Feb 06 2008

Lisbon Love

Published by at 9:11 pm under Lisbon,Portugal

We hopped the bus from Seville to Lisbon, Portugal, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to go. We wanted to TRAVEL and LEARN and DO STUFF. It’s unfortunate, then, that Portugal was our next destination, as the Portuguese aren’t really into the whole “doing stuff” thing. As the most laid back people I’ve encountered in my life, they spend their days eating and drinking in cafes, playing games in the park, and enjoying Portugal’s many warm, sunny days. By the end of our week in Lisbon, we spent most of our time eating pasteis, drinking vinho verde and playing cards with our hostel mates. Which, actually, makes this one of our more successful cultural immersions.

Our week in Lisbon did not start so smoothly. Naturally, we didn’t have a place to stay upon arrival, so we scooted on over to the nearest hostel, thinking we’d find more permanent accommodation the next day. Having heard so much about how inexpensive Portugal is, we were looking forward to cheaper nights’ stays.

The next day, I stayed back to do some work, while Ben went out to hunt for a hostel or pension that could house us. Apparently, Lisbon has taken advantage of its status as the new, hot backpacker destination, because when Ben returned, without room or prospect, he reported that despite wandering the entire city, he couldn’t find anything for less than 30 euros a night. Not a bad price, but not “cheap” by our trip standards. He was also in one of the foulest moods I’ve seen him in, mumbling about how EVERYTHING is THE WORST. Pretty much the only thing you can do when Ben’s in such a state is feed him, so we took a break to hit up a local restaurant for a good meal.

So, Portuguese is a hard language. I was expecting it to be pretty much Spanish, I guess. And many words are similar in spelling — but the pronunciation? Sounds like Russian to my American ears. So in addition to not being able to read the menu, we couldn’t understand a lick of what the waiter was saying to us. As usual in such situations, we pointed to something on the menu, ordered it (in a “uhhh…that one…i guess?” kind of way), and crossed our fingers.

Most of the time we get lucky and this method of ordering has produced some of the best meals on our trip. Other times, we’re not so lucky. Like that time we were served what was basically olive oil soup.

This meal, our first in Portugal, turned out to be incredible. Slices of meat (don’t know which kind, would probably like to keep it that way), rice, spinach, beans — all wonderfully seasoned and garlic-y. And when the waiter wheeled over the dessert cart piled high with moist pastries, the finest I’d seen since France, I officially fell in love with Portugal. Especially when the waiter looked visibly disappointed when we declined — not in the my-tip-will-be-smaller way, but in the genuine you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing way.

Word of warning for those dining in Portugal: you’re charged for every little thing they put on your table. I’m used to being charged for bread in European restaurants, but usually the accompanying butter is complimentary. Not so in Portugal. You opened that tiny packet of garlic butter? Eighty cents please. And since Ben spent the first half-hour of our meal opening tiny packets of yummies he’d never seen before (FISH PATE? what’s that? I’ve never tried fish pate before!!), our bill was an unexpected surprise.

Thankfully, that evening, we were lucky to come across a recently-opened hostel in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, whose owner was willing to negotiate a weekly rate. We moved in, gorged ourselves on free rolls from a local bakery, and took advantage of free wifi by downloading episodes of all the TV shows we’re missing at home.

The next morning (okay, afternoon), we began our exploration of the city in earnest. Lisbon, like its people, is an extremely likable city. It’s wide and open and clean. And beautiful! The sidewalks are paved in tiny blocks of black and white stone, arranged in beautiful patterns. The buildings, interiors and exteriors, are covered in azulejos – decorated tiles — that are a proud and prevalent Portuguese tradition. From three-hundred-year-old ornate blue and white tiles, to modern, art-deco-style tiles, it seems that no structure in Lisbon (down to the interiors of the metro stations) isn’t plastered in these things.

Old tram in LisbonPretty much every European city has an “old town” neighborhood, which is inevitably picturesque and quaint. But modern life never fails to seep in: bars, boutiques, souvenir shops, and tourists never fail to remind you it’s 2008. I’m convinced the old neighborhoods of Lisbon haven’t changed a bit since the late 19th century. In fact, Lisbon built Europe’s first funicular in the 1800s, and the same funicular operates today. Granted, it moves so slowly it’d be faster to walk up the hill than ride it, but still. I also saw a tree growing out of someone’s window. That thing had definitely been around for more than 100 years, with no one bothering to cut it down. Instead the homeowners work around it, using it to hang their laundry. Which should tell you a lot about the Portuguese.

During our explorations, we came across a small neighborhood cafe in the Bairro Alto district that served gooey, warm sandwiches — the best we’d had since Italy. One of the many reasons this method of slow traveling is interesting is that many locals start to recognize you. We get to know the local patisserie employee, the market owner, the guy who works nights at the hostel. We ended up frequenting this tiny cafe in Lisbon so often that the staff (well, all two of them) knew Ben’s order by heart.

The Bairro  Alto at nightLisbon’s Bairro Alto also offers the best nightlife of any place we’ve visited thus far. Around midnight, the young people of Lisbon flock to the neighborhood, thanks to the concentration of bars and clubs that line its narrow streets. However, if you should actually go inside one such bar on any given night of the week it would be completely empty. Why? Because no one is actually inside the bars. Instead, the crowds pack the streets, mingling and drinking while wandering around aimlessly. They pop into bars for a quick, cheap refill, and then run back out into the street to continue the party. The bars don’t even stock glasses — all drinks are served in portable, plastic cups. It’s hard to fathom how awesome this is until you realize how it solves so many quintessential bar problems: no more fighting your way through a jostling crowd to ask the bartender for another drink, no more attempting to squeeze yourself and your group of friends around the only remaining too-small table in the back corner, no more wondering who is where and how in the world you are supposed to get to them.

We went out that first night with two American girls studying in Barcelona, and Dvir, an Israeli guy currently on a worldwide soccer game tour. Dvir recently finished his obligatory military service and also recently discovered alcohol, meaning with one glass of sangria, he was flirting with, pursuing and not-so-discreetly kissing both girls accompanying us. He was then confused as to why, instead of fighting, the girls couldn’t just calmly decide amongst themselves who should have the honor of making out with him.

A legitimate question, if you ask me. Paper, rock, scissors?

NEXT: Baseball, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie (Or, the Essential Portuguese Experience) »



4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Lisbon Love”

  1. Peter Quinnon 06 Feb 2008 at 9:59 pm

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Peter Quinn

  2. Amyon 07 Feb 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Hi there,
    I read your entire blog a few days ago, but this is the first time I’ve commented. You guys are really good bloggers and one of the more entertaining travel reads I’ve had. I’m glad ya’all are having a good time.

    I am curious though, as to which Lisbon it is exactly you visited. I agree on all your descriptions of the cities you’ve traveled to from Paris to Prague, and you really make me nostagic for the trip I took about two years ago. But honestly, I am dumbstruck by your Lisbon adventure. When I was there it was the dirtiest, skeeziest, city I visited. I’ll admit to not being there very long, so I’m sure you discovered more things than I did. Anyway, so glad your enjoying yourself. I had a miserable time there, but that doesn’t mean you should, lol. Enjoy your pastries. And don’t forget to go check out the Jerónimos Monastery–it was the best thing I saw while I was there.

  3. Ginaon 08 Feb 2008 at 9:33 am

    The nightlife in Lisbon is exactly like Savannah, GA. Plastic cups filled with libatious beverages and the owners meandering from one watering hole to the next with loud music booming from each stop.

  4. Brittanyon 11 Feb 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Hey Amy! Thanks for tuning in and commenting! We visited Lisbon, Portugal, and I’m very surprised to hear you say it was skeezy! Perhaps I only think it was nice having just come from very rural Spain. But I also think they’ve cleaned up their cities in recent years, thanks to increased tourist activity… or the potential for increased tourist activity. Or perhaps we just luckily avoided the dirty parts.

    The monastery was gorgeous!

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