The first thing I noticed about Lisbon was how nice the weather was: twenty-three degrees Celsius and blue skies. Judging by the palm trees dotted about outside the airport it didn’t look as though this was a one-off, either.
I ignored the ranks of surly-looking taxi drivers and called an Uber, which told me to wait at a very specific spot at the departure area. I did so and watched on my phone as my assigned car drove around in circles nearby, but nowhere in sight, before my request got cancelled and they billed me 2,50 euros for my trouble. Thanks, Uber. I requested another and the same car got assigned: this time I wandered around a bit and found my driver, a middle-aged Portuguese woman, standing in a nearby car park looking for me.
“This is where the Uber collects people,” she said.
“That might be so, but the app told me to wait over there,” I replied.
My grumpiness had dissolved by the time I got dropped off at my hotel 20 minutes away, and I even got a refund for the cancelled trip. I gave the driver 5-stars as compensation for my complaining.
I’d booked myself into the TURIM Marques hotel based on a quick look at prices and review scores on booking.com. As I checked in I was somewhat surprised to be asked to pay the bill in advance. To be fair, I’d been faced with such requests before: once in a hotel in Abu Dhabi that was frequented by ropey Chinese prostitutes; another time in a Moscow hotel that had purple velvet in the lift, curtains that didn’t fit the window frame, and a security guard that might have had a second job in a quarry smashing rocks with his hands; and once more in a dodgy motel just off I-95 somewhere in Virginia. I told the clerk that I had no objection to paying now, but it is highly unusual and doesn’t reflect well on the hotel at all (I listed the other times I’d been asked). He said it was the management’s policy, as if I was under the impression it had been handed down by God. He then told me it was a new hotel and a lot of the guests take off without paying. I urged him to continue, believing I was getting far more information about this joint than a review on Tripadviser could ever tell me. He tailed off, and looked at me blankly. I quit torturing him and paid up. It didn’t affect me much, but if my credit card had been subject to foreign currency charges and I later billed stuff to the room, I’d have been well hacked off.
Aside from that, the hotel was very nice. Very modern, comfortable rooms, etc. The breakfast was okay, certainly nothing special, but not awful either. And the location was probably too far north for most tourists: I discovered on my first evening that the interesting bits of town were a fifteen minute walk way, and I walk fast. Anyone wanting to see the sights of downtown Lisbon, especially with kids, would do better to book a hotel closer to the estuary.
I waited until the sun started to dip at about 6pm and walked all the way down the Avenue do Liberdade, through the square with the Monumento dos Restauradores and then the other square just behind it with the statue of King John I and then through some narrow streets to what I supposed is the main square of the city, the Praça do Comércio situated right beside the estuary.
From there I got a good view of the April 25th Bridge at sunset and the Sao Jorge castle on the hill in the other direction.
I did this walk mainly to get my bearings and figure out where I would wander over the next two days.
I walked past what I later realised was the Santa Justa Lift, noticing more the high walkway that leads to the connecting building with its nice wrought ironwork. I walked up and down a few short, steep streets looking for a place to eat (I’d barely eaten since breakfast). I noticed the tram tracks running along the streets in that part of town, and recalled the recommendations I’d had to ride them. Perhaps there is some romantic attachment to them but alas I was on my own, and I found it took me two or three minutes to hike the two hundred metres up the hill in my Merrell boots saving myself 3,70 euros in the process. I occasionally march up and down the hills around Annecy, and I didn’t find much in Lisbon that put me off walking. The other tourists, lazy lot, seemed to enjoy riding the trams though.
Eventually I found a restaurant-stroke-bar where I was shown to a small balcony overlooking a square filled with off-duty fire engines on which sat a high table that wobbled more than the local economy. I was starving but wanted to try a cold, white port as an aperitif (it having been recommended by Mr Worstall). That came and it was good, and I drank it while waiting for a codfish pie to be baked (or defrosted). When that came I tucked in and it was good, but I needed another drink and so I asked the waitress for a local beer. She had no idea what I was on about and she’d swiped the menu when I’d ordered the fish pie, and so she enlisted the help of the barman.
“We’ve got Stella,” he said.
So much for local beer; Belgian would have to do. The bill came to about 12 euros.
I wandered around some more, slowly making my way back towards the hotel, when off a side-street I spotted a tapas bar. In I went and sat down at a table and decided at these prices I could afford two dinners, and so ordered a bottle of water, a local beer (actually, it might have been Spanish), and a bowl of deep-fried potatoes in hot sauce. I sat there and drank and munched and read my book; the place wasn’t busy, perhaps because it was 10pm on a Thursday night. I asked for the bill and it came to 11 euros. I was beginning to like Portugal: the beer alone would have cost that in Paris.
The next morning I got up bright and early, packed away a plate or two of cooked breakfast and some oversweet coffee from an automatic machine, then walked to the foot of the hill on which Sao Jorge castle sits. I tapped in a walking route on Google maps and off I trudged, following winding lanes and climbing flights of stairs as I ascended ever-upwards. At one point the route took me through a very dodgy back alley filled with young men stood around doing nothing in particular, more than one of whom looked to be on drugs and another seemingly in the middle of taking them. This was sometime between ten and eleven in the morning. There was I weaving between them with my Canon SLR just waiting to be mugged, but this boy didn’t live seven years in Manchester and not learn a thing or two about carrying a camera in the manner of a housebrick and walking fast with a sense of purpose akin to somebody on his way to confront a neighbour over rumours involving his teenage daughter. I got left alone.
The view from the castle was spectacular, and I spent a fair bit of time up there exploring the battlements and taking photos. For a while I just sat down and looked at the view. There was a cool breeze when I was there, but I could imagine it got red-hot in summer. The castle apparently features a camera obscura that allows tourists a 360-degree view of the city, but this was closed on the day I went. I have no idea why.
The Sao Jorge castle done, I pondered where to go next. I decided on the Belém Tower located some 10km down the estuary towards the sea. Rather than fanny about with public transport I called an Uber and got picked up by a chap who prattled on about his transport company that was started by he and three of his mates all of whom used to be drivers for the Portuguese air force. Apparently individuals can’t register as Uber drivers in Portugal, they need to form a company, and these lot did and…well, I stopped listening. I did get to look at some of the sights along the way though, the main one of which was the April 25th Bridge which used to be called the Salazar Bridge and is likened to the Golden Gate Bridge because it is a suspension bridge of roughly the same colour. The dominance of the bridge in terms of height, span, and arterial importance reminded me of the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in Istanbul. What is it with these people and (re)naming bridges with dates? It interested me to see that the bridge in Lisbon was double-decked with a lower section carrying trains that was retrofitted, albeit to an original design that had allowed for it. Large scale structural engineering never fails to impress me.
My driver dropped me (8 euros later) at the Belém Tower where I set about taking photos. I didn’t bother going up the tower itself, I couldn’t see that it would supply any view better than the quite splendid one I was enjoying right beside it. The weather was still gorgeous.
My Uber driver had told me there was a military museum close by and I wandered over to take a look. It cost 4 euros to enter and I did so purely because there was an exhibition on the independence wars in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. I didn’t know a lot about these conflicts, and although the exhibition wasn’t very extensive I got the basics which appeared to be as follows: António de Oliveira Salazar really didn’t want to give up these colonies and bankrupted the country trying to hang onto them. They seemed to be mercifully light on massacres and overall loss of life (at least insofar as the Portuguese were concerned) but nevertheless they were committing 1.3 million soldiers to these places some 15 years after every other European power had surrendered their colonies. Little wonder there was a revolution back home in 1974. All of this was new to me. I appeared to be the only other visitor in the museum and so I was free to fiddle with artillery pieces and poke my head into the opened hatches of armoured cars. To be honest, the Portuguese military doesn’t look up to much. One of their displays concerned anti-piracy operations off the horn of Africa and they’d even put up a mannequin dressed as a Somali pirate complete with a battered pair of jeans and an AK-47. I would have said a 1997 Arsenal away strip would have been more authentic than a plain grey t-shirt with holes in it, but it wasn’t a bad effort anyway.
I left the museum and walked along the promenade in the direction of Lisbon, and stopped in a tented restaurant along the way. I ordered some sort of tagliatelle with truffles and ham which turned out to be pretty good, washed down with a beer. Lemon pie and coffee followed and I paid about 20 euros – this was a premium location and a posh joint to boot – and waddled on my way. The next stop was the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a large stone monument with figurines of all the various people that contributed to what is known as the Portuguese Age of Discovery. I was impressed by this monument, both for the subject and design.
I had always assumed that Vasco da Gama was the most prominent Portuguese explorer and hence he would assume the head position on the monument, but it turns out Henry the Navigator hailed from Porto. With a name like that I assumed he was from somewhere near Ipswich. Anyway, whilst I may have no idea who would win a straight-up map-off between Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator the Portuguese plainly do because they’d set the latter at head of the monument with the former a couple of places behind him. My flippancy aside, you have to stand and admire the Portuguese for what they contributed to seafaring exploration, and I did just that.
By now I was drawing a general impression of the Portuguese, at least those I saw around me in Lisbon. They came across as very friendly, helpful people. Most spoke English, sort of. Enough for me, anyway. At the risk of sounding horrible, I got the impression that what they lacked in high intellect they made up for with hard work. Compared to Paris where intellectuals sit in cafes discussing the failings of Capitalism while dog shit lies uncleared on the pavement, people in Lisbon seemed to be doing stuff rather than merely talking about it in lofty terms. The place looked poor though, and this was particularly obvious when I took the train out through the suburbs of Benfica and others on my way to Sintra the next day. There were a lot of decrepit housing blocks covered in graffiti, and many areas the train passed through looked run down. But not the city centre itself, that looked nice and clean. The other thing I liked was even though it was a popular tourist destination, it didn’t feel like one. Maybe it was the time of year, but there weren’t gangs of people hassling you for one thing or another, and there was also a distinct lack of people who looked like pickpockets. I still don’t think Lisbon can match Paris as a tourist destination, but compared to Barcelona – which everyone raves about – it knocks it into a cocked hat. Yeah, I liked Lisbon and the people in it.
Once I was done with the Padrão dos Descobrimentos I crossed the road and headed for the Jerónimos Monastery, at which point I thought “Fuck it, I can’t be bothered”. I don’t find monasteries particularly interesting, and Lord knows I’ve been around enough of them, and there were rows of tourist coaches parked outside and I didn’t fancy fighting my way through crowds to see small artifacts of much religious significance but alas no interest to me. Plus, mid-afternoon was approaching and it was getting hot. I decided to take an Uber back to my hotel and take a nap. And this is what I loved about both Uber and Lisbon: 8 or 9 euros would get you anywhere, and this was a lot better way of getting around than finding a bus or getting a regular taxi. I’d tap in my destination and within a few minutes there was a car, right there. I don’t know what I’d have done in the days before Uber, but I am glad such a service is available now. I did balls up slightly, though: a friend had recommended the best place to eat a pastel de nata – a Portuguese custard pie – as being the Pastéis de Belém, which I later discovered was right beside the spot I stood waiting for my Uber. I never did get to eat one of them, there or anywhere else.
That evening I walked back towards town and passed by the Hard Rock Cafe in order to buy a souvenir for a friend of mine who collects these things. It didn’t escape my attention that in a place which is known to be a rip-off no matter where in the world it is located, there were nonetheless two queues five people deep. Somebody is making money here, hand over fist. I strolled along to the Santa Justa Lift intending to go up in it, but after standing in a giant queue for ten minutes or so I abandoned the idea and just walked up the street instead. I found a terrace bar just opposite which didn’t offer as good as view as the top of the elevator would have, but given I’d been up to the Sao Jorge castle that morning and seen the whole of Lisbon laid out before me, I didn’t think I was missing out particularly. I did get some nice photos, though.
I drank a slightly vile signature cocktail in the terrace bar and then walked up a long, sloping street looking for a place to eat. I hovered outside one, then another, and finally settled on a dodgy-looking joint with about as much class as a Parisian tabac. This would do me, I thought. I was ushered past three old men hunched over the bar into a dining area that would seat sixty people and I had all to myself. A waiter who looked as if he’d come from central casting on a film featuring lots of Inca natives handed me a greasy menu and scampered off. He returned later and took my order of ham with Portuguese cheese (starter), grilled dourada (main course), and house white wine (lubricant). I fiddled with my phone until he returned with my starter, which had plenty in terms of volume and probably contained only a kilogram of salt in total. It was nice. Then came the fish, and here I spared a thought for my Malaysian mate who is forever complaining about the way Europeans cook fish, i.e. by boiling it for so long that all taste disappears leaving behind a soggy white mess. Not so the Portuguese, who grill their fish in much the same way the Asians do. I dropped a text message to my mate begging for an exception to be made, and he – having visited Lisbon himself on three occasions previously – did just that. I don’t remember what the bill came to but it wasn’t much.
Next I went back to the tapas bar I’d been in the night before, and immediately the young waiter who’d served me said “Nice to see you again!” Apparently in Portugal this means we were sufficiently close friends that when he returned with my order of Jack Daniels it came in what looked like a pint glass with the bottom two inches filled. I was beginning to like Portugal a lot. I drank a few of these, sat as I was at a bar stool made from a fake wine barrel. I noticed there were smokers in the bar, and they were smoking inside, and there was even a cigarette machine over in the back near the toilet. I don’t know if they were breaking any laws Portuguese or European in doing so but even though I dislike smoke I was heartened by this blatant defiance of the puritanical trend that is making almost everywhere else so damned sterile. I drank some more jars of whisky and then stumbled home.
The next day I took the train from Lisbon’s Rossia station to the town of Sintra, a 45 minute ride away. The price of the ticket was 2,70 euros, which included the rechargeable card. Did I mention Portugal is cheap? The train was packed at 11am, filled with both tourists and locals. As I’ve said already, we passed through suburbs and towns that looked as run-down as any I’ve seen anywhere, proof that perhaps the whole of Portugal isn’t quite like what a tourist sees in Lisbon. But I wasn’t there to save the world, I came to see…well, I’m not sure what. Tim of the Worstall variety had suggested I go there, and a friend back in Paris mumbled something about “tiles”, but when I got there all I found was a weird white building, a big fuck-off castle on top of a hill, and a howling wind straight off the Atlantic Ocean. There was only one thing for it: climb the hill and see the castle, so I did that. It took me about an hour to get to the top, following footpaths signposted with directions to “The Moorish Castle”. I spent the next half an hour clambering over yet more battlements, taking photos, staying out of the wind, and not giving a damned about the history of the castle and anything other than the walls themselves and the view from atop they offered.
I went back to the entrance and was just wondering how I was going to get down to the town centre when a chap in an old Citroen 2CV waved five fingers at me, indicating the approximate fare per person for just such a journey. I leaped into the back and off we went down steep, winding roads clogged solid with tourist buses and other traffic, while the driver told me of his twenty years spent in Macau teaching tennis to wealthy Chinese who couldn’t play for shit. He recommended a place called the Quinta da Regaleira which I arrived at tired and starving and spent about three minutes walking around after I’d paid the entrance fee before sacking the whole thing off and walking the mile or two back to town. The sunken well was worth seeing though.
I bypassed the umpteen tourist-trap eateries and a hundred metres from the railway station found a restaurant that was packed full of Portuguese. I tucked into the bread and cheese which got dumped on my table when I arrived, and the little triangular pastry that arrived the same way, and ordered boar meat cooked in beer with chips and a gallon of Coke. The dish arrived after fifteen minutes swimming in grease, and it tasted just fine. Of a vegetable there was no sign, not even a dry, wrinkled lettuce leaf for effect. Good.
I paid the bill in a rush giving me a scant 6 minutes to catch the train, and thus I caused grave offence to the waiter who caught me on the way to the door and insisted I tried (for free) a pastry desert that he was holding on a saucer under my nose, and also some port. I would love to have tried both and then some more of the latter, probably, but that would have entailed another 45 minute wait for the next train. I was tired and wanted to get home, so I ran out the door and fought a short but vicious campaign against the ticket machine, leaving the waiter to bewail the impatience and rudeness of Brits (and marvel at the time he met the one who turned down free booze). I made the train with about 3 minutes to spare.
That evening I went back to the tapas bar again, where my waiter asked me if I wanted the same carafes of Jack Daniels he plied me with the night before. I declined politely and drank two mojitos, which were good. These I enjoyed alongside a plate of pork fried in herbs that was excellent, and a plate of chorizo cooked in cider. I paused for a minute and looked around, and saw there was as much Spanish paraphernalia on the walls as there was Portuguese. I asked one of the barmen whether the place was Spanish or Portuguese, and he held his hand horizontally, wiggled it, and said “a leetle of both”. It was a decent bar, and its website is here.
The next day involved another hotel breakfast, an Uber to the airport driven by a chatty fellow from Sao Paulo, and an effortless flight back to Paris. I liked Portugal, and I would like to go again. A lot of people have recommended Porto, including people in Lisbon. That sounds like the place to go next.
(The full collection of photos taken on my trip to Portugal can be seen here.)