Whenever possible, I try to tack on a few days to either the beginning or end of a press trip to explore a region for the first time or revisit a city that I had particularly enjoyed previously.
I try to find a VRBO or Air B&B in the center of town and then spend a few days getting lost (I am particularly good at that as I have a terrible sense of direction), trying to get a “feel” for the area.
Such was the case nearly three years ago. After a week in Alentejo, the rather large wine-growing region in Southern Portugal, I found a little VRBO apartment in the Alfama area of Lisbon. The Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood and is a labyrinth of narrow streets, small parks, and churches seemingly on every corner.
I was there for three short days, but I could have easily stayed another ten and still had plenty to do.
While the Alfama is centrally located, it does not lend itself to vehicular traffic. After meandering through the city, my taxi finally got “close enough” to my little apartment—Alfama is largely pedestrian-only, so getting a car to my doorstep proved to be close to impossible.
The problem? Lisbon is a city of hills, so getting to the apartment involved schlepping down some stairs (84 in case you were wondering).
After a few wrong turns, I finally found my street, named after a Portuguese poet.
Looking out of my first-floor apartment—my home for three days.
My visits to any city are strictly weather dependent: unless it is raining, I rarely go into a museum—I prefer to stroll, get lost, and see what I find. Here is one of the many Catholic churches in the city, the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora.
Not far from the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, is the National Pantheon.
Dipping inside the Pantheon. It was worth it.
I then made my way down to the Praça do Comércio, along the water.
After lunch (including a glass of wine or two) I headed uphill to the Barrio Alto, which has some of the best-preserved tiled houses in Lisbon.
I am always up for a good castle storming, and the São Jorge Castle, one of the better preserved medieval defensive fortresses that I have visited, was a good start to Day Two.
Incredible views of the city below at every turn.
The next stop was the Santa Justa Lift, a steel elevator in the center of the city that connects the lower part of Lisbon with the Largo do Carmo area atop yet another hill (the São Jorge Castle is in the distance).
The main reason to endure the line to ride the elevator is to visit the ruins of the Carmo Convent, a 14th Century Gothic structure that was badly damaged by an earthquake in the 18th Century. The now roofless structure is eerily peaceful.
And provides amateur photographers with countless angles to experiment with natural light.
St. Anthony, one of Portugal’s patron saints, was born in the 12th Century in Lisbon and June 13th is a municipal holiday. The partying starts, though, as soon as the month of May ends and encompasses most of the city. My little neighborhood of Alfama was festooned with garlands, flowers, lights, and food stands in every nook available. This scene was a two-minute walk from my apartment.
While perhaps lacking in presentation, the forearm sized sardines sold by most of the many street vendors more than made up for it in freshness and flavors.
Any trip to Lisbon should include a night spent in a bar, taking in a performance of Fado, the Portuguese version of Blues. The video below has terrible lighting, but hopefully, the sound makes up for it.
Leaving my Alfama neighborhood on Day Three, I stopped to watch the local bike event, which I am certain they staged for my benefit.
I then hopped on a tram, heading for Belém, on the banks of the Tagus River and the traditional shipbuilding district in the city. The tram stop for Belém was just a short walk from perhaps the neighborhood’s most popular site, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a Monastery that was funded by the 5% tax that was levied on spices that entered Portugal during the Age of Exploration.
Almost as impressive as the monastery itself, was the line to visit the structure that stretched the length of the building and across the street. I am not a fan of lines. At all. Thus, no pictures of the interior.
Across from the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos on the bank of the Tagus River. Built in the 1940s to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death. Only 5€ to enter, it offers the best views of Belém. The nearly 2-hour wait to get in, however, prevented me from taking in those views.
Next was the Torre de Belém and another long line. So yet another hard pass.
There was also an impressive line to buy the Pasteis de Belém, the famed makers of Pastels de Nata, the Portuguese desert pastry of eternal goodness.
You bet your sweet bippy I suffered through that line and bought some….
They were so good, that I woofed them all down before I remembered to take a photo (hence the stock photo here). I opt not to mention how many I bought, employing my fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.
A casual lunch of freshly caught cod (I think), along the river, with a fantastic bottle of Esporão Antão Vaz.
Then it was back to Alfama, to climb a few more stairs…
…have more sardines and a lovely Dona Maria Rosé…
…and catch one more Fado show before heading back to Houston early the next morning.
About the drunken cyclist
I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
I much appreciated the virtual trip because, if it hadn’t been for you know what, I would’ve been in Lisbon today.