We have a strange sense of anticipation as we land in Lisbon. We’re always exited to go to new places and Portugal has long been a destination I’ve coveted, but for the first time in 14 years, we’re childless. Our three kids are all away at camp so the logistical issues of having them with us have been replaced by a new set. We’ve rented an international phone so that we can try keep in touch although that will unfortunately negate part of the experience of traveling without them, but that’s the way it’s going to be. At least we didn’t go completely crazy and fly separately (or eat at different appalling airport restaurants), just in case.
It’s Friday evening and getting dark as we arrive. We get a taxi to our hotel which is located in the Castel area. I’m glad I’m not driving because it looks impossible, through very narrow, winding streets, basically up what looks a lot like a mountain. But our taxi gets there easily, although he misses the entrance a few times as most buildings look exactly the same and there’s no sign on the door. we’re staying at a B&B, the Casa Costa do Castelo, which I’ve found on Tripadvisor. Forewarned, we know it will be at the top of a dinghy stairwell and it is, but inside it’s beautiful.
Our room is lovely, with a great view of the city. One slight problem is that there’s no air-conditioning. It’s not outrageously hot, but we will have a chocolate issue. On route at Heathrow we bought a few (ok, a lot) chocolates to take home. We could rather do this on the way back, but our connection is very tight, so I hedged by buying some more. I see now that their survival chances are very low.
Joao, the manager, who speaks some English, directs us to a restaurant a little way down the road. These are streets best negotiated in the daylight hours, at least at first, because it’s clear one could easily get lost. So we go to his recommendation and both have bacalhau as we’re supposed to.
Joao serves us a fabulous breakfast the next morning.Cheeses, fruits, pastries, coffee – it’s really good, and I don’t normally do much breakfast. Then we start trekking down the hill to explore. We first have to get to a telephone shop. We discovered last night that our international phone, our gateway to the world but mainly our children doesn’t work for some reason. We find a place and we buy a new charger and all is well.
Going down the Baixa hill is quick and easy and I’m trying to take it in for the return. We walk a lot, looking at the street vendors, buying our soccer crazy son a Portugal shirt , and eventually getting to the Praca Commercio, a big square fronted by impressive old buildings one of which houses the Tourist Information office with free internet. We go in, look for photos of our kids on the camp website, and move on.
We decide to go to Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s ‘rambling and ragged flea market ‘ (Rough Guide), one of those types of happenings we can’t resist. Although it’s baking hot we walk as the narrow, crowded streets of Alfama are old, interesting, teeming with life and generally unmissable. But it’s a tough hike, as we learn quickly that Lisbon is full of hills, most very challenging. When we eventually get to the market, we agree with the book that it’s mainly junk and we leave quickly.
We take the tram to Belem. We’re hungry, so head straight for Antiga Confeitaria to try the pasteis. It’s hard to miss as the line of patrons, probably all tourists reading the same Rough Guide as me, snakes around the building. The pasteis, a little tartlet filled with custard like cream is delicious and we get more. Then we head over to the Monumento dos Descobrimentos – Monument to the Discoveries. It has a very large statuelike structure of the most illustrious Portuguese seafaring discoverers and we go to the top from where there are very good views.
Then we walk over to the Torre de Belem, the old fort that was used to protect the city from would be invaders. The views again are excellent. We head back, past the great Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the 500 year old monastery most people feel is Lisbon’s finest monument (well Rough Guide says so). We witness (unofficially) some weddings before heading back to the city center.
We go on a couple of elevador rides (funicular like trams) up and down some very steep hills – I’m glad I’m not running them- and then look around for dinner. We’re almost completely lost, but we’re noticing people are incredibly helpful and friendly. We land up in the Bairro Alto where every place looks like a restaurant so we just choose one. We have fish, although not bacalhau – plenty more opportunity for that – before heading back to our B&B, exhausted.