Everyone should see Lisbon at least once in their lifetime. It was as radiant as I had read. COVID-19 has tried to dim its passion and beauty, sending street performers into hiding, closing restaurants, or at least limiting their clientele while indoors and mandating masks in museums and other enclosed spaces. Still, Lisboetas and tourists alike were wandering the streets unmasked, enjoying the sunshine and finding once again how vibrant the city is.
Lisbon is built into the rolling hillsides of the west coast. As Portugal’s capital, it has an estimated three million people. I traveled to Lisbon with my husband and friends in September, excited to explore this historical city for a few days before taking an eleven-day cycle tour into the countryside. We stayed in the center of town which is divided into districts; the Alfama, Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto, and Belem. Because of time constraints, we narrowed our sightseeing down to attractions close by, knowing we couldn’t possibly see everything in the two days we had to explore. What I found were decorative cobblestone avenues, buildings resplendent in color, grand cathedrals and monuments, exquisite food, and friendly locals.
Portugal was under COVID-19 restrictions when we arrived. Non-essential travel was allowed, but Americans were required to fill out a Passenger Locator Card online within three days of arrival and show proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of entering the country. We were impressed to hear that close to 90 percent of the population had been vaccinated, a statistic the Portuguese were proud of.
We took United Airlines, which had a significant number of documents to fill out online. Passenger disclosures required signatures verifying negative COVID test results, attesting to not having been exposed to COVID in the last 14 days, and finally linking test results to United’s site. Passport information was submitted over the internet for faster boarding at the gate. On returning to the United States, folks had to confirm that they had not transited through China, South Africa, Brazil, Iran, or other restricted European Countries per Presidential Proclamation. And also prove that they were COVID negative before returning to the States.
Issues arose before our actual date of travel. United had changed our itinerary twice and in the process had errors with connecting flights and seat categories. This caused a significant amount of work for us. I had logged a total of nearly four hours talking with United reservationists by the time things got sorted out. I have to say that traveling abroad has become more cumbersome than ever.
We arrived in Portugal at 8:30 a.m. I managed to get in a few hours of fragmented sleep between the sounds of a nearby passenger snoring and lights brightening for in-flight service. I recalled a consensus among some of my friends that flying long distances at night had two benefits. First, you can sleep (if circumstances allow), and second, you are then refreshed to enjoy the day. I beg to differ. I felt drowsy, but I willed myself to rally as passengers disembarked.
Going through customs was fast and easy. Lines kept moving, and customs agents were efficient and hospitable. We caught a taxi to take us to our hotel, centrally located in Lisbon’s old town. Our cab driver spoke impressive English and was curious about COVID conditions in the United States just as we were with conditions in Portugal. We shared our respective impressions and information. What were people on-the-ground thinking and doing regarding the Pandemic? News outlets had frustrated all of us, and it was a relief to hear positive progress….that folks were going on with their lives, and most businesses were open in Portugal.
After checking into the hotel and leaving our bags at the front desk (rooms weren’t ready at that early hour of the day), we headed out to nearby attractions. Google Maps set us on a 25-minute route to the ruins of the Moorish Castle Sao Jorge. It was on the highest point in Lisbon and would give us a good feel for the city’s layout. Crossing busy streets, climbing endless stone stairs and cobblestone streets, we zigzagged through the Alfama District, considered the oldest part of Lisbon. Buildings were packed in together, which made our walk seem like a stroll through a maze. But at times, the structures would part, and we would get marvelous peek-a-boo views of the city below.
The day was warming up, and I wished that I had taken the time to switch out my sweats for something lighter. At the castle entrance, a line formed outside with folks waiting to purchase tickets. Standing in the sunlight, I felt perspiration form on my back and started fidgeting. It was great to see people out and about, enjoying the sights, but I wanted the line to move faster. An attendant motioned us to enter the ticket office one at a time. An antibacterial dispenser stood ready for use, and I dutifully cleaned my hands. Masks were required, and I pulled mine on, feeling suffocated as temperatures rose. Fortunately, I could remove my mask once we entered the castle grounds, where only the walls and towers of the castle remained.
Slowing our pace, we stood in one of many courtyards that overlooked Lisbon. Shade from trees gave relief from the sun. I walked over to an iron cannon pointed outward towards the city and saw Lisbon sprawled below me. The cannon was a reminder that the castle also served as a military fortress. Sunshine bathed the landscape, intensifying the blue sky, brightening red-tiled roofs, and reflected on the gleaming whites of cathedrals. I could see the harbor, the expansive square of Praca do Comercio, and verdant green hills in the distance. The castle indeed had a strategic location.
The grounds were massive. We set out to explore the ruins independently, although visitors could hire a guide. We climbed along narrow ramparts, gazed out of tower windows, observed an active archeological dig inside the walls of the castle, and eventually sat and enjoyed the views. I watched as tourists, students with backpacks, and groundskeepers moved through the courtyards with a sense of reverence towards this ancient edifice.
Stately peacocks wandered in gardens that created cool, peaceful spaces. Castle Sao Jorge was a great start to our day.
We left the castle, to explore the next attraction on our list, the Lisbon Cathedral or simply known as the Se. Walking on the cobblestone became more challenging as we descended the hill. Smoothed by years for foot traffic, it was slippery. I wondered what folks did when it rained? Mindful of my steps, the last thing I needed was a twisted ankle or broken bone. I recalled one travel blogger stressing, “sturdy walking shoes are a must!”.
The Se is the oldest church in Lisbon, built after the victory of the Crusades in 1150. Stories claim that it was constructed on the foundations of a Roman Temple and later a Mosque. Portugal has been occupied by many groups, including the Romans, the Moors, the Visigoths, and the Spaniards. Indeed, the history that surrounds this church seemed to pulsate in its chapels and nave. It survived a handful of natural disasters, most notably the 1755 earthquake that leveled most of Lisbon. The old façade of stone reminded me of the weathered face of an aged woman, brown and leathery. Each blemish embedded in the surface was a mark recording the passage of time.
The Cathedral is Lisbon’s most important church today. As an active church, it holds services, celebrates holy days, and conducts daily tours. I couldn’t help marvel at the strength of this structure. Would it stand another 800 years?
Inside it was cavernous and dark. Vaulted ceilings were ribbed with arches and arcades of columns spanned the length of the nave. Who were the people that passed through the church? Who worshipped there? Did zealot clergymen plan the demise of non-Christians during the Inquisition?
A bright red and white tram rounded a corner as we left the church. Trams are common in old Lisbon. They navigate the narrow streets with ease. I suddenly had a yearning to be on it. I could feel myself growing tired. By early afternoon, I was ready for a break. Heading back to the hotel, Jim and I left our friends who decided to explore more of Lisbon.
Av. Da Liberdade is a beautiful thorough-fare with wide, tree-lined streets, decorative marble stone sidewalks, and high-end shops and restaurants. A park-like setting is created with a wide median where outdoor eateries stand and plants abound. Designs in the cobblestone sidewalks seem like art at your feet. A pink palace stood near the south end of the street that ended against a network of businesses and shops, while the north end was anchored with a towering statue of the Marquis of Pombal, a statesman that led the rebuilding and modernization of Lisbon after the 1755 disaster. The Portuguese are very proud of Pombal’s work, calling him “a man before his time.” I was glad our hotel was located along this avenue.
Relaxing in white cushioned chairs at the rooftop pool and bar of the NH Collection Lisboa Liberdade Hotel, Jim and I toasted to our first day in sunny Portugal. I glanced at my phone and noticed that it was 3:00 p.m. We had powered through the morning with no lunch break. No wonder I was slowing down! Appreciating views that encompassed the Moorish Castle on our left, the harbor straight ahead, and everything else in between, I had found my “sweet spot.” Texting my girlfriend, I encouraged her to hurry back to enjoy the outstanding views.
The following day was scheduled with a food tour. As a first-time visitor to Portugal, I was curious about typical dishes as were our friends. How could we try a wide range of foods without paying for a full meal every time we sat down at a restaurant? We decided to put our quest into the hands of an expert and signed up with Taste of Lisboa. We booked the tour before leaving the U.S. which ended up being a smart move. It was sold out the day we took our tour.
Catarina, a lifelong resident of Lisbon, greeted us at a designated meeting spot, the Largo de Sao Domingos, just a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We began our tour in front of a delicatessen. Portuguese restaurants typically serve a tray of meats and cheeses the moment a customer sits down. These cured meats are the pride and joy of Portugal. A variety of sausages and ham sliced thin usually are served with sheep or goat cheese. We tried the Salpicao and Paio.
When Catarina brought out a tray of these finger foods, our small group of ten hesitated. At any other time, I don’t think we would have been so conscientious using our fingers. The ongoing Pandemic had us a bit nervous. Catarina retrieved toothpicks from the deli, and we dug in with a bit more comfort.
Salted cod is a big deal in Portugal. It is used in a variety of dishes, but the curious thing about it is that it doesn’t come from Portugal. It is fished off the coast of Scandinavia. As a cheap food source, it became a household staple. We had it served in delicious croquettes along with Portugal’s Green Wine.
I don’t know if it was the wine that loosened us up or Catarina’s prompting, but our group began to converse easily among ourselves. A party of four ladies had come to Portugal on a golf trip. It was their first time out of the States since the Pandemic. When Catarina asked them how the United States was handling the vaccine roll-out, one of the ladies replied, “girl, the U.S. is a hot mess.” I had to agree.
Catarina took us off the beaten path to the old Moorish quarter of Lisbon. Fado music had its beginnings here. We stopped at an entrance to a narrow, winding alley flanked by a statue of a Coimbra guitar. We were about to enter another world, according to Catarina. She was right. We saw endearing black and white photographs embedded into the walls of homes featuring longtime residences. Wistful faces, weathered faces, faces that had endured decades of change stared back at us.
We stopped to enjoy a band playing outdoors on a small landing where cascading steps led to lower levels. People peered out their windows, and by-passers stopped to sway to the music. Catarina’s narration of the area paused for a moment as we all listened to a jazzy melody.
Our next culinary adventure led us to an African eatery. Portugal had colonized African nations during their discovery years sailing along the African continent and brought back popular dishes. Ground meats and vegetables were wrapped in dough and deep-fried. Similar to empanadas, they were delicious.
As we walked through narrow, winding streets, we suddenly found ourselves serenaded by a man who knew Catarina. Through wide-open doors facing the sidewalk, his voice vibrated in a rich tenor from the interior of his small bar. We paused to hear him finish his song. Applause echoed against the walls as onlookers expressed their appreciation. It seemed Lisboetas enjoyed expressing themselves in song!
Eventually, we arrived at my most anticipated food on the tour, Pastel de Nata or Pasteis de Nata. I had read about this custard-filled tart. Its origins come from the handiwork of monks, who needed to find a use for extra yolk sitting around in their kitchens. I was sold on its claim that it had a sweet, creamy filling and flaky crust. I wasn’t disappointed when Catarina came out of the Manteigaria pastry shop with a tray full of the pastry. Blogging aficionados of the tart claimed that it was best when warm. These were! Standing beside tables on the Rue Augusta, I savored the texture and taste. My next thought was, “I had to visit this shop again!”
We finished the day with a toast at A Ginjinha, the oldest Ginjinha bar in Lisbon. Generally, Portugal is known for its Port wine, but Ginjinha is another unique drink crafted only in Portugal. Sipped slowly, this cherry-infused liquor is enjoyed as a before or after-dinner drink. With glasses raised, we toasted to our excellent guide while she toasted to us and our pleasant stay in Portugal. Our three-hour tour became a four-hour tour. No one seemed to care. We were celebrating life, something the Portuguese do well.
The Rue Augusta is in the Baixa district and leads down to the waterfront ending at the spacious Praca do Comercio or Commercial Square. Once the site of Paco da Ribeira Palace, and an important shipping center, it was leveled by the 1755 quake. Today it is a gathering place for tourists and locals alike to watch sunsets and, at one-time, street performers before the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic. We walked under The Arco da Rue Augusta (Arch of Triumph) to emerge onto the spacious square. Colorful golden buildings flank the square. There’s a sense of grandioso as both the plaza and monuments seem to dwarf pedestrians and automobiles.
The square was quiet. Only a few restaurants were open, but tourists were gathering at the water’s edge. Wide marble steps led down into the water and vanished. We took a seat on the steps along with other folks and gazed out into the harbor. The sound of the lapping waves, seagulls calling to one another, and the murmur of voices reminded me that each day is a gift.
There was one more attraction that I was curious to see, the ruins of Carmo Convent in the Chiado district. Steeped in history with bizarre acquisitions in its museum, it would prove to be a treasure trove from the ancients. We split away from our friends who wished to walk along the harbor. We would meet up later by a bar outside the Convent.
I once again turned on Google Maps to find our way. Through ascending streets wide enough for only one car, we hugged against buildings, walking on narrow stone sidewalks. It was a challenge to find the entrance to the Convent. Having a fully built façade, I passed it twice until I finally stopped, looked up from my phone, and read a sign that said Carmo Convent. Hmmm. Watching for signs was still a viable way to navigate.
We put on our masks and stepped inside. The ticket office, museum, and 15-minute information movie set up in a chapel were a few places where masks were required. The church stood in ruins and was considered outdoors. I gladly pulled off my mask to get unobstructed views of the antiquities left behind.
Soaring stone arches stood stark against a bright blue sky. They, along with the walls, were all that remained from the 1755 quake. But walking down the nave was an experience like no other. Stone crypts lay silent along the walls. Statues of men made of marble gazed down sublimely at by-passers. Had I stepped into Aragorn’s Gondor? I momentarily slipped into a daydream and felt that I was in the midst of Lord of the Rings. While I marveled at the past portrayed both in the movies and standing before me, my husband disappeared into adjoining rooms. He was on a mission to finish the tour while I needed a moment to take it all in.
The marble and clay collections scattered throughout the ruins and placed in the museum were acquired by an organization that turned the Convent into Portugal’s first archeological museum in 1864. Ancient Greek motifs stood alongside stone coffins of the first king of Portugal. Mummies from the Peruvian Andes sat inside climate-controlled glass enclosures. Antiquities were on display from Egypt, South America, Rome, and Portugal’s Chalcolithic age. These remnants of lives once lived in times I can hardly imagine never cease to amaze me.
We joined our friends a few steps from the Convent as they sat outside at tables spilling out from bars and restaurants. Like the United States, Portugal had an ongoing mandate limiting patrons indoors. Restaurants survived by creating additional spaces outside. We ordered drinks. I learned that the Portuguese love their Gin and Tonic and immediately became a fan.
We watched as the crowd grew for the evening. A musician came with an old box to sit on and played his cavaquinho (also known as the ukulele). Conversation and laughter filled the air. I couldn’t think of a better way to end our amazing stay in Lisbon.