The reason I love Lisbon? It’s the one lifestyle city that I found myself in love with. In this case, a lifestyle city is known for its relaxed atmosphere. A city where one comes to live and not to see, run, and exhaust themselves. Every person who visits can find their own piece of Lisbon, a piece they hold completely to themselves without sharing with a thwart of attention starved, selfie taking, floppy hat wearing tourists. It’s one of the only places where you can have a smoldering, passionate, and intimate love affair with a city that is private and all your own. I remember sitting in one of the, what felt like hundreds, of very small bars in the Bairro Alto section of the city. It was a Mexican bar where my husband, four locals, two Europeans and one bartender were the only guests inside. My eyes felt heavy and smoldering, my movements languid, yet my speech with the bartender – both English and Spanish was free flowing and uninhibited. My smoky eye make-up was undoubtedly making its way down my face from the scorcher of the day. The heat from the day’s sun was retained in my tan skin, and I felt warm. I was buzzed, and well fed, and among local people, and happy. God, was I happy. During my 12 hour layover to passionate Lisbon, there was no hurrying, and list checking, and walking quickly as though there were a motor in my back. There were moments like this, in this Mexican bar, stumbling across gem after gem and falling in love effortlessly with each dimly lit enclave that I visited. Like most affairs of the heart, mine was short yet memorable. It left me swearing that I won’t return here again, no matter how enjoyable because there is too much else of the world to see. However, I still often think of the city and allow myself to recall each and every feeling it kindled inside me in such a short time. I find it formidable to ever “vacation” in Europe, but Lisbon is a city where it is easy to relax and let go.
The hill I was willing to die on during this short trip was confeitaria de belem. I refused to get sucked into the tourist trail outside of this experience. This experience would surely be worth the stress of the masses. Despite the madness of the crowds at the famous cafe, I was determined to indulge in Lisbon’s famed cuisine here. After being punched in the back several times by zealous visitors, I had a sinking feeling that the experience might not make up for the abuse I suffered during the wait. However, The pasteis de nata were nothing short of a religious experience and that’s not because they were originally made by holy rollers.
I had spent weeks stalking the Portuguese egg custard tarts on social media and the internet. I had endured pushing and shoving in line while I waited my turn. I would gladly do it all again. They were the perfect breakfast. I can still do my best impression of Pavlov’s dogs when I think of flaky crust filled with a somehow sweet, almost pudding like texture with a perfectly burned, crispy, skin on top. After a long, stressful, day at my actual job – I am smiling like a fool and salivating as I write this. (Let that image sink into your mind, super creepy, I know.) The cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top of the custard added another flavor dimension entirely, but I’ll be honest, they were better on their own. I remember sitting in a park as we ate them and watching a group of school children enjoy the playground. It sounds ridiculous, but I always forget that as much as countries around the world are very different, they are also very similar. I’m always surprised by seeing something as ordinary as children being at summer camp. I couldn’t help but juxtapose our experience. I was a stranger in a far off land where things were certainly new, shiny, and different. For these children, Lisbon was their home, their backyard to climb and play in. We were both explorers in that moment, albeit in very different manners. The children delved within boundless imaginary worlds on their playground equipment; I dove recklessly into my egg tarts.
Confession. I sometimes imagine I am a historical character from a TV show given the right environment. I take my role way too far. I’m a HUGE fan of historical television shows. Right before visiting Lisbon I had binged watched The Tudors on Netflix. Many of the hallways in the Jeronimos Monastery looked like the hallways of William of Orange’s palace. I obviously stalked around them quickly with my back straight and shoes clicking, trying to look very important as if I had a message to deliver. I made sure to have a smug smirk of arrogance on as I patrolled the hallways. I will often walk into doorways acting winded, as if I ran all the way to this point with an important message. Other times I will look hopefully out a window or into a courtyard and pretend I’m meeting my love. Sometimes I get incredibly extra and re-enact a sword fight. It’s really entertaining and brings any historical site to life. It’s also very, very weird and uncomfortable for people around you. Never do this when other people are around.
No shade at Europe’s churches, but they all seem to look the same to me after awhile. I’ve yet to see a medieval church really jazz it up by serving guests their own blood of Christ sangria, or showing off their holy karaoke den. This was not the case at Jeronimo Monastery; I’m not implying that they had either of these initiatives. I’m saying it was certainly the most unique religious institution I’ve been to on the continent, I would even put it against Segrada Familia. Many of Lisbon’s commemorative sites give a nod to their early explorers and the monastery is no exception. Sailors and explorers used to pray in the nearby chapel the night before their journeys for safe passage. King Manuel built the monastery nearby to thank the early navigators of Portugal. The entire building is created in white limestone which automatically makes it unique and there are nautical and sea-faring themes intricately carved into the limestone, which as a material even looks like nautical rope. I am always looking for ways to connect with the past. Knowing that those objects were carved hundreds of years ago, have not been changed, and are now being admired by people decades later makes history palpable for me.
Wanting to know more about the nautical history of Portugal and its explorers, the padrao dos Desobrimentos was not to be missed, best of all, it’s free and entirely worth a visit. The monument was erected (LOL – so glad we use this word) to commemorate Portugal’s history of discovery and all of the brave explorers who navigated the seas and explored for Portugal. Figures such as Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama are featured in the memorial. The bank where the monument is built was often the last view of home many sailors would see, but also, the first view of home if and when they returned back to Lisbon. The monument is absolutely striking and photos do not do it justice. It demands one’s full attention and awe as it completely towers above all of its visitors and appears so lifelike. The structure has motifs of all who explored including missionaries, map makers, and artists of the 15th and 16th centuries. Lisbon is one of those cities where the ghosts of the past certainly walk among the bodies of the living. When the mist rolls in and you’re gaping at the memorial on the water, it is easy to expect the fog to clear and find yourself in a different century altogether. (Or maybe that’s just because I watch Outlander.)
The trams of the city were too scarce and too packed for me to want to take part in. However, this didn’t stop my admiring of them and taking pictures whenever I could. Lisbon is always celebrated for its historical trams, but I was pretty surprised how elusive they actually seemed to be. The lines were unfathomably long to ride them which seemed to defeat the purpose to me. The trams also didn’t seem to stop long enough to get any decent photographs – at least for me.
I made a promise to myself not to rush around like my ass was on fire. In the late afternoon, it was time to relax. What’s a good maritime city without a place to enjoy cocktails and music as the sun begins to set? I was happy when we stumbled across this scene with drinks, lounge chairs, music, and tables abundant. Time moved slowly as I drank a kick-ass sangria, hell, it might have even stood still. The sound of waves crashing in the background as Arthur and I caught up during the ultimate date night was meditative.
Later on after seaside sangria, we went in search or food in barrio alto. It was worth the nerve rattling cab ride uphill, followed by walking straight up hill further (OK, maybe that part – not so much.) We spent the night at a honeycomb of restaurants and bars. Each building hosted a unique, intimate, and captivating experience. One of my favorite memories is a Portugese grandmother yelling down from her balcony that I must try the restaurant down the street and blowing me kisses after her overture affectionate for her favorite neighborhood spot. It was truly one of those moments that people fawn about when recalling an authentic travel experience. My husband and I drank two pitchers of a very strong sangria and eating one of the most filling and delicious meals I’ve ever had. A giant plate of fish and tons of potatoes (Portuguese dishes tend to be very heavy and light on veggies.) I was stuffed to the gills – no pun intended – but could not stop eating. Full of unfairly good food, powerful booze, and the happiness that discovering a new destination brings, I became misty eyed as a Fado performance began. I had only seen Fado on my beloved Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and have been haunted by the artform ever since. The music reaches deep down into even the most stoic of hearts, squeezes, and does not let go until the song is over. It is one of the most powerful art forms I have ever experienced, it’s impact lasts long after the performance. Fado is meant to convey a sense of “longing” which is unique as a musical genre, and this can definitely be felt by the listener.
Lisbon, for all of its hills and long tram lines, was my most relaxing short trip to date. I took no issue with not knowing where my feet would take me throughout the evening. I felt more than content to wander the gritty streets and follow one surprise after another each time I turned a corner. Lisbon – a smoldering city of graffiti covered walls, warm colors, maritime views, and alcohol infused pleasures, I’ll always look back fondly on our short time together. No matter what city I wind up in, I promise to give a smirk and head nod when I think of you and the memories that only we have shared. Xoxo.