Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Exhaustive Lisbon

Okay, so, before you get the minutiae on Lisbon, you need to know two things.  First, Kelly and I did no planning whatsoever.  We had no expectations, no agenda, no prior knowledge as to what Lisbon is about.  Second - and I now admit this without hesitation - we are both spatially challenged.  Can you guess where this is going?  Alright.  Everybody ready?  And GO!

Not long ago, I realized that since I'm only here for six months, I have a limited number of weekends available to me, and that I should make the most of them as soon as possible.  I have two lists:  places I MUST visit before I leave, and place I'd like to see if possible, places that would be good "fillers."  Though I'd always thought it would be cool to visit, Lisbon was on the second list (behind Rome, Paris, Never-Never Land, etc. on the first).  Because Europe is so wonderfully compacted, travel is wonderfully cheap, and when I first looked at fares, flights were 19E.  Unfortunately, when Kelly and I actually decided to go, they'd gone up a bit, but not enough to cancel our trip.

So we got on the plane, buckled in for an hour flight, and began to realize to what extent we were winging it.  Did we speak Portuguese?  Not a word.  Did we know anything about Lisbon? Not a bit.  Kelly had a good guide book (I'd recommend Let's Go over Lonely Planet any day) and we'd both read it without much comprehension.  The only thing that kept seeming to surface was pastry shop after famous pastry shop.  Good!  we decided.  We'll frame our trip around food!  And then we landed.

The airport bus took us to the center of the city (at least, that's where we hoped we were going) and from there we'd take the Metro one stop toward our hostel.  That was the plan, and by sheer luck or Providence or whatever you want to thank, it worked!  On the way, we came to several startling realizations.  First and foremost, one of the initial sights was a yellow TROLLEY connected and sandwiched between two buildings.  What? Random.  Oh no, my friends, not random.  As it turns out, trollies make up a major part of old Lisbon's mass transportation system.

We were delighted.

And then we turned down a street toward our hostel.  It Y-ed off in two directions and had a cajun-looking house in the middle, built upon another layer of houses.  I would try to express how overwhelmed and enchanted we were, but you cannot possibly understand.  It was beautiful, interesting, lovely, cultured, and most of all, unexpected.

Our hostel, Oasis, turned out to be one of the Top 10 Hostels in Europe.  Who knew.  It was wonderful. We were greeted by the owner who stowed our bags until we returned to check in in the evening.  He also invited us to partake of the breakfast upstairs - free.  And then he took out a map and outlined a 2-3 hour walking tour of the east side of old Lisbon.

Well, two to three hours... that's what he said.  I'd say both of us are fairly intelligent and fairly well-traveled, so we listened attentively as he explained how to get places and as he traced the routes we should take, notating on the sides of the maps various points of interest, and off we went.

That's when we realized we were both spatially challenged.  Now then, in my previous adventures, I mixed my map-reading prowess (I say that ironically) with intuition, a basic sense of direction, and a bit of luck, and I magically arrived where I needed to.  In fact, this had become a point of pride for me, and if you were to hand me a map and say, here, find your way to Atlantis, I probably would have grinned and started off without a second thought.

Something happened in Lisbon.

All those qualities disappeared.

Oh, did I mention that Lisbon consists of pure circles in their roads?  Hmmm I'm looking at a map right now, and that doesn't seem to be the case as I'm sitting here safe in Madrid, but I'm telling you, one traveller to another, those roads CHANGE!  Like the staircases at Hogwarts, not even joking.  Streets that should have been there weren't, or they magically ended up on the opposite side of where they should have been.  Cathedrals and monasteries swapped places like a giant game of musical chairs.  The map in our hands twirled about as we tried to locate ourselves, and it refused to point North. The only things that were reliable were the trolly tracks.  They roughly followed the path we were supposed to take, so we followed them and arrived at the real Cathedral a couple hours later.  Keep in mind that we are still only about 1/4 of the way through our walk.  How long was this supposed to take?  No, that's okay, I don't remember either.

So the cathedral.  Neither of us were sure why it was so important (we Wikipedia'd it later), but we decided to stop by anyway.  It was pretty, but sadly, most cathedrals begin to look the same after a while.  There was an extra cloister tour, though, for only 2 euros, so we decided to try it out, not knowing what to expect.

It was a surprise, then, to walk outside and see major excavation endeavors underway.  Apparently, there is a whole Roman town submerged in the area.  Silly Romans, I thought, always building under cathedrals.  Sheesh.  It was fascinating to see, though.  A diagram explained which parts were stores and houses, which were wells and streets, and an old, perfectly round stone wheel leaned against a wall.  Again, unexpected delights.

By this time, we were hungry.  From the cloister, we'd noticed a restaurant on a corner street, so we decided to check it out.  It was a bit expensive so we kept looking and stumbled upon what might be the coolest place I have ever eaten.  It was a nondescript door slightly open, with the menu posted inside.  Inside... it was cavernous and airy.  Couches and coffee tables crowded the floor, as well as larger tables and high bar tables.  Books lined both walls, as well as board games and interesting knickknacks.  It was the perfect environment to eat lunch, study, enjoy a pastry, or prepare a global assault.  And the food was delicious... hake with cheddar and potatoes... mmm.

From there, we just happened to stumble upon one of the famous pastry shops Let's Go had mentioned.  Of course we stopped.  Coffee and custard pastries... it was good but not quite what we'd wanted.  Lisbon is famous for pure custard pastries and these had some sort of gelatin fruit fillings we weren't wild about.  Fortified, we forged on.

Lucky for us, the next part of the map was through the commercial district, which had been wiped out by an earthquake a while ago.  For that reason, they rebuilt it on a grid system.  We didn't get lost once.  Many of the stores we saw were also hosted in Spain, so we didn't stop, though all of the shoe stores were having tremendous sales and it was hard to pass up.

The hostel guy, foreseeing that we might be tired at this point, had told us that Portugal has a signature drink, ginga, a cherry liqueur, and that there were several ginja joints around this part of town, and that it would liven us back up.

Boy, was he right.  So we find one such bar and don't even have to fumble our way through Portuguese pronunciation.  We just held up our fingers like a shot glass and the bartender guessed what we wanted.  He poured us two shots and watched.  Wait, we said, do we drink it all at once, like a shot?  No, he said with a smile, drink it slowly.  Oh, did I mention the place was full, FULL of men?

It burned.  Burrrrrrned.  Not to mention it was rather tart.  The men erupted when they saw our faces.  It wasn't bad, though, so we downed them dutifully and departed.  It was an experience, we agreed... another unexpected moment.

After that, we followed our map some more and got lost several times. Really, we followed it to a T.  I have no idea how we kept ending up in the wrong place.  Sneaky staircases!  (There were a lot of stairs, in fact.  Lisbon seems to be built on a mountain.)  We weren't far from the hostel and, after finding a fabulous, quaint cupcake place and sharing a red velvet cupcake, we headed back.


Our hostel, Oasis, had been highly recommended to us by Will, my co-worker.  Kelly's guidebook mentioned it as well and said it turned into a bar in the evenings.  So true. I hardly recognized the place from the quite breakfast we'd had that morning.  It was hopping.  We'd been given two free drink passes upon check-in, and the bartender eagerly introduced us to Portuguese sangria (with cinnamon, interestingly... better than Spanish!) as well as a Portuguese almond/mint drink.  Meh.  Experiences, experiences, I still got tired them after half a glass. (This amazes Will, by the way - that I never finish drinks.  He does it for me. However, as he wasn't with us, the bartender seemed mildly insulted I didn't drink it all.  Oh well...).  The crowd was a lively mix of fellow travelers and locals who drop in to mix with the backpacker crowd.  

As it was a Friday night, most were drinking.  Dinner fit in there somewhere about an hour later than originally specified - authentic Portuguese, it was delicious and worth the wait.  Everyone around us (mostly Germans oddly, and one memorable Canadian) provided interesting conversation, albeit at varying levels of inebriation.  I'm still not sure how to explain the magnetic appeal standing around and people-watching seems to have.  I say this without pride but a small sense of amusement.  I had a constant stream of conversations that ranged from trying to explain what 'graduate' means in English to why many Oklahomans aren't keen on gun control.  Oh yes, it was an interesting night indeed.  By some miracle, Kelly and I managed to make an exit by 1am, a long day when you woke up at 5:45.  The party was right below us, but we slept fitfully.

It was raining.  Pouring, actually.  Within five steps out the door, we were soaked, even with an umbrella.

Thanks for the picture, Kelly!
We had decided to go to the northwest side of Lisbon, to Belem.  It had the most famous pastry shop (the one that's been around since 1837) and was the place all the Portuguese explorers set out from.

It was raining.

We took a tram there, but the distance from the bus stop to the shop drenched us again and we entered, dripping.  (Correction, I was dripping.  Kelly had rain boots and was just damp.)  Their custard pastries, Pasche de Belem, made life happy again.

It was still raining.

For lack of better plans, we decided to go to Centro Cultural a free museum, not knowing what to expect.  It turned out to be an amazing modern art museum.  The first exhibit we stumbled onto was on cartography.  We weren't expecting much, but it was fascinating.  More on that in a different post though.  The second was a collection of other art pieces, a few of which I'd seen before in textbooks and such.  Again, an unexpectedly good time!  By the time we were finished, I was almost dry... except for my shoes and socks.

Lunch at a Pao Pao Queijo Queijo rounded off a pleasant morning, and we headed back to check out and go to the airport.  As it turns out, our flight was delayed an hour.  Tired zombies, we sat down to wait.  While waiting, we started counting up trip costs, positive that we were going to be out quite a bit given the amount of fun we'd had.  But, holy moly, including lodging but not the plane ticket, we had spent less than 80 Euros the whole time!  We had spent more on souvenirs!  Unbelievable.  It was tragic to be leaving. We were hopeful that a volcano had hit Spain and the flight would just be cancelled.  That's okay, though, we'll be back... our Canadian friend owes us a drink ;)

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