Smile - You're in Lisbon!
If you haven't been to Lisbon, I'd suggest you put it on your bucket list. It’s got to be one of the friendliest places in Europe. Just bring your sneakers. Between the hills, the stairs, the colorfully tiled buildings and the gorgeous (but wonky) tiled sidewalks, you'll need them.
I flew into Lisbon from Paris at the end of April, after passport complications prevented my sister-in-low from boarding with me. I wondered if they were contagious when the official, extra vigilant due to the pope’s upcoming visit, scrutinized my passport for more than three minutes before showing it to his colleague.
“You arrived in Paris on April 29, 2018,” he announced as he handed the passport back. The month and day were right, but the actual year was 2017.
“That’s because I’m from the future,” I answered with a laugh.
One look at the massive taxi line and I opted to take the aero bus, especially since I could buy my ticket at the kiosk right out front. Great idea if I’d been able to draw up directions on my cell phone. Instead, I relied on a map from the tourist counter that lacked details like the names of the small twisty streets I had to negotiate. It also didn’t mention the immediate elevation gain. That was my first clue that Lisbon is not exactly flat. There are so many hills and they’re so steep that the city added its first outdoor elevator—the Santa Justa Lift, or Elevador de Santa Justa, on the Rua de Santa Justa—in 1902. Almost 150 feet tall, the neo-Gothic tower was inspired by the Eiffel Tower.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any elevators. Nor did I immediately find my tiny hotel until a friendly policeman pointed me in the right direction and a cute young 20-something who had just gotten off him moped escorted me to the cross section from which the sign was evident.
“Are you Linden?” the guy manning the old, wooden desk asked. “We’ve been so worried. We thought you would be here more than an hour ago.”
Second insight that folks in Lisbon are seriously nice. And they smile a lot whether driving their trucks or over a glass of cheer.
I dumped my suitcase in my room and, upon the recommendation of the receptionist who had packed it in for the night as soon as I was safely in my room, headed to Noobai, a bar and restaurant at the edge of large plaza that overlooked the city and is crowded with young people sitting on the steps sharing conversation and bottled beer available from the concession stand. My late al fresco dinner of grilled gambas (shrimp) and fresh, juicy mango with a view and Portuguese lessons courtesy of my sweet servers would set the tone for the rest of our long weekend. I would return there two nights later with my sister-in-law Brigitte and my niece Julia for fabulous tapas (or petiscos as they say in Portuguese).
Late the next morning my sister in law who had finally managed to get out of France and I walked down to the city’s transportation center in Cais do Sodré. Feeling positively tropical, I had donned my sandals. Big mistake. When my toe caught on a cobblestone, I went flying.
We picked up my niece who has flown in from London, headed to the neighborhood’s Mercado da Ribeira—since 1892 Lisbon’s main food market which now includes a huge food court called the Time Out Market. After scoping out the almost three dozen food and drink options, we opted for a funky restaurant rather than a cool, trendy one. The bacalhau, a Portuguese codfish specialty, and grilled fish explain why the place is full of locals.
Our luck on the food front would hold. Over lunch at fancy eatery following a visit to the Feira da Ladra flea market (where we would find out that bread and appetizers that are already set out on the table when you’re seated actually aren’t complimentary), we would discover vinho verde, a refreshing young wine with a hint of bubbles and a definite greenish tinge. We celebrated Portugal’s dueling soccer and Eurovision victories at Zapata, a down-home restaurant close to our hotel where food, rather than décor, is clearly the priority. We didn’t stray far during our final evening, opting to dine on the outdoor terrace at Madame Pelisca, about halfway between the first restaurant I’d visited and our lodgings.
I know it sounds like all we did was eat and drink, but we took in plenty of the sights as well. The city’s Tagus riverfront is notable for the architecture (including the buildings flanking the Praca do Comercio, one of Europe’s largest squares), the parks, the birds and the sand artists. We braved the crowds—but not the stores—in Lisbon’s famous shopping district as well as at the 400-year-old São Jorge (St. George) Castle. I loved the fact that you could enjoy a bit of history along with the city vista with a glass of wine in hand, courtesy of the Wine with a View three-wheeler parked at the top.
Being a fan of Portuguese ceramics from way back, I visited the National Azulejo [ceramic tile] Museum along with as many pottery stores as I passed, my favorite being the one at the foot of the elevator that was smaller than my bedroom at home (and that included the dinky on-the-premises kiln). I also wouldn’t have missed our tuk-tuk ride. Not only did we avoid a couple of hills, but how can you say no to a tuk-tuk? Even saying the word is fun. And it made us smile as broadly as the locals.