We had never been to Portugal. We had heard differing opinions about Portugal. One view of course was that Portugal is fantastic. Another said that as compared to the rest of Europe, Portugal was cheap. Frankly is “cheap” a reason to visit a country? To me that sounds like a foolish reason. There was a view by a person whom we both respect, who said that Portugal was rather run down, and not really worth your money. This divergence in opinions was why we had not planned a visit to Portugal. But then, since 2017 is the year of taking the bull by the horns – what with a visit to NYC – we thought; let’s go to Portugal! Research showed that Lisbon and Porto were the two must-visit cities. So bookings were made and off we went.
Now a quiz for you. Name a few famous Portuguese citizens. Please try and stay away from footballers – everyone knows Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho and Nani. How about the singer Nelly Futardo or Nuno Bettencourt guitarist of Extreme or Carmen Miranda the actress or Rosa Mota the famous female marathon runner or Vasco Da Gama the explorer. We in Mumbai probably have a lot to thank the Portuguese for. After all Mumbai was given in dowry to the English by the Portuguese on the marriage of Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal to Charles II of England. So we are what we are because of the Portuguese!
We flew into Lisbon from Heathrow. London was a relatively balmy 20C when we left. Landing in Portugal we were hit by 31C at 7 pm! The difference in temperature was not pleasant. A relatively uneventful, and thoroughly safe and regulated taxi ride brought us to our hotel. No cheating, no rigging meters no ‘I am lost’ and other excuses. Check in, unpacking and off we went for dinner.
The next day we started our “tourism” of Lisbon. We were in Lisbon for 4 full days which we think was enough. Lisbon is a large city. Lisbon is set on seven hills so you should be prepared to trudge up and gambol down slopes several times a day. Lisbon was HOT, I mean temperature wise. Walking, climbing, visiting tourist sights is hot work. You will sweat like a pig. You will get irritated, thirsty and not be a happy bunny at the end of the day. It is hot hard work being a tourist in Lisbon. To compound the problem they have absolutely terrible maps. They are made by children with ADHD imagining how to go from place to place. Roads on maps have no names, they merge into each other at will, alleys, roads, and streets all have the same names with a different prefix. If you think getting lost is par for the course in Tokyo, Lisbon takes getting lost several notches higher. Here you really get lost.
Taxis are reasonably cheap and affordable. Starting fare is 3.25 euro. The meter does not move very quickly. A 10 km ride would cost about 10 euro and that is a long ride. Most rides are between 5 to 8 euro. For some reason no taxi had any air-conditioning, at least it was never switched on. Come to think of it most restaurants and shops had no air-conditioning either. It was HOT. It was not humid but HOT.
The streets in the better parts of Lisbon were truly magnificent. Broad, really broad, and in true Latin fashion [I am unsure if I am using the correct word here - Latin. If there is a appropriate word do let me know] with one if not two pedestrian paths running thru the middle of the streets complete with café’s, kiosks and pretty seating areas. Much like the Ramblas and the roads in Madrid but much wider. The streets were punctuated with roundabouts in the middle of which stood large statues. Several plazas also had large statues and streets led from one to another. Building were generally older in design and some really beautiful. Narrow balconies with wrought iron railings. Typically Latin in architecture. Buildings were often beautifully painted in bright colours, yellows, greens blues and so on. The problem is that many of the buildings like in Mumbai are in a state of tremendous disrepair.
When in Lisbon you realize that this is not a wealthy country. The cars are more humble, taxis are cheap and Churches are relatively ordinary in so far as the internal “decoration” is concerned. Generally speaking it is ornate stone carving. Paintings stained glass windows and elaborate statues and sculptures are missing. Of course there is the Sao Roque Church which is the earliest Church for Jesuits. This was really elaborate with lots of Gold. All this was probably plundered from India.
As far as tourism in Lisbon is concerned there are basically 3 big must do things. One is a visit to the Castel Sao Jorge and its environs. This is a Moorish Castle built on the highest hill in Lisbon. In the same are you also have the Cathedral Se and the National Pantheon. This includes the Alfama area which is the oldest district of Lisbon. This should take the better part of the day. As I said it is hot work and clambering up and down with hopeless maps and non-existent street signs or sineage should help frustrating you.
The second big attraction is the Old Town or Barrio Alto and Chiado areas. Lots of quaint shops and restaurants. This is classic Alt Stadt which you see across Europe. The Lisbon authorities have a special tram No 28 which runs between these sights.
The next big attraction is the area known as Belem. Belem is about 10 kms from Lisbon city centre. You could hop into the 15 Tram which is a tourist special as it goes from city centre to Belem. This will cost you 3 Euro. You will be hot, it is as crowded as a Virar local at rush hour and you have the privilege of getting your pocket picked. Alternatively you could get into a taxi and pay 10 euro and pile 4 people in which makes it not only cheaper than the tram but makes perfect sense. This has the Belem Tower built into the sea as part of the fortification to protect the city. Belem also has the Jeronimos Monastery which is really quite beautiful though in the plain way. Then you get to eat the original Pastel De Nata or Portuguese Egg Tart. Of course the Tart is made all over but it was first made here. The story goes that the Monks used large amounts of egg white to starch their habits. Not knowing what to do with the yolks, some clever person mixed egg yolk and sugar from the nearby sugar mill and the Tart was born. Today the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém is still run by the descendants of the original owners of the sugar refinery. You should stand in line and get yourself a Tart. They are quite good. The Portuguese influence of the tart spread far. The Chinese in Singapore and Macau make exactly the same thing even today.
The last big attraction is a 40 minute train ride out or Lisbon to a place called Sintra. This is a hill station as we know them. This area is dotted with picture perfect castles, houses and palaces. The Moors built a castle which looks like a mini Great Wall of China. Sintra involves a huge amount of walking up and down hills. Huge amounts of steep walking, I kid you not. The problem with Sintra is best described by a phrase we used in school to categorise and describe girls – good from far but far from good. The Palaces and Moorish Castle look brilliant when you take a photograph from a distance. But up close and personal, they look tired and run down.
One sensible thing done in Portugal is the introduction of the Thai “Tuk Tuk” or our Auto Rickshaw. These are allowed to ply in the tourist areas like Sintra, Barrio Alto and Castel Sao Jorge. The drivers double up as tour guides. You should hop into one and do a tour. Believe me it’s good for your body. Trudging up those hills ceases to be fun after 45 minutes.
Now comes the most important question. How was Lisbon? Should we go? My answer. Probably not. You are getting much better value for money all around in most other European cities. Almost any Medieval town be it Sienna or Bruges, or Heidelberg or Prague and Rome and Florence and so on are far far prettier and enjoyable. If you are exhausted with European cities and towns you have America. Lisbon is really second class.