The “other” San Francisco

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a fucking tourist.” Guillermo del Toro

Monday, August 7, 2017
Lisbon, Portugal

I had a chunk of days break between visiting the far reaches of my beautiful Romania and decided to take a last minute, solo trip to Portugal.
I had been in a bit of a slump and was on the verge of wallowing in self-pity and loneliness.
I felt not quite like myself.
I missed last summer when I was on the go. Meeting new people everyday. No set plans for where to go or what to do the next day. Couchsurfing with beautiful strangers and making the most treasured of memories…
I wanted to prove to myself I still had it in me.
And by golly I did just that.
Portugal had always appealed to me… It seemed always so out of the way in my travels last summer. But I heard tales of it’s coastline… the people.. the culture.. the food.. the wine.. Porto… Lisbon.. Sintra.. the Algarve coast…
I decided to book the cheapest (Yet still considerably expensive considering how Malta was $100 round trip.. and Berlin was $80 round trip) city to fly into from Bucharest and go from there…
Lisbon it was.
I knew next to nothing about Portugal except that everyone who had been there had nothing but wonderful things to say about it.
Why not!?
And why not start in Lisbon…
The San Francisco of Portugal.. it has trams… it has hills… it has their version of the Bay Bridge… its on the West Coast of Europe… plenty of beaches… laid back attitudes…
And it lived up to its name. I was exhilarated coming out of the metro and finding many Palm Trees.. .ohhh how I had missed them living over in Eastern Europe…
And it was warm… but not overly uncomfortable… like Bucharest… When I left Bucharest, it was 39 degrees C and the humidity was sweltering.
Portugal had a lively breeze.. a nice dry heat…
The ground beneath my feet was cobblestone… but unique to other cobblestone walkways of other European countries… They were tiny blocks of stone cut out in a precise shape and size and placed together, more often than not, to create a mosaic-like effect… Rossio Square, my first real introduction to Lisbon had them lined out in a pattern that was reminiscent of waves… If I stared at it too long it had a bit of a trippy effect…  I learned later that each of the little stones were carved by hand and they first started hundreds of years ago.

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The wave effect in Rossio Square hold a deeper meaning too.. Back on November 1st, 1755 the city was ravaged by a series of massive earthquakes, the largest being 8.5. They destroyed the majority of the city. Everything was shattered… crumbled. November 1st was also the Catholic holy All Saints day.  As a result, all of the cathedrals were packed with civilians celebrating this feast. Needless to say, the crumbling of the cathedrals caused a great number of people to perish. In addition, since All Saints day was a holy day, people lit candles and flowers were put up in celebration. The earthquakes caused the buildings to tumble and the candles fell upon the flammable flowers and other religious decor. Fires soon sprung up all over the city. As if that weren’t bad enough, the earthquakes triggered a tsunami that reached 9 meters high by the time it reached the city. The higher parts of the city remained burning for nearly 5 days. It is said that a week after these three events, nearly 90% of the buildings were either crumbled, burned or flooded and nearly 600,000 people had perished.
This was all carefully retold by my tour guide and she ended the awful tale, saying that the wave pattern created by the stones on the ground were to look like a tsunami and to commemorate that fateful day back in 1755.

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I spent the majority of my time in the Alfama district. As soon as I stumbled upon its beautiful narrow streets I knew this was where I needed to be. Other areas of Lisbon are spread out with large streets. The Alfama district actually survived that day in 1755 and still portrays days of the old where everyone knew each other and old ladies would lean out their windows to chat with their friends across the alley (literally if they reached their hands out they would easily be able to hold onto one another). Laundry was often strung out below windows, along with flowers. I spent two days getting lost, wandering in and out of the streets. Going up and down soOoo many staircases. Working my calves on the steep slopes. It was much less touristy and much more quiet than the other areas of Lisbon… It gave you the feel of authenticity… real people went about their daily lives… no commercial shops.. only a small number of cafes… a few local grocery stores.. the smell of sardines flowing through the air (they do love their sardines there, I noticed)… I certainly did not get the feel that I was in a big city while wandering these quiet streets. You can find so many brightly colored buildings and the doors of their houses are quite close to each other, so it is easy to see how narrow the residences are. It hurt my calves to imagine the stairs they have to climb every day to get from the door to the top floor, not to mention walking about their normal day on the steep streets! If you keep an eye out, you can find little black and white portraits painted onto the walls of the local residents…

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It is here that I also found my San Fransisco tram! Tram 28! The most famous tram in all of Lisbon… I never got in the long queue (some people waited up to three hours to ride it).. but people who do get to ride it never regret the long line.. it winds up and down and round the hills and you can easily hop on (after the line of course) and it will take you all around the highlights of the city…

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Another thing I fell in love with was all of the ceramic tiles about the city. Many of the buildings were covered in them on the outside. Some had just a few remaining ones… They are called Azulejos tiles (usually they were a combination of beautiful blue and creamy white) and usually were laid out in some sort of geometric, lacey or flowery pattern. Sometimes they just adorned the facades of buildings, the same repeating tile over and over again. Other times, the tiles were put together to create a mural or a depiction of a historic scene.  Lazily sauntering about the city, as opposed to rushed sightseeing on your way to the next big sight to see, allows you to find all kinds of fun little hidden tiles. You are able to pick one up of your own in any tourist shop…

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My personal favorite was the street art. Discovering the street art is one of my favorite things about wandering through a new city. One particular area that caught my eye and had me going back to time and time again. On one of the steep paths down to the Alfama area from the Barrio do Castelo neighborhood, you pass through a little tunnel of sorts. It has the words “Don’t Be Mean” spelled out with stretched wire. Just beyond it, outside of the tunnel, just to the left is a flat open area. When I first walked back out into the sunshine, I was not expecting such a sight. Instead of more buildings and streetways, there was the wreckage of an abandoned building.  The remains of the Cerca Velha Wall…… and wow… a little outdoor art area looked after by a sweet old man… Take the time to explore and you’ll find some delightful things :))

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Fado music is another Lisbon favorite… I was stumbling around Alfama one night with some couchsurfers just after we witnessed the most beautiful sunset from the highest hill in Lisbon and heard the soulful sounds echoing through the alleyways… Fado… which means “fate” or “destiny” in Portuguese is a type of music that has been heard throughout the streets of Lisbon for centuries. Typically, it involves a lady singing a yearning, soulful, haunting song that comes to life and makes your heart ache to hear. Though they are quite sad songs, causing the people in the cafes nearby to hush to a silence as they are slowly transfixed by the mournful melody Definitely worth a listen… perhaps with a glass of sangria or their vinho verde OR (my personal favorite) Ginjinha (a Portuguese liqueur made of sour cherries (“ginja berries”) with a delightful hint of cinnamon.

PS> Just so you know.. the information about all of the things I have written about was straight from locals, whether it be the Free Tour guide or couchsurfers I met up with that were born and bred in the city or random strangers who happened to be as curious about life as I am

 

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