. I’m sitting in the Diamond Guesthouse in Lisbon, Portugal, watching a heavy downpour fritter itself away. Mostly by luck, I didn’t get caught in it. Which is a nice way to start a holiday.
Portugal is one of those countries that I’ve never visited before, and as the prospect of the St. Patrick’s Day weekend loomed up a few months ago, I decided that it would be a better place to spend it than Dublin. At this time of the year it tends to be full of tourists and drunken revellers, not all of whom are the same people. So I’ve extended the long weekend by a few days and booked myself a visit to Lisbon and Porto. There’s been minimal planning: beyond booking flights, trains, and accommodation, I mostly aim to wander around and see what there is to be seen.
The tiny part of the trip that I’ve been on so far has been good. Getting up at 4.15am for a taxi to the airport wasn’t much fun, but the first advantage of travelling so early is that the airport won’t be too crowded, and so it proved at either end. The flight via Aer Lingus wasn’t too bad either, and I watched Alex Garland’s Annihilation on my iPad on the way over. (Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys melancholy, brain-teasing science fiction in the Ex Machina or Arrival mould.) Lisbon airport was even easier to pass through, and the metro link to the city (wouldn’t it be nice if Dublin had one of those?) meant I was in the heart of this former capital of empire well before noon.
Which made a mixed blessing of the second advantage of travelling so early: having an extra day to spend in your destination. I was too early to check in to the Diamond Guesthouse by half an hour, so I went wandering down Rua da Palma and Rua Augusta to the banks of the Tagus river. On the way, I passed by an Irish dancer performing in the streets (there’s no escape) and fended off several efforts to sell me sunglasses and herbal relaxation products. The sun came and went, though the cobbles were slippery with the leavings of earlier rain showers, and by the time I made my way back to Diamond Guesthouse it was time to check in.
So here I am now, and the rain shower has passed, and it’s time to head out in search for lunch. I spotted a fort on top of a nearby hill that should provide a good vantage point over the rest of the city, and after that there’s all of Lisbon to explore. More later.
Lisbon, like Rome, is built on seven hills. I feel like I’ve been up most of them today.
First up was the hill on which the Castelo de Sao Jorge stands. Making my way through the narrow hillside streets was fun, fortified as I was by a meat-based pastry and a mandarin orange from the supermarket next to the Diamond Guesthouse, but a wrong turning meant that I circled the hilltop once more than I needed to. Still, the Castelo itself was impressive when I made it up there, sprawling as it does across a broad hilltop and inhabited as it is by a flock of nonplussed peacocks. The stairs up to the battlements have a cavalier approach to health and safety that would give a heights-averse friend of mine conniptions, and the occasional rain shower making the well-worn stones extra slippery didn’t help much.
Once I left the Castelo and the peacocks behind, I made my way downhill in a more or less random fashion, coming across the remains of a roman-era amphitheatre along the way (a hazard of the trade when you travel in most of Europe) and, a little further downhill, the Romanesque Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major. As solid a lump of stone as you’d expect to find in a city prone to the odd earthquake, it’s a pleasant contrast to the more ornate confections to be found in Italy and Germany, with some interesting sarcophagi tucked away in odd corners. You can pay extra to visit the treasury, which I did, which has two highlights in the form of a view of the cathedral from the gallery above and a spectacularly ornate gold and jewel-encrusted monstrance. Sadly, no pictures of the latter, due to the attendant’s care, but I did snap one of the nearby throne, with its ostrich-feather fans.
Leaving the cathedral behind, I headed for the waterfront, more particularly the Praca do Comércio, which I’d briefly dropped in on earlier on in the day. Having loosened up my limbs nicely, it was time for some serious walking, so I headed west along the waterfront, more or less following the footpath laid out there. I say more or less, because the cycle lanes are more of a priority, and even they can disappear abruptly if you’re not paying attention. At least they’re there most of the time, I suppose.
I passed by the ferry port at Cais do Sodre, and on past the even more industrial landscape that lay beyond. It wasn’t until I passed underneath the massive, yet oddly flimsy-looking Ponte Vinte e Cinco do Abril bridge, that the waterfront opened up a bit more and the restaurants and bars seemed less out of place. In short, don’t do what I did and walk it – take a bus or tram instead. On I went anyway, coming before long to the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a massive edifice erected in 1960 to celebrate 500 years since the age of Portuguese discoveries, spurred by Prince Henry the Navigator. It’s an odd sight, with a prow of massive sculptures extending out over the water, but the slender tower provides a great view over the western half of the city, as well as the massive compass rose that occupies the plaza in front of it.
I was more or less in Belem at this stage, the part of Lisbon that stands right at the mouth of the River Tagus, so I had my end goal in sight. The Belem Tower is a fairytale edifice, standing in the waters of the Tagus itself and decorated with the best architectural sculpture that Portugal’s overseas empire could afford. Sadly, my walk had taken long enough that it closed just as I reached it. I wasn’t too downhearted – the tower is impressive enough from the outside, and there was enough sunshine left in this March day for more walking yet. So after a bit of a rest, I headed off again, turning this time northeast and upwards.
Crossing the train tracks took me to the Rua Bartolomeu Dias, which led me past the planetarium, the museum of archaeology, and the Jerónimos Monastery. These too were closed or closing by the time I passed them, but that too was okay. I marked them for later visits and moved on, turning onto the Calçada do Galvao, which led me north and ever higher. My goal this time was to reach the Parque Florestal de Monsanto, and this I more or less did as sunset came on, though the park itself is sprawling enough that there’s no exact centre of it to get to. That said, I saw plenty up there, in the form of a more natural amphitheatre to go with the roman ruins I’d seen before and some BMX racers flying up and down a hillside.
At this stage, with darkness setting in and my feet beginning to feel the effects of a day’s toil, I began to wonder whether food and drink might not be a bad idea. I pointed myself downhill and towards the waterfront and asked Siri whether she could recommend any good places to eat. She came back with lots of suggestions in the vicinity of my hotel, which speaks well of my booking choices but didn’t speak so highly of the amount of eating options near where I was just then. So more walking lay ahead.
After more ups and downs and more items added to the to-do list for the next day (as well as a fortifying churro straight from the fryer of a roadside stall), I ended up in the Time Out Market Lisboa, an old market building purchased by the owners of Time Out and turned into an extremely trendy home for some interesting eating options. Not wishing to spend another hour examining every option they had, I plonked myself down at one of the first ones I came to, O Surf & Turf, and proceeded to splurge out on a three-course dinner that was heavy on the seaweed (even in the dessert) and chorizo (thankfully not in the dessert).
That, though, was as much as I had energy for that evening. A final burst of walking took me over 45k steps for the day according to my phone-based pedometer and back to the Diamond Guesthouse, with a brief stop to buy a bottle of water in the supermarket below. Given that it’s now 2215 and my feet are enjoying life free of the confines of my shoes, I don’t think I’ll be heading out again this evening. So, a little reading and rest, then sleep. Tomorrow will bring a more selective approach to Lisbon.
(More time passes…)
I didn’t mean to walk as much as I did today. I really didn’t. Sure, I started the day with a 5k run, which my fatigued-strained joints were none too happy about, but that had been part of the plan for a while, and I was back to the hotel and showered and dressed before the day was really begun. So I headed out at a more reasonable hour and dropped into the supermarket next door for a bun and a pastel de nata custard tart that would serve as breakfast.
The first goal of the day was the Santa Justa lift, which I’d walked past several times the day before. As it happened though, I got distracted on Rossio Square and wandered for a while north up the Avenida da Liberdade before circling back south again via the Rua da Misericórdia. When I eventually reached the lift, the queue to take it up into the skies above Lisbon was a little too long for my tastes, so I went walking and climbing instead, following the streets and signs until I reached the Carmo Archaelogical Museum. This former ecclesiastical site, perched on a steep hillside overlooking Rossio Square, was a notable victim of the terrible 1755 earthquake that leveled a large portion of Lisbon, and the repairs that were attempted were far from complete when the monastic orders were kicked out of the country in the 1830s. So, for the most part the site remains open to the air, with the ribs of the vaulted roof only serving to indicate how it once looked. There’s some museum pieces in the parts that were repaired, including a gruesome pair of South American mummies, and it’s worth poking around if you’re in the area.
The upper part of the Santa Justa lift lies behind the Carmo, and I made my way out along the ironwork viewing platform in order to get a better view of the city in the sunshine, just across from the castle that I’d visited the day before. Once again, my lack of sunglasses and sunscreen was a bit of an issue, but the best cure for that is shade, and the best place to find shade is a bookstore (scientific fact). So I descended into the alleys below and made my way to Rua Garrett, where the world’s oldest working bookshop awaited me. Livraria Bertrand is tucked into a series of low-hanging vaults and while surprisingly bright and airy for all that, it wouldn’t be unfitting if the books were kept in gloomier conditions.
Prior to dropping into Bertrand though, I’d made another visit, this one a little more fortuitous. The Alcoa patisserie had a range of very fancy wares in its windows, but I was more interested in sampling more of those custard tarts I’d tried out that morning, so I walked out with a two-pack, and once I found a place to sit and eat them, I did so. The verdict? Good.
It was time though to get a little culture into me, instead of just custard, so I struck out for the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. It was a little longer walk than I would have preferred, but seeing no obvious buses between hence and thence, I stuck with it and was rewarded with a very fine collection of art both from Portugal and further afield, with a special exhibition on the Atlantic island of Madeira and a particular love for ornate altar triptychs. The highlight though had to be room 125, with pieces by Cranach, Holbein, Durer, and Bosch. Bosch’s triptych “The Temptation of St. Anthony” was particularly stunning, and full of the weirdness that Bosch did better than anyone. Including a man wearing glasses and seemingly piloting a submarine disguised as a duck. At least that’s what it looked like to me.
Once I’d had my fill of classical art (which took some time), I set out in search of lunch and a bus that would take me further afield. In the end, my stomach had to wait while my feet were rewarded for their efforts. I jumped on a bus that took me to Belem and more particularly to the Jerónimos Monastery. Here I hit the first queue of the day that I couldn’t dodge as I waited for my chance to enter. The interior of the monastery is just as impressive as the exterior, with the central square in particular looking like a very nice pad for a lucky monastic order. The cathedral that’s appended to the edifice also contains the sarcophagus of Vasco de Gama, for those of you who like to locate your heroes of the age of exploration.
Next door was the Museum of Archaelogy, which wasn’t so much a disappointment as smaller than I was expecting. It shares part of the cloisters of the old monastery, but evidently its lease doesn’t run very far. That said, there were nice exhibits on Egypt (de rigueur for an archaeology museum) and the history of an area of the Algarve from Stone Age to the medieval era.
Since I was in the area anyway, I decided I may as well hit the Belem Tower again and actually get inside this time. This I managed to do, albeit not without getting my jeans soaked, courtesy of high tide and a queue that ran across the wooden walkway connecting the tower to the mainland. Once inside, the tower’s ornate exterior was replaced with somewhat more sensible living quarters and a very narrow spiral staircase that used a traffic light system to avoid too many problems between those trying to ascend and those trying to descend. It worked, more or less, but I can see why the tower keeps visitor numbers to 120-150 max at any one time. Otherwise, there would likely be an incident of stair rage every ten minutes or so.
I explored the tower from top to bottom, and when I left, the closing time signs had been put up. This time I’d beaten the deadline, but without intending to I’d walked about half as much as I had the previous day, all without getting to sunset. Plus, the looming rain clouds made it clear that a bus was the best option for me, so I headed back across the rail tracks to Jerónimos, where I caught a 728 bus back along the waterfront to Cais do Sodre and the Time Out Market. One visit hadn’t done more than whet my appetite, and seeing as I’d skipped lunch without meaning to, it was time to eat. I settled for steak and eggs Portuguese-style, with a beer to wash it down, and deemed it good. However, if there was a theme to the day it was custard tarts, so I also snagged an extra couple of those to take away with me for dessert.
Some exploratory wandering on the way back to the hotel reminded me that Lisbon is a city that can go from flat to steep in the turn of a single corner, but I did make it back eventually and enjoyed the first of those tarts while writing this. Which means that I get to take a break now and enjoy the second one, all while planning my expedition to Porto tomorrow. Should be a nice way to spend the evening, and if I’m feeling really adventurous, I may even venture out again in search of another beer. For now though, this epistle is kaput.