“I see you, don’t move!” A flamboyant Portuguese man on the other side of the road was saying this to me on the phone. These three words which would normally make me jump out of my skin in a new country were blissful to hear after a long flight and the struggle to find the pick-up point for app-based taxis. Fernando, who was going to drive to my hotel in Lisbon had worked in the hotel industry earlier and that is where he got his flamboyance and fluent English from. He was just the right person to give me a crash course on how to make the best of my 2 days in Lisbon within the 20 minutes that it took to reach the hotel.
I saw the banks of the Tagus river before I could spot the hotel and I knew I had made the right decision to book this place. Just a 2 minute walk away from Praca Do Commercio and the Santa Justa elevator, the hotel Mera Prime Gold was the perfect place to stay. The Lisbon Square or the Rossio was on the other end of the street. The weather was really cold due to the Arctic winds with random showers followed by sunshine.
It was interesting to see the crowd on the streets disperse and come back every 10 minutes as the showers and sunshine oscillated.
The area near the Santa Justa Elevator is always crowded due to the many people craving to take the ride to the upper hill. The elevator looks like a tower but is connected to the upper hill with a corridor. As per some locals, for those just looking to get a feel of the elevator, it is actually better to go to the upper hill and ride the elevator down instead of the upward ride which is a lot more crowded by tourists.
As the name of the square suggests, The Praco De Commercio was a pretty central point with many tours to other destination beginning from there. It has also been classified as National Monument of Portugal and is really a nice place to hang around with a good view of the river and the statue of King Jose I.
Thearea nearPraco De Commercio is very lively with a lot of restaurants and shops. As the evening sets in, the staff of the various restaurants started laying the tables and umbrellas on the street with heaters to create warmth.
The menus were displayed in an inviting manner amidst décor baskets of wine and fruits. While sea food is really popular in Portugal, the grilled or fried cod fish is a must try. Coupled with Port Wine, as recommended by my friend Manish, this made for an ideal dinner. Port wine does taste stronger and sweeter than other wines. There are people playing music around the square which adds to its liveliness. The tram lime is easily accessible and takes you to practically everywhere in Lisbon. My hotel staff helped me identify which tram would take me where. So this is where I started my journey the next morning to one of the most popular parts of Lisbon – Belem.
Belem’s name is derived from the Portuguese word for Bethlehem and many of Portugal’s distinctive buildings from the Gothic architecture are located here including the Jeronimos Monastery and the Tower of Belem which are both UNESCO heritage sites. The Jeronimous Monastery looks like a huge palace from outside surrounded by beautiful greenery. The tram dropped me in front of the Monastery.
Right opposite to the monastery is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or the Monument of the Discoveries. The monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries which was a period when overseas exploration emerged as a powerful factor in European culture .The monument has the main statue of Henry the Navigator, followed by a total of 33 figures on either side of the ramp from the history of the Discoveries. It is a beautiful sight to see the statues of these navigators looking over the river. A straight ten minute walk from the Monument of Discoveries took me to the Tower of Belem which served both as a fortress and as a port from where Portuguese explorers departed. It also served as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. I was glad to witness the National Guard Parade at the Tower of Belem. It is a not a regular feature at the Tower, just a lucky day for me.
Having appreciated the Gothic Architecture, I turned towards the other memorable aspect of Belem. The Pasteis De Nata or the Custard Tarts/Belem Cakes at the most popular Pasteis De Belem. Fernando had guided me appropriately that the easiest way to find it was to look for the Starbucks outlet next to the Jeronimos Monastery. The queue outside the shop was testimony to its popularity. They have 400 seats inside which they advertise outside the store so that you can enjoy the experience of the tarts seated there. Well better sense prevailed and I got my tarts packed. The involuntary sounds I made in delight while having them would have got me in trouble had I been eating them inside the shop with 400 others. The shop is really busy and you get just seconds to order at the counter so keep your eyes open for what you want to order and be sure by the time you reach the billing counter.
With a morning well spent at Belem and a joy rode on Tram number 28 that reminded me of the trams in San Francisco, the second half of the day was to take me to Pena Palace in Sintra that seems to have come straight out of a fairy tale.
The palace was a originally a monastery. It is a romantic palace with an eclectic mix of Gothic, Islamic and Renaissance styles of architecture. I was glad I booked a guided tour to the palace to be able to understand its history as I experienced it. I also spent some time having a cup of coffee and exploring the eating joints to soak in the quaint town of Sintra. Would recommend visiting Sintra and the Pena Palace if you are in Lisbon. You can easily book a Yellow Bus Tour to make it easier to travel. It is an hour-long bus ride from Lisbon. On the way back we also stopped at Cabo Da Roca, the lighthouse that marks the western most point of continental Europe with an enthralling view of the Atlantic Ocean.
The only place I couldn’t explore due to the weather was Bairro Alto which is a popular locality with lots of eating joints and pubs, specifically for the Fado performance. I would leave it for another day. The people in Lisbon were very friendly. Shopkeepers didn’t mind if you just took a look at their wares but didn’t buy anything, restaurant staff welcomed with a smile, cab drivers spoke good English and were happy to talk about their city. The trams weren’t intuitive but people around were willing to help if you were lost. The one thing everyone there warned me was to take care of my belongings as it was easy to spot a tourist. I took their advice very seriously. Pedro who drove me to the airport was amused at my travelling by myself. He told me Portuguese would never travel alone but maybe this is something we can learn from the visitors. I was glad to leave them with some food for thought as I moved to the next destination relishing the taste of the custard tarts etched in my memory.