Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Exclusive Treatment in Lisbon

Saturday, February 27, Sunday, February 28, and Monday, February 29

I did not know what to expect in Lisbon.  It is no one's first choice in Europe.  But, I quickly realized it was a hidden treasure.  The tourist factoid I found most interesting was Lisbon's similarity to San Fransisco.  First, the city's hills require a system of street trolleys, or "trams" and lifts.  Second, the famous "April 25th" bridge is a copy of the Golden Gate Bridge, which straddles the harbor.  And third, Lisbon and San Fransisco are the principal western ports of their respective continents.

After our stops in Sintra and Cascais, we arrived at our hostel in Lisbon: the Kitsch Hostel.  Although my first hostel experience in Granada was nice, I realized that this is what hostels are all about.  If a group of students were to brainstorm the perfect hostel together, the Kitsch Hostel would be the result.  It provided a kitchen for preparing meals, a lobby for meeting international students, free internet-access, a refrigerator for keeping your food, and a wonderful staff full of suggestions for the best Lisbon experience.  On top of that, it was located in one of Lisbon's main plazas.  I hope my future hostel experiences are like this one.  

Saturday night in Lisbon began with a tour of the central district at sunset.  The grand promenades were built after the 1755 earthquake.  Throughout the city black and white tiles with different patterns line the sidewalks and streets.  The one thing missing:  green.  The expansive plazas had no bushes or trees, leaving me a bit cold.  Monuments are everywhere, too.  Bottom line: pretty, but cold and a lot of wasted space.  A distinct place.  Toba gathered everyone for dinner at an authentic Portuguese restaurant.  I had to take advantage by ordering the country's specialty: Bacalhau à Lagareiro (Grilled Cod).  Delicious and with excellent company.  Toba had a bar crawl planned for us that night through Lisbon's hippest neighborhood: Barrio Alto.  Roaming the tiled streets of this district at 1:00 in the morning, filled with people just getting started, I realized why Lisbon is a popular destination for many young people. 

Sunday was filled with more exclusive treatment.  Toba had hired a Portuguese guide to accompany us on the bus and give us a driving tour of the city with photo-snapping stops along the way.  First stop was Parque Eduardo VII, a park at the end of Lisbon's main avenue.  At the peak of the park you admire the city of two hills below. You can spot the park from many places in Lisbon because of its enormous flag.  We also saw the Portuguese bull ring from the bus window.  The architecture is Moorish/Arabic; even more interesting is the nature of Portuguese bullfighting.  The fighters ride horses during the event.  Another great bus-window photo shoot began when we passed the Aqueduct of Lisbon.  Made up of fourteen stone arches, it survived the Lisbon earthquake, which occurred just nine years after its completion.

We finally arrived in Belem for three of Lisbon's most important sites.  First, we toured the Torre de Belem, a fortification protecting the port.  It was a beautiful day to enjoy the harbor.  I climbed halfway up the Torre and gave up reaching the top because of the crowds clogging the narrow staircase.  Next, we arrived at Lisbon's greatest church: the Monasterio de los Jerónimos (Monastery to St. Jerome).  This was not built until Portugal golden age of discovery.  Therefore, the church is covered in sea motifs; ropes line the entrance, sea monsters decorate the cloister in the center, coral adorns the columns, and faces of native people commemorate the New World.  Our last stop was the Monument of the Discoveries, which only continued the running theme of grandiose structures. 

After our tour of Belem, we returned to Lisbon proper and ventured up the hill of the Alfama, the old Moorish quarter.  There we picnicked and enjoyed the unbelievable views from the district's most famous attraction: the Castelo de São Jorge.  The fortress protected the city, for it was impossible to take the hill where it stands.  The castle had originally been built by the Romans.  Later, the Visigoths, Moors, and Portuguese royalty occupied it.  Before the sun went down, I managed to go back to the opposite hill, Barrio Alto, to take sunset pictures of the castle where I had been.  That evening our Portuguese bus driver took us to his family's restaurant where we enjoyed a four-course authentic Portuguese meal.  Again, I had a plate of Bacalhau, but this time fried.  We also had a fantastic kale soup and slice of pork (and fruit for dessert).  Drinks continued at the hostel where everyone enjoyed a low-key night with other international visitors.

We would say goodbye to Lisbon earlier than expected because of an offer by our Portuguese driver.  He suggested that we break up the long drive home by visiting the beach on Portugal's coast.  No one could resist, and within four hours we were in Montegordo.  The beach town is popular among the British.  For that reason, the visit was another cultural experience.  I learned of Portugal's historical alliance with the UK.  Perhaps that explains why Portugal has the British eating schedule (American, too), as opposed to Spain's.  

We returned to Sevilla at 8:00 pm.  We were held up with some traffic, though.  Monday had been the Day of Andalucia.  Everyone is southern Spain took the day off, and as a result, everyone was returning from a vacation.  Although the adventure was extraordinary, I felt a certain level of comfort when we arrived in Sevilla.  Everyone is Portugal is taught Portuguese, Spanish, and English from an early age. But, I still had trouble communicating with the Portuguese.  Spanish came automatically, but I did not want to project the image of (1) an American not knowing the difference between Portuguese and Spanish, and (2) an American assuming everyone knows English.  Back in Spain, back to Spanish.  

For photos of Lisbon and Montegordo, visit:

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