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An Iberian Exploration: Lisbon

After our son Ian was born a few weeks premature in 2013, we had to put travel on hold for a few months and focus on helping him catch up with his weight and his milestones. By the time he was six months old it was pretty clear that he hadn't suffered any serious injury and was ready to join his sister Cleo as a world traveler. We were desperate to go back to Europe but the only problem was that it was now winter and we didn't want the additional stress of freezing weather. We had to find the most temperate place in Europe that would also provide us with an interesting itinerary. It quickly became clear that we would be going to Portugal and southern Spain. I remembered that when I visited Andalusia as a child we had taken the ferry over to Tangier in Morocco and thought that was doable. When I investigated Morocco more deeply I realized that Tangier wouldn't even begin to give us an appreciation of what appeared to be an amazing country. We expanded the itinerary to include an ambitious train journey to Fes and Marrakesh. It was the first of many times that we would let our curiosity overcome our trepidations on a road trip.

I'd been to Western Europe countless times with my parents and on my own, but somehow never made it to Portugal before. It felt good to dust off my Portuguese phrasebook again five years after its last use in Brazil. This would be our first time renting a car in Europe as well but we felt confident we could navigate the roads with an unlocked smartphone, a local SIM, and Google Maps. The only problem was that there weren't any stores open to sell us a SIM card at the Lisbon airport. We weren't too worried, since we still had navigation and the map from the rental agency. We did pretty well at first, getting into the center of the city without too much difficulty. Once we were in the area of the hotel we ran into the problem that has subsequently plagued us many times in Western Europe. While the main streets may appear modern and wide, one ill-advised turn can quickly place you into a maze of narrow alleys that are only suited for a miniature car. Trying to navigate those streets with a full-size sedan was a nightmare. At one point we found a twisting road that I crawled up at a snails pace with minimal clearance at every curve only to reach a retractable bollard obstructing our exit. I was forced to retrace our path the entire way down, with Mei Ling walking outside the car to help guide me through the curves. It was an incredibly slow and painstaking process but miraculously the car made it through unscathed. We got ourselves back out on the main street with frayed nerves just as a downpour began. We reached a large square with minimal traffic and I parked at the side of the road to ask directions. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw the sign for our hotel less than a hundred yards away. The desk staff brought umbrellas and helped me bring Mei Ling and the kids to safety with a minimum of drenching, after which I found the parking garage underneath the square. Once we'd finally settled all we had energy for was dinner near the hotel and then a bath for Mei Ling and the kids before bedtime.

Having learned our lesson about driving in Lisbon immediately, we began our exploration of Lisbon on foot. We had a brisk walk to Mercado da Ribeira by the bank of the Tagus Estuary. The Tagus River, or Tejo in Portuguese, is the longest river in the Iberian peninsula. It begins humbly in the Sierra de Albarracín of Aragon and meanders through iconic Spanish cities such as Toledo and Talavera de la Reina before bisecting Portugal and emptying into its estuary northeast of Lisbon. The Tagus provides Lisbon with a harbor sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean, which made Lisbon an important port for the Romans and helped Portugal launch the Age of Discovery in the 16th century. The estuary is also one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

The neighborhood close to the water was full of classic, charmingly dilapidated apartments and cafes on cobblestone streets. Some of the buildings had the iconic tiled facades and wrought iron balconies that are emblematic of Lisbon. The market itself was slightly disappointing, a rather low-energy affair without much in the way of unusual food. Unfortunately our visit occurred only a few months before the market was renovated with the addition of a Time Out food hall.

We worked our way back inland through the Chiado neighborhood. Many of the buildings here had beautiful and colorful facades that were in much better shape than the ones around the market. Although this is one of the busiest areas in Lisbon during the tourist season we had it largely to ourselves in the coolness of winter. Mei Ling couldn't resist sampling the product of a sidewalk chestnut roaster.

One of Lisbon's nicknames is The City of Seven Hills, and we were to learn that as in San Francisco the city's hills are not to be taken lightly. It seems quite a number of people were weary of the ascent from the sea level commercial center of Baixa to the hilltop neighborhood of Bairro Alto so at the dawn of the 20th century the city constructed a forty-five meter elevator from Baixa to Largo do Carmo. The Neo-Gothic iron Elevador de Santa Justa has become one of the iconic sights of Lisbon. One of the advantages of visiting Lisbon in February was that we did not have to endure the legendary wait to ascend. After just ten or fifteen minutes we were on the observation platform with incredible views of the city in every direction. My favorite was the jumble of red roofs in Baixa with Alfama and Castelo de São Jorge in the background. On the opposite side was the eerie Gothic ruin of the Convento do Carmo, abandoned since an earthquake in 1755.

On our second morning we tackled Alfama, the original Lisbon of the Middle Ages. The neighborhood is a web of narrow lanes that ascend the São Jorge hill towards the Castelo. We followed our navigation which provided us with a circumferential route up the back of the hill to the Miradouro da Graça at the summit. It was a much more grueling climb than we had anticipated but the views from the terrace of the little park were spectacular. The haphazard rows of multicolored buildings topped by roofs in various shades of red and orange looked more like a giant Lego model built by a madman than a genuine city.

We commenced a somewhat sloppy exploration of Alfama that was cut short by rain. We toured the Castelo de São Jorge with its impressively dense medieval fortifications and towers. The former palace inside is mostly in ruins and has been largely replaced by a collection of gardens. To the east we encountered the 16th century Church of São Vicente of Fora, whose architectural style has been variously described as Romanesque or Mannerist. The facade is notable for ornate alcoves containing detailed statues of saints.

Further along we came across the National Pantheon, whose enormous white dome makes it an instantly recognizable feature of the Alfama backdrop. The edifice began its existence as a church which was desecrated and partially destroyed in the mid 17th century. It took three hundred years to complete the construction of the Pantheon, which now serves as a final resting place for many of Portugal's most venerated citizens.

In the morning we drove to another market outside of the center to purchase ingredients for a self-catered dinner. This was a much more lively scene than we had encountered at Mercado da Ribeira and even the seafood looked fresher and tastier. I've forgotten the name of the market but here's a good list that includes the ones outside of the center. From what I can determine, Mercado da Ribeira has been greatly improved since our visit under the management of Time Out with the addition of a food hall.

After whetting our appetites at the market we headed to Cervejaria Ramiro for lunch. This was already a local favorite before it was featured on Anthony Bourdain's travel show, but afterwards it moved to a whole different level of popularity. Fortunately we arrived at the very beginning of the Portuguese lunch interval or we may not have made it in, but as it was we were shown to a table in the corner fairly quickly. Unlike some seafood restaurants that stick to the basics, Ramiro offered many of the most exotic specialties of Portuguese waters including scarlet shrimp, crab soup served in its shell, and best of all percebes. We had seen these unusual edible barnacles in the markets and were thrilled at the opportunity to try them, despite their intimidating price. They had a pleasantly firm texture and were a little more salty than I would have liked, but they were fun to eat.

We spent the afternoon at Oceanário de Lisboa, one of Europe's premier aquariums. Cleo was just old enough to appreciate some of the displays, especially the penguins and the impressive central tank with enormous rays and sunfish.

In the evening we returned to Alfama where my brother was now staying in an Airbnb with his family, having made a detour in his own European vacation itinerary to meet us. I was chagrined to learn there was an elevator an easy walk from our hotel that went straight up to the Castelo. Our long slog up the back side of the hill the prior day had been for nothing. We were really impressed with the Airbnb, a modern and spacious two bedroom apartment with a well-equipped kitchen right in the middle of Lisbon's most walkable and historic neighborhood. Best of all, it was about half the price of our hotel room. We had stayed in Airbnb's before in the US but had no idea it was such a viable option internationally as well. This was a watershed moment in our traveling because we were just arriving at the point where single room accommodations were no longer satisfactory and Airbnb was now a very economic choice with the ability to prepare our own meals as well. Mei Ling and my brother's wife went to work in the kitchen while the kids got acquainted. It was the first time Cleo had seen her cousins from China since she was six weeks old. Cooking dinner for ourselves in Europe was a great new experience.

The next morning we left Lisbon, but before we began the coastal drive south we stopped at a couple of historical sites in the western district of Belém. The Belém Tower is one of the most recognizable features of Lisbon, an ornately decorated limestone fortification at the bank of the Tagus that resembles a miniature fairy tale castle. Although it was constructed to defend to port of Lisbon from invaders in the early 16th century, over the centuries it became recognized as the ceremonial gateway to the city for those arriving by sea. This was probably the longest line we endured in Lisbon and we wouldn't have missed much by skipping the tower's interior, although the view of the river from the upper terrace is quite good.

The Jerónimos Monastery is just a short walk from the tower. Like the tower, the monastery is constructed in the Manueline style named for the Portuguese monarch who ordered its construction. The ornate facade blends many contemporary architectural movements with nautical themes intended to honor the country's oceanic exploits. Everything about the monastery was intricately decorated with sculpture, from the entryway to the church pillars to the cloisters.

Lisbon had given us a very good start to our road trip. It's a beautiful city with a great deal of antiquated charm and plenty of interesting areas to explore. I think visiting in winter may have given us an impression of a less vibrant city than we would have gotten in the summer, but on the other hand it was nice to see things in their natural state without being overrun by tourists. Years later we visited Porto and thought it was much more impressive than Lisbon. Of course Porto is a very different city with the river running through the middle and all the action along the banks, but it seemed to have that special kind of energy and vitality that we weren't overwhelmed with in Lisbon. Perhaps we'll be back in Lisbon again one day in the spring or fall and we'll have a better atmosphere for comparison with the other great European cities.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in Portugal

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I love Lisbon and have been there twice. I would gladly return again BUT I would never try driving there. Those hills and narrow streets are fascinating but I would not want to try and navigate.

I also the experience you are giving your children even at their young ages.

by littlesam1

We were lucky to make it out. It is easy to imagine an alternate reality where we ended up having to call for roadside service less than an hour after picking up the car because we had wedged ourselves into a spot we could not extract ourselves from. We've made that same mistake a half dozen times since then in Southern Europe.

by zzlangerhans

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