As the aeroplane began to descend towards Lisbon, I saw snatches of the Atlantic and the city spread out along the banks of the Tagus River. Then the plane made some interesting manoeuvres, pirouetted like a ballerina, and seemed to circle around randomly, we went up and down, to the point when I wasn’t so sure we would land at all. Surely one of the strangest and alarming final airport approaches as you find yourself flying low over the city, practically peering into apartments on the top stories of buildings. The airport I discovered is almost completely surrounded by city.
Milos and I actually flew in to Lisbon to do our visa interviews for the USA. We have an imminent trip coming up in August! As a South African, this interview is part of the visa application system, and so after a stressful few weeks of filling out lengthy forms online and trying to schedule appointments, we decided to apply in Portugal.
Not the most logical choice, but since Barcelona does not have a US embassy, we would have needed to complete the interview stage in either Madrid, South Africa, or Serbia. All of which would have required us to travel. It seemed a bit excessive to take a holiday to go on holiday, but our trip to America has been on the cards for a while, as a wedding present from Milos parents.
When we discovered that Madrid was fully booked up for the next month, we were relieved to discover that we could apply at any US embassy. As long as you can prove your resident status, it seems ok, although they did ask us why we were applying in Lisbon, when we nervously handed in our documents. Of course there is no guarantee that they will grant you a visa at any embassy, and I can tell you our trip improved hugely when we were given the green light!
On top of being nervous for the interview, and getting no sleep the night before our early morning flight to Lisbon, we discovered upon arrival at our Airbnb.com room that our hosts had a rule that guests could not be in the room between 10am and 7pm. We were pretty wild eyed at this point, and when we were finally able to return to the room at 7pm we barely knew which way was up!
I must say it wasn’t a great start, as we had banked on being able to get a few hours of nap time in, before doing a little research on Lisbon. We literally knew nothing about the city when we landed.
The first day was therefore a crash course: the ubiquitous coffee, Portuguese style, strong, black, and just what we needed. This was accompanied by the famous pastel de nata, which my South African friends, is like a mini milktart, cinnamon and all. Quite yummy indeed, but perhaps a bit sweet as a breakfast. After this we wandered down one of the 7 hills of Lisbon towards the old center, past the castle, enjoying the steep streets, and pretty buildings patterned in tiles or graffiti.
We happened to land in Lisbon during the hottest week of the year, with temperatures almost in the 40s. It was also glaringly bright, and after a while my face started to hurt from combined sunburn and squinting! We quickly found a park on the map, and headed for some shade and a snooze.
On our first day we were ripped off pretty bad when we sat at one of the typically touristy restaurants overlooking the river. At this point we didnt know about “couvert”, the Portuguese starter dish. This “convenience” usually consists of a basket of bread, olives, pate or small cold meats, which is brought to your table while you peruse the menu.
Couverts can be anywhere from 1 euro per dish to 5 or 7 euros per person, and watch out! You are charged for anything you eat. Usually I would suggest that this is fine, I probably would have ordered some bread and olives anyway, but it’s a bit confusing the first time, if you are unaware that it is NOT complimentary, especially when you didn’t ask for it or are on a tight budget.
It is completely acceptable to send your couvert back, or parts of it back, you only pay for what you eat. Of course we had no idea about this, and as our legs were about to buckle, we needed to sit down somewhere in the shade and snack on something, but our lunch which had appeared cheap initially ended up being around 50 euros with drinks and couvert, for fare that was sub-par. I have no problem spending money on food, but I do expect a certain standard, and was pretty underwhelmed by this first proper meal, especially after hearing prior to leaving Barcelona, that Lisbon had legendary food!
Later we discovered which restaurants to avoid, but I have to say that some research goes a long way! It’s far easier to just randomly walk into a good restaurant in Barcelona. Lisbon it would seem, requires a little luck, and insider tips! Read up reviews, and grab a copy of “Guia Convida: Lisboa bairro a bairro“. I only found a copy on our last day, but there certainly looked like there were a host of restaurants that I would want to try next time!
After a rough introduction to Lisbon, the city, as charming as it is, really got under our skin. We loved the friendly atmosphere, the textures and colours, the cobbled streets, and rickety trams, the fantastic vistas from each of the seven hills. Lisbon seems to still be figuring out itself as a tourist city, and we enjoyed this, as it made us feel like intrepid explorers discovering the city. Grannies would stare at us from apartment windows, while old Mercedes Benz cooked on the sidewalk parking lots.
Scruffy cats wandered about and scraggly pines framed views of the old castle walls. A real view into the lives of Lisboans was visible through open doorways, once you meandered off the beaten track. Often it reminded us of Maputo in Mozambique, which made us really feel like we were on holiday!
During the week we wandered about the various neighbourhoods, spent a lovely afternoon exploring the Lisbon Oceanarium, which I would recommend for a rainy day, or if you are in need of some shade. Another walk led us to a lovely little restaurant called Noo bai which overlooked the city and river. We had a fantastic lunch, and were able to watch the Tall Ships as they sailed into town for the annual tall ship races.
During the trip we got the hang of using the trams, which proved to be a fun way to get about the city. In some places we swung alarmingly close to the walls of sidewalks, but riding in the trams was often better than the trek up the hill, back to our room. We enjoyed another lovely dinner, where we were amazed by not only the magical night time view, but also by the portions. Later we rather regretted not sending our couvert back, as we pretty much had to roll ourselves home!
Then on a Tuesday we stumbled into the Thieves market on our way to Cascais, and this was one of the fun unexpected things that Lisbon had to show us. Vintage curiosities and antiques were on display and the market rolled down the hill, overtaking sidewalks and squares alike.
All in all Lisbon was sun washed, delicious, friendly, and certainly a place I will look forward to returning to someday. Although I don’t look forward to flying in… perhaps next time calls for an overland roadtrip from Spain? Any takers?