It’d been a long, cold, lonely winter, and we were in desperate need of some sunshine; if at all possible, sunshine that wouldn’t break the bank. After putting our collective heads together for approximately 17 seconds, we came up with the capital of Portugal, Lisbon.
So it’s me, D and L, two more of my Eurovision crew, and you’d best believe the four-day trip will be punctuated by blasts of obscure Euro tunes both past and present. Sorry-not-sorry. (side note: just two months to go till this year’s contest!)
We arrive mid-afternoon, and decide to treat ourselves to a taxi to our apartment. Note 1: CRAZY cheap. Portugal is VERY good value for money. Note 2: as you may recall, I have been learning Portuguese. This trip proves I need to work harder. Note 3: that said, I really don’t think my efforts merited quite such derision from our cab driver…
But let’s cheer ourselves up, because the sun’s out! And our apartment is insanely cool. Here’s the view from the roof terrace:
We’re doing it on an AirBnB-type deal, and what a deal. £14 a night. Currency converters suggest that works out at about $20, and it’s gorgeous. We’re met by the owner’s mother, who’s lovely and sweet and has suggestions for stuff to see that the natives would recommend, not to mention restaurants and shops to try out. She’s also the first of many Portuguese people to tell us how depressed their country is, economically at least – she tells us we’re lucky to come from a rich nation, and says she believes it’ll take Portugal at least 30 years to get back on its feet. We also noticed a lot of posters for political parties taking pot-shots at what they see as German dominance of European finance; clearly, the Portuguese left is hoping to copy the success of the Greek left in this autumn’s elections.
(One of the others to repeat this sentiment is a 24-year-old bearded and lumberjack-shirted hipster we meet working in a sardine shop. He tells us he’s not happy working there, and wishes he could use his doctorate, but that there’s no call for it in Portugal. The subject of his PhD? Non-Cartesian time in the documentary format.)
Here’s the only downside to the apartment: it’s at the top of seven flights of stairs. And if you want to get to the roof terrace, you have to climb this piece of art and design:
Lisbon’s so lovely though. Many of the buildings have tiled facades – here’s a selection:
Talking of tiles, pretty much every pavement is tiled. This makes things very, very slippery, and whilst it’s very amusing to watch other people stacking it, it’s less funny when it happens to you. I wasn’t quite prepared for how hilly Lisbon is – it makes San Francisco look like the Netherlands – but all those spin classes were worth it, as my thighs of steel power me through.
Side note: remember my dad, Papa Gnidrah, and his one pair of trousers in Glasgow? This trip is marked by Eurotraveller L and her one coat and one pair of shoes. Her coat is the thickest, wooliest overcoat on the market, and her shoes are the tiniest, thinnest of ballet flats. Neither is appropriate…
We spend our first evening wandering, getting to know the place, basking in not needing hats, scarves and gloves to go outside (except for Eurotraveller L and her massive coat) Prosecco may also have been taken, at the glorious Mercado da Ribeiro, which I highly recommend.
Next day, we set off in pursuit of one of Lisbon’s famous trams. If you take route 28, you can see all the sights you might see on a pricey bus tour, but for just €2.85. They can get pretty busy, but it’s worth it. Our driver played fast and loose with public safety, until she spotted some Scandinavian tourists with what she deemed bags that were ripe for pickpocketing. Then she stopped the tram and started screaming at them: “YOU WILL BE ROBBED! THERE ARE ROBBERS! THEY ARE NOT PORTUGUESE, BUT THEY ARE ROBBERS!”
We visit Lisbon’s castle, which unsurprisingly is at the top of another big hill. Everyone is in a great mood, wandering around the castle with wine in hand. We laugh and laugh at what would happen to you if you tried to wander around the Tower of London with wine in your hands. (Do NOT try this)
We come back down, we eat some cake at the rather delightful Confeitaria Nacional, which has been around since 1829. I’ve pictured the coffee cake, but the other one you must must try is the traditional pastel de nata, which is a kind of egg custard with a flaky pastry case.
We gatecrashed a posh hotel bar to drink port on their roof terrace, and we ate in a cute little traditional restaurant where we were the only English speakers, which was wonderful. Eurotraveller D got a fish that appeared to be eating its own tail, and the man on the door told us he once met Tommy Steele, but don’t let that put you off.
Next day we took a daytrip out of town to the World Heritage Site of Sintra. I’ve seen this place described as being like Disneyland for adults, but that’s not quite the right vibe. It’s on the top of another massive hill (I’d go as far as to say, mountain), for starters. There’ve been settlements at Sintra for over 800 years, and it’d be impossible to see it all in one day (OR IN BALLET FLATS) but we decided to take a look at the main town, then go up to the Palace of Pena, a 19th century castle that was inhabited by Portuguese royals till 1910, when the country became a republic.
The weather was a bit rubbish, so you can’t quite get a sense of the vibrancy of the buildings’ colours. There were a lot of Scouts running around with sticks, putting us adults to shame with their health and fitness. There were also some of the surliest shop assistants I’ve ever met, but as everyone else was so nice, we’ll forgive them.
Look at it! That’s the Palace of Pena. And this is just the outside! Inside was even more garish and wonderful! It’s your classic ‘Royals with scads of money and no one to say “um, guys…”‘ palace. Our trip wasn’t even spoiled by a loud argument between a group of American tourists over whether Natalie Imbruglia is Canadian or Australian, replete with tinny mp3 version played over their mobile phones, just to add to the atmosphere. For the record: they went with Canadian. For the record: they were wrong.
We ate pizza for dinner in a restaurant called ‘La Puttana’. It was very, very good.
Our final day dawned sunny, and we spent it eating more pasteis de nata, and climbing more hills. We happened upon the Portuguese parliament, which was peculiarly unguarded – just two smirking guards with what I can only hope were fake guns. We also visited the Basilica of Estrela, which we should have taken very seriously, but could not, given the similarly-named wannabe Eurovision contestant Alvaro Estrela and his slutty song, Bedroom.
All in all, what a wonderful introduction to Portugal. We didn’t push ourselves to see every single thing in Lisbon, as we were hoping to relax as well as sight-see. But there was so much to do, we could easily have filled several weeks. I highly recommend a trip, as it’s very welcoming, and very reasonably priced. And it’s warm!
(In the light of the awful awful plane crash this morning, it seemed kind of trite to write lightheartedly about my travels, especially given I flew not even 24 hours ago in the same region. I hope you understand that no disrespect is intended.)