I couldn’t believe my eyes when, a few days before I was planning to fly to Lisbon from Australia, I saw on Twitter that a freak hurricane was heading towards the Atlantic coast of Portugal and northern Spain, before heading to Ireland. Hurricane Ophelia was yet another in the series of devastating tropical storms that had previously torn their way through the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. But Portugal? Spain? Ireland? It was just about unheard of. And Ophelia was predicted to hit the Portuguese coast the same afternoon I would be landing.
As an Australian, and from the south-east, I had zero experience with hurricanes or cyclones or typhoons. It was an anxious few days, but I figured we would just be held over in Dubai for longer if it came down to it. Or forced to land in Madrid. As it turned out, Ophelia’s path moved westwards off the coast and the Iberian Peninsula experienced only a few days of extra humidity and light winds. A lucky escape.
Lisbon had been a city in my imagination for years, with its hills and architecture, its role in the Age of Discovery and its traditions. And of course I knew about the 1755 earthquake. But really I knew very little. I didn’t know that around a third of the residents died in that earthquake or were swept away in the following tsunami. I knew that Portugal was neutral in World War II and had close ties with the UK, but I knew few of the details around the 36-year Salazar dictatorship or much about the old Portuguese colonies of Goa, Mozambique, Timor and Macau.
My Portuguese was limited to about five words and I was completely confused about pronunciation and pronouns. As a lisboeta* explained, Portuguese is Spanish spoken with a Russian accent. But even that doesn’t fully cover the complexities of a language incorporating ancient words, words from medieval trading partners and newer acquisitions from English. In fact, almost every Portuguese person under 60 that I met spoke excellent English — making it easier to get around, but disappointing in other ways as there was no real incentive to persevere with my terrible Portuguese.
So what struck me first about Lisbon? It may have been the warmth and humidity (partly due to Ophelia) but it could also have been the hills, the slippery cobblestones or the way I continually became lost in the narrow streets. Believe me, you don’t want to accidentally go down the wrong hill since you will almost certainly have to climb back up it. Normally my sense of direction is very good but Lisbon had me confounded again and again.
Using Lisbon as a base for eight or nine days, I explored the capital mostly on foot but also by tram and metro. I also embarked on a couple of day trips. Perhaps naively, I completely underestimated the number of tourists still around in mid-October. I can only imagine what it must be like in high summer. Someone told me that, thanks to Portugal’s safe reputation in an increasingly volatile world, as well as its comparatively affordable food and travel costs, tourism is increasing by 30% a year and that the pace of change is too fast for many people. I can understand why.
The city is divided into a number of key areas, all of them stuffed to the brim with interesting things to see, great architecture and azulejos (the decorative tiles the country is famous for), eating places to sample simple, fresh food, and astounding views of the city, the vast Tejo estuary or the sea. I chose a new area each day and explored at leisure. I knew I was happiest when I mixed things up and didn’t squeeze in too much of one kind of thing. A museum maybe, lots of walking, a café pingo (espresso with a drop of milk) and a fresh cheese and black pepper sandwich in a corner shop. Perhaps a little getting lost in the afternoon and a small glass of vinho verde, a slightly sparkling wine that is fresh and slightly acidic.
Or perhaps I’d be drawn into a pasteleria by a white uniformed employee ringing her brass bell on the footpath to announce a fresh batch of the famous pasteis de nata, the delicious vanilla-scented custard tarts with their crispy pastry. Or pause for breath and to watch a band play at one of the many miradouros, small areas that offer different views over the city. Or dart across a pedestrian crossing to avoid a van that was not prepared to stop for anything or anyone (acknowledged fact: the Portuguese are generally courteous and friendly — until they get behind the wheel of a vehicle). Or even pick up a small souvenir from A Vida Portuguesa, one of the small chain of shops selling beautifully made nostalgic objects. Soaps that great grandmothers used when there was still a monarchy. Tins of sardines with gorgeous typography. Toys.
Over the eight full days (which wasn’t nearly enough), I explored the Alfama and Mouraria, the medieval area on the slopes the São Jorge castle and once home to Lisbon’s Moorish and Jewish residents as well as the birthplace of fado. I visited Parque das Nações, the site of Expo 98 and some significant modern architecture. I went on day trips to Sintra, a town of eccentric palaces and friendly cats, and south of the river to Arrábida and Sesimbra to experience national parks and wine country. I got lost trying to find the entrance to the monumental 18th century aqueduct used to transport water throughout Lisbon and neighbouring areas and saw Lisbon from the base of the enormous Cristo Rei monument, a homage to the one in Rio de Janeiro.
I also visited the fantastic Gulkenkian art museum and avoided the queues to take the steam-era Elevador Santa Justa. I saw the ruins of a church destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and hiked out to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum), housed in an austerely beautiful old convent. And I explored Belém (pronounced Ber-layng), the area just outside the city centre where many seafaring voyages of exploration set out, with its monuments and monastery and an excellent collection of modern and contemporary art at the Museu Colecção Berardo.
I’d go back to Lisbon in a flash.
* someone from Lisbon