It’s not you, it’s me
One perspective is that, beaches in the winter time are just piles of sand along the ocean. It can still be a beautiful place for a stroll. The sound of the waves can be just as relaxing. You can still hang out and get sand in your underwear, but don’t expect me to do any swimming in water that cold. Living in Lisbon was great, but it deserves another visit from us during a different time of year. A sunnier time of year. Don’t get me wrong, Lisbon still had a lot to offer but it was like eating a delicious cupcake and leaving the frosting. We don’t blame Lisbon. It was us.
That Could Have Gone Better
Less than a five-minute walk from our apartment, (not counting the stairs from the fourth floor which seemed to go on forever, mainly when going up them) was a train station that had regularly scheduled trains going to Sintra, Portugal. After repeatedly exploring our own neighborhood and the surrounding area, it was time to start venturing a little further out. Many people had pointed out that the lovely town of Sintra was a short train ride away and very worth visiting. Since our apartment was so close to the train station it was very convenient, and to be honest, we like trains.
So, one day we took the advice and caught the train to this fairy tale land that everyone seemed to rave about. It was just past the middle of the day and we hadn’t eaten anything yet, but we figured we’d just grab something once we got there. Upon arrival, we noticed lines of tuk-tuk drivers, lined up and waiting to pounce on the lost looking tourist exiting the train. It was a feeding frenzy like what can usually only be seen on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” We wanted no part of that, so I began to survey the area for other options.
A guy who turned out to be a friendly local, was standing nearby watching the frenzy with an amused look on his face. I immediately started talking to him, making sure to work into the conversation the fact that we lived in Lisbon. I was trying to distance us from the common unsuspecting tourist that had been dumped by way of locomotive into the streets of Sintra to feed the hungry tour guides, but he continued to look amused, only now it was at our expense.
I explained that we were looking for a good place to have lunch. Someplace local to sample traditional dishes preferably. That’s probably the most obvious thing anyone can say to prove that they are in fact, not local. But he was nice enough to direct us to a nearby restaurant that was out of the way and hidden on a back street. Outside of one table of Asian tourist, everyone there was speaking Portuguese, so we felt good about the recommendation.
We ordered a pitcher of the house wine, a couple of appetizers, and couple of local dishes while we started the process of thoroughly enjoying ourselves. In fact, we were enjoying ourselves so efficiently, that we ended up ordering another pitcher of the house wine, followed by another just to make sure that the other two had company. By the time we left the restaurant, night time had surprised us by making an appearance, leaving us with the memory of seeing almost none of Sintra but having enjoyed a fine day with a very tasty wine. Since we were able to come back on another day, we had no regrets but that’s a story for another blog.
Weird, But Effective
We decided to move to Lisbon based on several factors. Lisbon has a long history, impressive architecture, great food, and everything you could possibly want in a quintessential European city. But the main thing that influenced our decision was a desire to not be cold. After spending a winter in Sofia last year, we decided that we wanted to be warmer this year. We knew that we would miss out on the beach culture that Portugal is continually growing more famous for, but we had lived in Cyprus earlier that year. So, we figured we had gotten our beach fix in and wouldn’t mind so much. It’s the only thing that saved the people of Lisbon from seeing this well fed body in a swim suit. So, the people of Lisbon can add that to the list of things that they have to be thankful for. And I can be thankful for not having crowds of people trying to push me back into the water thinking I had beached myself.
Our apartment in Lisbon was on top of a hill as well as being on the on the fourth floor. With that gift of elevation, we enjoyed a very special vantage point. We benefited from an amazing view of the city below as well as the Castle of Saint George from our living room window. Oddly enough, we never actually visited that castle because by all accounts and reviews, people found it very underwhelming, so we chose to enjoy it from afar as to not ruin the romance of the whole thing. It was very beautiful from a distance, especially at night with the way it was lit up. Why spoil a good thing?
At the end of our street was the Largo do Carmo, a cobblestoned square with the ruins of an old convent that survived a massive earthquake in 1755. The convent is now a museum and the attached square is a relaxing place to enjoy an adult beverage. At least, that’s what we mainly used it for. It has the exact the kind of scenery you would hope for anywhere in Europe and we felt very thankful to get to see it every day.
Right around the corner and down a hill from our apartment, was a little wine bar that featured Fado music. It’s basically traditional Portuguese folk music and the people who showed up would take turn singing songs. The singers that took the stage there, take it very seriously and have a deep appreciation for their traditional music. We love live music and wine but we also have a deep appreciation for places that have the decency to get us drunk, while also being close enough that we can stumble back home without needing the services of a taxi. So, a good time was had by all.
Moving to Lisbon in December also meant Winter Markets. After we visited our first Winter Market in 2012 while passing through Cologne Germany, we were hooked. It’s something we started seeking out every year. Lisbon was no exception. Now to be honest, these were not the best markets we had seen in Europe, but they were decorated festively and there was a big booth selling chocolate. So, you won’t hear me complaining.
Lisbon is a beautiful city. The people there take great pride in their city and it shows up in everything from how clean it is, to the beautiful detail you see everywhere. The mosaic patterns of the cobble stone streets and sidewalks alone could outshine most of the places we’ve lived. There are beautiful squares with statues everywhere you go and everywhere we went, it was the attention to detail that caught our eye.
Belém Tower and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos statue are probably the most recognizable landmarks of Lisbon. If you were to look for a postcard in Lisbon, these would probably be the featured pictures on most of them. Belém Tower was built as a point of naval defense because of its location on the river but I’m convinced that anyone attacking the tower would have taken one look at it and decided that it was too beautiful to attack. Well played Lisbon…Well played.
The whole Belém area is well worth a visit. Jerónimos Monastery, the Cultural Center, the Archeological Museum, Belém Garden, and more sights than you could shake a pastel de nata at (I’ll explain those later), are all located within walking distance to each other but a short taxi ride away from the city center. You could easily spend a day or two exploring the area.
The Arco da Rua Augusta is perhaps the most impressive and recognizable landmark in the center of the city. The Praca do Comercio is touristy street lined with restaurants and shops that leads you right through the arch and into Comércio Plaza. The whole area is a worthwhile place to walk around and take those impressive pictures that will make your co-workers jealous of your trip.
I say all of this with a caveat though. The food along the Praca do Comercio is meant for tourist and there isn’t as much care taken in its preparation as some of the better, more local restaurants in the city. The other thing is that once you pass through the arch and enter into the Praca do Comercio, you will be bombarded with guys trying to sell you cocaine. Now, before you let that deter you, you should realize one thing. There’s nothing dangerous about them. These aren’t the murderous drug dealers you see in movies. It’s more that they are just really annoying. You can tell the first five guys “no thank you” and ten more will still ask you, “Cocaine? Cocaine? Hash? Marijuana? Cocaine?” It gets pretty ridiculous. Just ignore them and they’ll eventually go away.
Portugal has no shortage of good wine and perhaps its most famous offerings are the port wines you see available almost everywhere. Port wine is usually a sweeter dessert wine and not usually our favorite. If port wine is your thing, then you will love Portugal. Our taste run more to the less sweet wines however and Portugal also has another type of wine called vino verde or green wine. We really enjoyed the green wine. It’s a younger wine that can come from, green grapes, red grapes or a combination of the two. Some brands even add a little carbonation for a little fizz to the wine. We found it delicious and it was probably the type of wine that we most often bought both in restaurants and to enjoy at home.
There’s lots of good food in Lisbon. It’s like any other countries capital in the way that every type of food imaginable is available. Because of Lisbon’s long standing love affair with the ocean, seafood is everywhere and there are some very good restaurants throughout the city. But if there’s one thing that stood out to me, it was two incredibly tasty custard egg tart treats called pastel de nata and pastéis de Belém. They’re very similar but with different origins. Pastel de nata was originally created by the Monastery of the Hieronymites while the pastéis de Belém, was created by the Monastery dos Jerónimos but with a slightly eggier taste. If I were to crown a champion, I would give the edge to the pastel de nata. They are delicious, and I want one right now.
Lisbon lied to us. It’s either that or we just failed, so I will choose to believe it was that Lisbon lied. We had been anticipating Carnival for months and when we looked up Carnival in Lisbon, everything we found was kind of vague. Various websites seemed to imply that there were Carnival events scattered throughout the city, so we figured we’d wing it. There were a few towns nearby where Carnival was a very big deal. There were some huge parties happening there, but our reasoning was, Lisbon is the capital. There must be something big going on here, right? Ok, so we failed.
We did find a small event, in the form of a parade, in another part of town. It spanned the unimpressive length of about four blocks. It also mostly consisted of children in costume walking down the street. So, when I say we got a little taste of Carnival, I mean we got the smallest little taste of Carnival possible. It wasn’t at all, the crazy experience we had hoped for, but it was something I guess. It was in a beautiful area of Lisbon that we hadn’t seen much of, so it wasn’t all bad I guess.
Over the Hills and Through the Woods
We had a lot of field trips while we were living in Lisbon, and with our permission slips in hand, we proceeded to have a lot of fun. Sintra was close enough that we didn’t even need to book a hotel, so normally I wouldn’t have counted it. It was incredibly gorgeous though and had four castles, so it gets an honorable mention prize. It’s not to be missed in my opinion. Besides the amazing castles, it feels like the whole town is within a beautiful forest. Maybe it’s just our love of trees but we loved Sintra and could have spent our entire three months there.
We also took a couple of trips to Barcelona as well. One of the trips was mainly to see a great reggae band called Microgugua in concert and the other was to see their Winter Markets. Both reasons were good reasons, but they were also excuses to see a city we really love. After all, Barcelona was our first temporary residence in this incredible journey of ours, so it does have a soft spot in our hearts. Also, tapas is amazing. So, there’s that.
For New Year’s Eve, we decided that we wanted to go somewhere spectacular. We wanted something epic that would be a special memory for the rest of our lives. What we found was located surprisingly close by. Portugal’s Madeira Island was recognized and honored by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Biggest Fireworks Show” at one time. Even though it was eventually dethroned, they never gave up the tradition. Every New Year’s Eve, there is still a huge fireworks display. To call it impressive is like saying Usian Bolt is kind of fast. It is a sight to behold.
We were told that the best place to view the show was from the harbor, on a boat. So, we found a boat offering spaces for the night and booked ourselves a couple of spots onboard. We had made dinner reservations, so we got all dressed up and went to an amazing dinner first. We may have had a bit of wine as well but that’s probably not a surprise to anyone at this point. After dinner, with a bottle of champagne in hand, we boarded a catamaran and witnessed one of the most incredible fireworks displays that either of us had ever seen. There was plenty of other fun to be had on that trip as well and you can read more about it here. Madeira Island
As if that wasn’t enough, we received news that some family was going to be in Rome during the time that we would be living in Belgrade Serbia. We immediately agreed to meet up with them but realized that we had a problem. We were going to be maxed out on the time allowed on our Schengen Area visa. We needed to free up some days so that we could meet up with our family. We needed to decide on a Non-Schengen area destination and visit it for six days to free up days on our visa. So naturally, when we looked at a map, Morocco was right there. It was so close that it seemed like the logical choice.
We had wanted to visit Morocco since we had first moved to Europe and saw how close it was to Barcelona. There was just never enough time at that point, so we were overdue to go. We ended up visiting Marrakech and Fes and had one of those trips that satisfied the part of us that wanted to grow up to be Indiana Jones.
Let Me Sum Up
It was wonderful to get to live in Lisbon for a time. Considering how much we liked it in the winter time, we can only assume that we’d love it even more in the summer time. Always caught between our dilemma of wanting to see everywhere and with so much still to see, we don’t often visit places multiple times without a very good reason. And usually when we do, it’s for a short visit for an event like Carnival in Cologne or Kings Day in Amsterdam. With Lisbon, we need to go back for an entire season. So, while we can’t promise it will be right away, Lisbon still has a special place on our list of destinations we will return to.