While I could probably sum up most of the places that I’ve been to so far in a couple of sentences, Lisbon defies easy categorisation. And such is my distaste for having to think through my judgements rather than relying on instinct and prejudice, it has taken me until now, 25 hours into a 32 hour train trip from Lisbon to Nice (via Hendaye, Toulouse and Marseille stations) to finally try and put my thoughts to paper. Anything to distract me from how long I’ve been travelling in these clothes anyway.
Lisbon is not a city with must see this before you die attractions (or at least, I didn’t see them), but it has considerable charm, and lots of ways of passing a pleasant day.
I arrived a couple of days before I’d arranged to meet my mum here, and so I tried to avoid any of the things she might want to do together. As a result, my time was roughly divided between walking up hills and sitting on the top of hills reading or admiring the view. I suppose logically I must have spent some time going down hills, but that doesn’t seem to have stuck in my mind. I don’t want to be accused of flogging a dead horse (though that kind of implies its better to flog a living horse, capable of feeling pain, you sadistic bastards) but Lisbon is very hilly. This has its upsides in terms of navigability, of defining the various areas of the city and in providing views, but it does make getting around hard work. Portugal has a fine tradition of long distance runners, most famously Rosa Mota. I’d not be at all surprised to find that they built up their endurance travelling around the capital.
The views from the hill tops are varied, but are all rather impressive. Unlike Granada though, the views looking up are more mundane.
When my mum did arrive, heroically sharing a hostel with me and braving the vagaries of a communal bathroom, we started seeing the sights. Due to the Earthquake of 1755 which basically flattened central Lisbon, most of the major architectural sights are outside the city, either a few minutes by bus in Belem, or an hour by train in Sintra. In Belem there is the Monasterio dos Jéronimos which has a very nice cloister and a so-so church, impressive in scale, but apart from a couple of exceptions not particularly elegantly decorated. Belem also has a tower and a sculpture, both of which are nice, but not incredible.
Sintra is a gorgeously situated little town north of Lisbon which seems to have been a sort of aristocrats hideaway safe from earthquakes and plebs. The Royal Palace is not particularly striking from the outside (indeed its oversize chimneysmake it look a bit like an upscale factory) but it has some very attractive rooms inside, particularly when retaining Moorish influences, less so when the gaudy Manueline style predominates.
From there it is (of course) up a sizable hill to the castle there. The walk is wooded and all very delightful. The castle itself is a ruin, but there are some imposing views from the top of the walls for miles away. It was a bit windy to feel entirely comfortable standing above significant vertical drops though. Still higher up is the fairytale™ Palace de Pena which we couldn’t face trekking to. It’s supposed to be furnished in ornate, verging on the kitsch, opulence so I doubtless only have been sniffy about it if we had done.
In between these two trips we went to a fado show. Fado is the traditional music of Portugal, based around a single singer with basic accompaniment – one or two guitarists. We chose, as much by luck as judgement to go to a Fado Vadio night, a sort of open mic evening. We were sitting next to a very friendly and enthusiastic French guy (I didn’t catch his name, so we’ll call him FEFG for short) who told us that this was real street fado, not the touristy stuff.
The first guy was very Jacques Brel, lots of theatrical gestures, declamatory singing and playing to the crowd showmanship. We suggested the similarity to FEFG who found the idea laughable, but hell, screw him and his friendly enthusiasm, there was definitely a resemblance. If the first guy was Brel, then the second guy was Norman Wisdom. Wizened but sprightly old chap with a rather inauthentic baseball cap whose voice had clearly been shot for at least 15 years but was gamely soldiering on anyway. After that though the quality was pretty high from a wide variety of singers who nipped in, made a couple of jokes about the current act, did their own turn then left – the place was too packed for them to hand around. In fact, high though the quality of the singing and musicianship was (and I generally liked the music too) it was the ambiance that made the evening. With only space for about 30 people all packed in together and the singer right in the middle it was a very immediate spectacle and the willingness of the proprietress and on one occasion the kitchen staff to join in on some of the numbers enhanced it. It was a lot of fun.
After my mum left, I had one afternoon free, so I went to the Museo Gulbenkian, a collection of an immensely wealthy Armenian from the first half of the 20th century. His breadth of interest (from Roman, Greek and Assyrian archaeology through a sizable collection of Islamic art and through to European art from the 16th century onwards) meant that the exhibition was stretched a little thinly. The Islamic art was very pretty and must have made for some fine interior decorating when it was scattered around his house and there were a handful of exceptional paintings too: Rembrandt/Degas, a decent collection of Corot, Monet’s The Boats but in the end my favourite part of the visit was the grounds of the museum which had some lovely woodland groves and were very aromatic too.
Re-reading this I realise that I still haven’t properly summed up Lisbon. Ah well, them’s the breaks. In lieu of that, I’ll give you 2 quirks of the Portugueuse. Firstly instead of naming their days of the week after mythical gods from near-forgotten pantheistic religions as any sensible culture would do, they go for the boringly utilitarian: Monday is “second day”, Tuesday is “third day” and so on for all the working week. Secondly when ordering names alphabetically, they do so on the first name rather than the second. Crazy guys.