We had considered renting a car in Porto and driving south, stopping in a few places along the way and then dropping it off in Lisbon. Despite rental cars being dirt cheap in Portugal, we heard too many horror stories about bad driving and disreputable car rental companies. What sealed the deal was finding first class train tickets for only a few Euro more than regular ones – pays to book ahead. We brought a picnic along and enjoyed our almost empty car for the three hour journey from Porto to Lisbon.
Arriving in Lisbon, we walked in light rain to our apartment in the Alfama neighborhood. Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and one of the oldest cities in the world, with Pre-Celtic and Phoenician roots. Unfortunately, in 1755 a huge earthquake, tsunami and ensuing fires destroyed a huge portion of the city. The new part was built in a grid using more flexible methods to withstand future quakes. The Alfama is the oldest district and comes from the Arabic word meaning baths. It was the Moors’ whole city and is a labyrinth of walking streets and small cobbled plazas. It reminded me of the Albayzín in Granada, Spain – also with Moorish roots.
On our first full day, we opted to get a public transit day pass, partially because of the immense blisters on the bottoms of my toes, and partly because of the pouring rain. Our first stop was the Museu Nacional do Azulejos, which is a great collection of the painted tiles typical of the area. Riki took a ton of photos, which I assume will manifest themselves in some of his art in the future. The incredible patterns still adorn so many buildings in Portugal and the museum explains the process and history of the tiles.
From the museum, we took an incredibly packed tram to Belém, which translates to Bethlehem, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Lisbon. It is home to a number of national monuments and public spaces. The Belém tower is a UNESCO site from the 16th century. It was used as protection of the estuary and the gateway to Lisbon.
Just upriver from the tower is a monument commemorating the Portuguese discoverers. It shows Henry the Navigator and is made to look kind of like the front of a boat. Behind it in the plaza is a world map showing the routes the Portuguese took.
Since it was still pouring, we ventured into the free Berardo Museum of Modern Art. And while you can encounter some interesting artists here, like Picasso, Dali and Warhol, there are a plethora of pieces I just don’t get. The solid black canvas for instance. But that’s just me, and Riki. Those rooms we cruised through.
Still in the rain, we walked to the Jerónimos Monastery, where upon discovering the 10 Euro entrance fee, opted for the free church next door, which sported some amazing Gothic features, and the tombs of Vasco de Gama and a poet, Luís de Camões.
The weather was looking a bit better on our second full day, so we decided to take the train to Sintra. Sintra is an old resort town just outside of Lisbon. It is scattered with palaces and villas and was probably the highlight of our trip. The Pena Palace, a 19th century UNESCO site is probably the most iconic palace in Sintra. The palace is a converted monastery and was the summer residence of the kings. It is brightly painted with incredible Portuguese Romanticism architecture. Despite arriving just in time for the Pena Palace opening, we had to ride a very packed bus up the hill. Luckily, we were still able to beat the crowds and Riki got some amazing pictures without too many people.
After touring the palace, we used what little sun was left to explore the neighboring gardens and park. There is a microclimate in Sintra and the surrounding forests were lush and green. And in true Riki fashion, we went in search of good views.
And we found them, after climbing up rocks and through trees.
We then walked back up hill to the Moorish castle, a 10th century Muslim fort. It was an outpost for Lisbon and a control tower for the Atlantic and the north. The sun had pretty much disappeared by the time we got here. Though the views were nice, it should probably be visited before the Pena Palace, because it is not much more than a pile of rocks in comparison. There is an interesting archaeological site and the free binoculars let you check out the neighboring palaces.
We spent the following two days wandering Lisbon, eating octopus (Riki) and Pastels de Nata(me), a delicious mini custard found almost everywhere.
On our last day we discovered a market near Cais do Sodré where 20-something of the best restaurants are invited to have booths. You can order a dish (octopus if your name is Riki) from any of the booths and then sit casually at long tables. They even have a bunch of bars, so you can mix and match from all over. This is especially useful if not everyone wants just octopus.
The coolest free thing we discovered was the Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros. A bank sponsors a guided tour, in English, under their building where you can see remnants from the 5th-3rd centuries BC. They explained the history of Lisbon providing fish for the Romans, the Islamic occupation and how the earthquake changed the way Lisbon’s buildings were constructed. They even have a 5th-9th century skeleton displayed in his final resting place. And the whole time you are walking around in the basement of a modern bank, trying not to hit your head as you wander through layers of history.
For our last meal, we went back to the Time Out market, so someone could have more octopus. The next morning we took a 10 Euro taxi to the airport, an unheard of thing for us, but when your $50 round trip flight leaves at 7:05 am, public transit is not an option.
Stay tuned for our Moroccan adventures.