Lisbon came highly recommended by all the friends and colleagues who had visited it before me; so when I boarded my flight from London, two weeks ago, I felt confident I would enjoy my time there. I was prepared to like Lisbon a lot, but didn’t expect to fall for it at first sight, and remain lovestruck well after leaving.
Its streets, packed tight with buildings in various states of splendour and decay, reminded me of Rome – only less frenetic. Its wide shopping avenues bore resemblance with Barcelona’s Rambla; here, though, the siren’s call of souvenir shops and tourist traps isn’t as loud. The narrow alleys of Bairro Alto, with their lively cocktail bars, brought back memories of Padova, the small town in North-Eastern Italy where I spent three years as a uni student. Wandering around in search of a place to have tapas and cocktails felt like being nineteen again, hopping from one crowded bar to the other to meet friends, drink, unwind. That makes Lisbon three cities I love rolled up into one, topped with a distinctive character that makes it even more endearing. Here are three things that struck me about it; I hope they inspire you to take a trip there and see for yourself.
1) Shining colours, stunning views
Lisbon is always bright from blinding sunlight. Be prepared to approach it with your sunglasses on, even when it’s raining; and when it’s not, its colours will be the first thing to catch your eye. Blocks of flats with lines of washing hanging outside the windows live alongside richly decorated facades, made with characteristic coloured tiles called azulejos (a style that dates back to the 15th century, I learnt). Some are really well kept; some carry the unforgiving marks of time, together with layers of dust and the hints of a lack of care; all of them are stunningly beautiful.
If you climb to one of Lisbon’s viewpoints (Miradouros), and look down at the city unfolding below, you’ll see its colours blend together in a shining mosaic. The Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara helps you get your head around the layout of the city: the Tagus river to your right, Sao Jorge’s castle in front of you, modern office and hotel buildings to your left. The Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the castle, regales you with a landscape that seems to come straight out of a postcard from a sunny Greek isle. And the view from Parque Eduardo VII, overlooking a huge grass labyrinth and directing your gaze straight down to the river – well, you gotta see it to believe it.
2) Surprises at every corner
Even if you don’t know much about Lisbon before arriving, it’ll take no time to find a sight or activity that suits your taste. Whether you enjoy visiting museums, soaking up as much history as you can, browsing the stalls in a food market, or simply taking a walk in a nice park, you’re bound to find something you’ll enjoy.
Public transport will take you everywhere easily and cheaply, but if you manage to stay in a central location, you won’t need buses and trams much. Walking is the best way to explore Lisbon; that’s not to say you’re in for an easy stroll, as the city is set on a steep hill. Take a pair of comfortable shoes (my Converse held their own, although they didn’t take well to slippery stones on rainy days), and prepare to climb up and down cobblestone streets and open-air flights of stairs more than once a day. Beautiful landscapes, interesting shops and tempting restaurants can crop up in the most unexpected places, which you’d never see from a bus window; however much your legs ache in the evening, the things you’ll discover will be worth the effort. And don’t give up: the only way to get over the pain fast is to keep walking!
3) A lifestyle worth living
Lately, I’ve caught myself cherishing a slower pace, a less hectic lifestyle. That’s probably why I instantly warmed up to the Portuguese way of life, similar to the Italian way, only more relaxed. At all times of the day, you can find locals sitting outside cafes, sipping on their drinks with the intent look that gives away they don’t plan to leave any soon. Many businesses close in the middle of the day to allow for a leisurely lunch break, and on warm evenings, people hang out in the city centre until late.
There’s an open, generous side to all the Portuguese people I know – and now I’ve had a glimpse into the culture they grew up in, I understand where it comes from. In a place like London, kindness often takes time to surface: to find it in others, you have to peel off layers of disgruntlement and preoccupation first. I keep experiencing on my own skin how hard it is to build lasting relationships here; could it be true that making a meaningful contact with other humans is less challenging somewhere else?
Take these comments with a pinch of salt. While I know what it means to grow up in a country struck by economic crisis, it’s also true that I’ve been watching that space from a distance in the past few years. Are people in Lisbon as peaceful and laid-back as I saw them during my stay? I can’t tell; hardships and dissatisfaction lie in ambush everywhere. Then again, as they say, the grass is always greener on the other side. So, yeah – more Portuguese warmth, and less British I-won’t-talk-to-you-unless-I-have-a-reason-to attitude, please. If there’s a recipe for happiness, I’m sure this is an ingredient.
Wait, there’s more!
Portuguese food would fit perfectly into this list of favourites, and yet, you’ll notice I’ve barely mentioned it so far. Fear not! I’m planning a few more posts about it.
If you like what you’ve seen so far, I’ll also be creating a new photo album on Flickr, with more pictures from my trip – so keep an eye on these pages, I’ll be spreading even more Lisbon love very soon.