A few days in Lisbon

I was going to do a travel review, but I think an essay is more called for. I’m not actually sure what an essay is or why I’ve called this one but it seemed appropriate. Her Majesty recently celebrated being Queen for an awfully long time and gave the nation a day off to thank us for not having her turned into a pensioner while some republican moved into her house. We felt the best use of this day off was to catch an aeroplane to Lisbon as everyone else would be standing in the street drinking lemonade while waving some flags and bunting. It was a good decision because I have never seen London Heathrow airport so bereft of travellers.

Plenty of policemen with machine guns though. On the policemen walking the concourse with machine guns, is this really necessary? Have they ever pointed one at anyone? Even when the terrorists drove a van into Glasgow Airport it was our own new Chuck Norris, John Smeaton, a baggage handler who did all the beating up of the bombers.  I don’t want to look at machine gun-toting coppers while I am checking in for my flight or buying a coffee. Why don’t they have some guys in the roof or something, ready to rappel down to manhandle any suspicious characters lingering in the wrong place? Or just shoot them in the face from a distance like in the Bourne Ultimatum at the train station? Anyway, I digress.

We flew in a half empty plane to Lisbon, I don’t know much about Portugal really, It’s a small country underneath Spain on the map. I know my Mother in Law doesn’t like Portugal. She doesn’t like Portugal because she met some rude Portuguese people in Brazil in the 60’s, yes I know., we’ve discussed her before. I’ve been to the Western Algarve which is covered in half-finished concrete jungles because everyone ran out of money. This is because nobody wants to spend £200,000 to buy an apartment in a half-finished development which will never actually be finished. Because there is much of this going on in the sunny bits of greater Iberia, Portugal is now one of the P.I.G.S.

P.I.G.S is Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, they are all broke because their banks lent all the money to people with no means of paying it back but that’s a whole other story for cleverer people than me to explain to you. I’m just here to talk about Portugal and Lisbon in Particular.

Portugal was once one of the great main countries of Europe, with France, Great Britain and Spain. Portugal has an astonishing naval history for such a small country, of course the British had the biggest Empire but in those days Britannia really did rule the waves. The Spanish made some inroads into South and Central America in a fairly brutal fashion but the Portuguese got Brazil. They also got Mozambique, Angola and some other lesser known African Countries. Some large chunks of India, The Middle East, a bit of Asia and some islands in the Indian Ocean. The French got some bits of Africa and an Island in the Pacific.

This is not a history lesson but in 1755 there was an Earthquake of such magnitude in Lisbon that the city was all but destroyed and something like a quarter of her population was killed. The quake started major new philosophical movements across Europe about the force of nature versus god or something like that. Blokes like Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau sitting around in café’s smoking cigarettes talking in impenetrable sentences about the nature of events and so forth.

The science of Seismology was also born out of that quake. Most profoundly affected though were the Portuguese colonial ambitions at such a key time in history for establishing or fighting over trade routes and general flag planting so the Portuguese had to concentrate on rebuilding one of the world’s greatest cities of the day. Queue lots of political arguments and power shuffling. This all had a large contribution to the decline of Portugal as a major player on the world stage.

Portugal is a lovely country though and Lisbon is a Beautiful city, quite hilly with very distinct districts. The Central city is easy to walk about in if you don’t mind a few hills. There are many plinths with a statue of a man on a horse, they like a plinth, do the Portuguese. The people watching is brilliant in the multitude of street restaurants where you can enjoy selecting food from a multi-language menu with pictures of the food. I’m not a fan of menu’s with pictures of the food but you’d go hungry during the day if you get too fussy about it.

There are many great caricatures of national characteristics to observe. The English like to sit in a vest, ideally with a soccer logo of some sort and order beer by the litre while swearing a lot. The Germans have a penchant for bizarre spectacles and the men still like to have amusing facial hair, also for some reason German ladies of a certain age have adopted what I have dubbed ‘the Merkel walk’. Watch her walk, she doesn’t walk like a regular person, this seems to have caught on among middle-aged German ladies. There are many girls wearing tight-fitting clothing in pastel colours who appear to be visitors from Miami based police shows in the 1980’s. I didn’t stop to speak with them but I believe they may have been from Brazil.

There is much to see and do in a couple of days in Lisbon. The huge Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in the Belem district is a must, there are also loads of museums and galleries. We tend to wander about soaking up the general atmosphere interspersed with a bit of people watching while seated in a wicker chair, followed by more wandering about before choosing somewhere for beer, wine and food. We get bored quickly in museums. The People of Portugal that I have encountered are primarily engaged in ferrying me about in a yellow Mercedes Taxi, serving me food and drink or selling me things. They are uniformly very nice friendly and helpful, far more so than, say, the Spanish who must get fed up with noisy Brits being sick in their streets every night. They certainly have always given me that impression when serving my drinks with a scowl.

The Portuguese are even polite and friendly when you catch and accuse them of pulling a fast one, the fast one is the ‘couvert’.  We have learned that in seemingly all dining establishments there is a routine that goes like this. Your waiter will seat you and quickly bring a selection of delicious canapés to your table, you will feast upon the canapés and make a selection of your supper. You will most likely have a splendid meal of high quality seafood cooked superbly. You will ask for the bill which will include a number of items you didn’t order. This is the couvert. It adds about £10 to your bill and makes you argue with the waiter about the morality of bringing things you didn’t ask for, not telling you they would be charged for and then telling you this is normal in Portugal. So either eat the couvert and pay or wave it away.

Taxis in Lisbon are pretty cheap, think about a third of a London Black Cab for an equivalent journey. The Doca’s area of bars and restaurants under the big ‘Golden Gate’ looking 25 de Abril Bridge is a great place to spend an evening when you have had enough wandering about and want to tuck into some fish and Mateus Rose. Yes it’s like a throwback to the 70’s but it’s actually quite nice and very cheap. The Bridge has an amazing hum from the traffic and with the little marina and variety of places to eat and drink the Doca’s is an excellent place to spend an evening.

I found the night-time activity in Lisbon far more civilised and seemingly good-natured than the noisy and frenetic Spanish cities where you tend to get English people falling out of all the bars at closing time. Lisbon has an air of being much safer, more cultured, quieter and friendly. A few times we had someone approach us to offer to help if we looked like our map reading skills had failed us. This doesn’t really happen in other European cities and if it does you wonder what the ‘helper’ might be up to. In Lisbon they just wanted to help. There was this one chap, we dubbed him ‘helpful taxi bloke’. He was asking people approaching a taxi rank where they were going. He would then advise the merits of a taxi or walking. He didn’t appear to have any ulterior motive for doing this.

I’ll let you pour over a guide-book on what to see and do in Lisbon. You’ll want to pursue your interests rather than mine. But in summary, it’s a fantastic city, Beautiful and lively, yet safe with really nice locals. Great history of once being of the great powers of Europe and the trappings to show for it. You’ll eat well to suit any budget. Great sights, sounds and smells. Portugal does not deserve to be one of the P.I.G.S. It is a great little country with an incredible history and Lisbon is a gem, go.

17 replies »

  1. Brilliant essay, Sandy! Makes me wanna go to Lisbon. Glad you were able to get away, and while I might be surprised a world traveller like you had not been to Lisbon before, I remind myself that I myself have not visited all 50 states in the US 😉 Cheers!!

  2. Thanks Beth. I’m not all that well travelled really. I’d been through Lisbon to Cascais before. So many cities so little time, and more importantly, money!

  3. Good fun Sandy. Only visited Lisbon once in 1970s. The Commies had taken over and the place was full of refugees from the African colonies. Cue for good time! Your reference to the Germans reminds me of the question – how can you recognise the Lufthansa plane? Answer – it’s the one with hair under the wings!

  4. Spot on about Lisbon. In my estimation, one of the most romantic cities in the world. I lived in Cascais for a couple of years while I was stationed at NATO there. We try to get back whenever we can, which is, unfortunately, rarely.

    Other side trips in Portugal: Sintra, Evora, and Reguenhos (sic?) de Monserraz. I also hear that Coimbra and Porto are worth the trips.

  5. Hi Sandy, I have also wondered about the men with guns.

    In edinburgh the airport was extremely busy and our flight to Paris was completely full. Everyones taking the opportunity to get away!

  6. I must admit that Portugal in general and Lisbon in particular are places that I have never considered visiting, until now. The photographs that you posted followed by this article / review / essay ? has certainly whetted my appetite. Once again I congratulate you on your writing.

  7. Thanks Dennis. That means a lot. I really think you’d like Lisbon and Portugal. It’s often overlooked. being a small country underneath Spain on the map.

  8. Yes I will! I must! Sounds fab, Sandy, I would also enjoy a mooch and some people watching and (of course) a small beer. You sound like great city companions. X

  9. Lisbon’s a great city – did you see their very own ‘Christ the Redeemer’? Love the little custard tarts too but my favourite thing is the port (drinkable variety). Would like to visit Porto some time.

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