Friday, April 3, 2015

Snapshots of Lisbon, a city steeped in maritime history

Monument of Discoveries, Belém
I have been sitting on this write up for a while now, just trying to workout how I felt about Lisboa before I put it down. My first impression was that the financial crisis has hit Portugal harder than it has some of the smaller European countries  - and this is after a visit to Greece. It seemed a bit rundown, or perhaps I came with high expectations. However when I mentioned this to a friend of mine, she also had the same opinion - when she compared it to her native Italy, and her husband's native Spain. Patriotic sentiment aside, I have since learnt that Portugal is often referred to as the 'poor cousin' of the western European countries.

Overall it was an enjoyable four-day family getaway - The foodie in me especially loved the food. I learnt a great deal about the city's maritime roots as the point of departure for many an explorer, and as a port city during the more robust trading years towards the end of the Middle Ages. I have definitely learnt that not all European cities are created equal. Lisbon left me with an impression of wanting to see more of what the country has to offer though. I would like to return to Portugal one day, but this time to visit its northern city Porto, or to see some of its beaches in the Algarve or make a trip to Sintra, Evora and Aveiro to name a few.

The Rua Augusta Arch
Where to stay: From the middle of the range to the four and five star hotels, visitors are spoilt for choice.  Stay on or close to the Avenida da Liberdade, just because of its proximity to the Baixa (city centre) and to restaurants and sites. But even if you venture beyond this city’s famous luxe avenue, taxis are available everywhere and they are cheap.

The city is small, this of course you only realise after you have been there for more than 24 hours and have done the bus tours.  – I also recommend these in any city. The Yellow Bus Tours, The Red Bus, and other smaller buses are to be found in and around the city.
Small as it is, the city which is also affectionately known as “the city of seven hills” is very hilly. Fortunately there are tuk-tuk rides which can be hired on the cheap to either tour the city in, or to provide that much required transportation to the higher altitude places. 

Views from the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara
Barrio Alto -  This bohemian part of the city overlooks much of Lisbon, giving spectacular views to the city, the Castle of São Jorge, and its famous River Tagus.  Take the Bica funicular up the hill to Barrio Alto - it runs back and forth all day. The cost may seem exorbitant for a two minute ride - but you can use it for 48hours, and on any other funiculars around the city - of which there were many. Have a drink, lunch or dinner at The Decadante. I balked at the price of a meal we had there – amazed that it was so cheap for the quality. Paris has ruined me.
A glimpse of São Jorge Castle in the distance

We had pesticos - the Portuguese alternative to tapas seated at some random bar in the Bairro Alto overlooking the city and with views of the São Jorge Castle - another great viewing point being the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara.

Musicians busking near Commércio Square
Praça do Comércio (Comércio Square) with its musicians busking, sidewalk cafés and views of the River Tagus has that laid back air to it, leaving you wanting to linger longer. We did just that a few times. Had lunch at Cabrito Estonada, housed within the Museu da Cerveja (Museum of Beer) which served up typical Portuguese cuisine - recetta  tipica de Portugal -  a phrase I became very familiar with during our stay, confirming the various articles I have read that there has been a 'return to basics' with regards to the food being served up by most restaurants in Lisbon.

I tasted the pastel de Bacalhau at Cabrito Estonada - it is a codfish cake with cheese in the centre. We watched it being made behind a glass window afterwards. Over the days that followed I made it a mission to compare which restaurant served up the best local cuisine  - as I ate my way through camaroes- sautéed prawns with homemade hot sauce and garlic, and many versions of pica pau - which is sautéed beef intensely flavoured with garlic.

The Ribeira Das Naus is a promenade close to the Comércio Square, on which you can leisurely walk after lunch, or during sunset. It has lovely views of the Tagus River - which after the 1755 earthquake became the point of departure and arrival for seagoing vessels.

Belém – the historical part of the city offered plenty to see: The Torre de Belém (Tower of Belem) - which was built as a fortified lighthouse to guard the port;  the Mosteiro dos Jéronimos (Jéronimos Monastery), the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries), which was built for the Portuguese World Fair of 1940. We joined the queue for the pastel de Nata- Portugal's  famous custard tart, at Pateis de Belem - a bakery that is more than 175 years, and perhaps Portugal's version of France's Ladurée - serving up a pastry that has now become synonymous with a nation.

Monument of Discoveries
On the tour bus, and in a few restaurants and bars we popped into, we became acquainted with Fado Music, a style of soulful, melancholic music in which a solo performer is accompanied by two guitarists. "The songs are usually about love, woes and pain, or express sadness and longing for things that were lost or that were never accomplished." I definitely did not have to speak Portuguese to get the meaning in the songs. I have since gone on to listen repeatedly to well-known Fadistas: Amália Rodrigues who was credited with defining the style of the music, and the more contemporary Mariza.

In the old quarter, we saw the less attractive parts of the city, riding along on the tram that took us up the hilly neighbourhood. I took plenty of pictures of the tiled facades of the buildings. These contrasted greatly with the maritime theme - details of which subtle but could be spotted often -
in the architecture in the newer parts of the city,which were reconstructed after the devastating earthquake of 1755.

The Monument of Discoveries is on the bank of the Tagus River in Belém - the historic town.
It pays homage to the Portuguese  'Age of Discovery' or "Age of Exploration' of the 15th and 16th centuries. It is located on the river, where the ships departed to explore and trade with the Orient.

The 25th of April Bridge with the Christ the King statue at the far end

The 25th of April Bridge which connects Lisbon to the municipality of Almada on the south bank of the Tagus River was so named to commemorate the military coup of the 25th April 1974, which, coupled with a popular civil resistance saw the overthrowing of the  Estado Novo regime and the withdrawal of Portugal from its Africa colonies and out of East Timor.

Comércio Square
Examples of the tiled facades that can be seen across the city

The City Centre
From the Amália Rodrigues Garden, fantastic views of the City.
The Garden that honours the fadista Amália Rodrigues

The Mosteiro dos Jéronimos (Jéronimos Monastery) 
The Belém Tower 
The ubiquitous cruise liner, which can be spotted daily along the Tagus River

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