It was all part of the November Plan. Head out of the country for a weekend for no apparent reason, with little research before hand and no expectations. It’s a great way to travel, even if to say that I planned it that way is an exaggeration.
This year I went for Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. After the grim summer and recent return to Greenwich Mean Time I craved some sun and a little warmth. Sure, I wasn’t going to be wilting in the heat on the Atlantic coast but it was a good few degrees warmer than London, with sun forecast and much longer daylight hours. That I’d never made it to Portugal before was a bonus.
I arrived on Friday afternoon after an uneventful flight. After initial confusion between the aerobus and the aeroshuttle (they go to different parts of town), I managed to find and check into the hotel. One of the difficulties of Internet research is that it’s tricky to know how big a city is or even, where the centre is or how efficient the public transport system is. I was initially worried that the hotel, near the Marqués de Pombal metro stop, would be too far from the action but it was just fine.
It was possible to walk into the downtown area (Baixa) but for much of the time I ended up on the metro system which was surprisingly efficient. In fact there is no shortage of options, with buses, funicular railways and trams cris-crossing the city. It’s even pretty well labelled, which made buying a ticket the hardest part of the whole process1.
For the Friday afternoon I decided simply to head to Biaxa and wander around without much of a plan, just get a feel for the size and lay of the land. I walked down the boulevard-like Avenida da Liberdade, arriving near the Rossio metro station via a restaurant that seemed to serve everything with either seafood or eggs, even benign sounding things like “sausages.”2
I had more luck as I headed south, stumbling across the Elevador Santa Justa, an unusual funicular system that rather than pulling up a steep hill goes vertically. I would say that makes it “just” a lift, but whatever you call it, it’s still an unusual and elaborate structure. Getting to the top gives me my first view of the whole city. It’s always a useful way to get your bearings.
Back down at the bottom I continue to wander towards the water front. Unlike the rest of town, this area (still Baixa) is a neat grid system making is simple to navigate and explore without having to keep a close eye on the map.
Unfortunately it’s not long before it starts to get dark and I have to suspend sightseeing until the next day. I retire to a cafe to make a decision about dinner. I decide on the popular Bairro Alto area before realising that it looks further than I though, that I’m tired and that there’s likely something just as nice a little closer. After a couple of false starts, I end up in a fish restaurant (many are here) that also served a more than passable steak and then back at the hotel.
I’d read that a little way out of the centre of town was a pretty area called Belém, so this is where I decided to head on the Saturday. Highlights of the area include the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (monastery), the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument) and the Torre de Belém (tower).
From the tram stop I wandered west. The first building of interest is the monastery. Parts of it are five hundred years old, though it’s still sparklingly white and the intricate carvings are well preserved.
I decided not go inside, instead pushing west towards the tower.
At least that was the plan. I could see the tower in the distance but on the other side of a motorway and two fenced off (and busy) train lines. This was not the time to find out whether the Portugese rail system use electrified rails or overhead power lines. I retraced my steps back towards Belém’s cultural centre (Centro Cultural de Belém) and chanced upon a subway that wasn’t labelled on any of the maps that I had.
First stop was the Discoveries Monument, which is dedicated to Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery but to my uncultured eyes looks liked a bunch of unknown people looking out to sea. Quite a grand edifice anyway.
Penultimate stop was at the Belém Tower. Originally built as defence for the river and the city, it now provides good views of the city and exercise for people who had their fill of pastéis de nata — Portuguese custard tarts — at the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém3 before rather than after their visit.
Back in central Lisbon I took another wander before dinner, using the Elevador da Glória to get from Restauradores up to an area known as Bairro Alto that offered both a great view over the city and, more importantly after all today’s walking, a wide selection of restaurants and bars.
Sunday didn’t go quite to plan. I had intended going to the Alfama district and the nearby Castelo de São Jorge but ran out time before having to return to the aerobus for the trip to the airport but breakfast, another selection of delicious pastries and strong coffee, kind of over-ran.
I guess I’ll just have to come back.
- The ticket I wanted — a day pass — was €3.50. The ATM had, helpfully, given me mainly twenties which the machine would not accept. It also wouldn’t accept my credit card because I was trying to spend less than €10. In the end, the sole visible metro system employee somehow managed to confuse the machine into giving change. [↩]
- For the uninitiated, these are two things I don’t eat. [↩]
- A famous and deceptively large bakery and cafe. Warning: annoying Flash website. [↩]