Part XI continues my backpacking through Spain and Portugal journey. From Sacramento to Lisbon, follow my journey through these two countries. Two more days in Lisbon included Belem, the Alfama, the Gulbenkian museum, churches, and the mall before the adventure takes me home to California
Day 20 – The Belem I didn’t see and more of Lisbon
After one day in Lisbon, this was home. Of all my tours, vacations, and travels in Europe, this city was like no other I had been to. No, it didn’t offer famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome. There wasn’t a museum like the Prado in Madrid or the Uffizi in Florence. It was a different city than Barcelona or Amsterdam. In just one day, Lisbon was unlike any I had felt or experienced. However, my second day didn’t start off well.
I woke up felling sick, like I was going to throw up. Every time I turned my head, the room was spinning and I was dizzy. The only thing I could think of that would cause this is something I ate – Subway maybe? I tried getting up to get ready but I was dizzy and about to throw up. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to make it to Belem today.
So K went to Belem without me and saw the Coach museum, Monastery of Jeronimos (including the tomb of Vasco de Gama), and the Monument to the Discoveries. This celebrated the Age of Discovery and the Portugal Empire conquered by the sea, making it one of the richest and most powerful countries in the 15th and 16th century. However, like everyone else, I have to appreciate Belem through pictures.
When K got back at 1:30 pm, I felt better. We took the Metro to the Sao Sebastio stop to see the Gulbenkian museum. This is the museum of an Armenian oil tycoon who gave Portugal his art collection as a gift of gratitude for asylum granted during WWII. The collections spans more than 5,000 years with statues from Egypt, coins and medallions from Greece and Rome, tapestries and art from the Islamic word, ceramics from the Far East, and various paintings and furniture from Medieval Europe, 17th and 18th century Europe, and France.
However, using the directions we had, it took us 45 minutes of walking around and asking for directions at the Metro before we found the museum. Again, I was frustrated. The museum was a nice, quick view of different periods of history and art from all over the world. However, there was a bit too much furniture and ceramics for me.
Afterward, we took the Metro back and walked to the Praca de Figueira square to catch the bus to the Alfama. We were dropped off at the Sao Jorge castle. The castle was built by the Moors in the 8th century, served as a royal residence for 4 centuries starting in the 12th, and then was abandoned in the 16th century and fell into ruins. It was restored by Portugal’s dictator Antonio Salazar in the 60s. The highlight of the castle was the panoramic views of the city. Along the castle walls, these were the best views of the city.
After the castle, we headed down the hill through the Alfama neighborhood. We saw a couple of other squares with some nice views and cool tile work. However, the Alfama is about the experience of a neighborhood rather than its sights. These old streets and buildings were unaffected by the 1755 earthquake where the fishermen and mariners lived.
Today, it is a neighborhood for an elderly and dying breed generation. There are steep and narrow streets, lines with laundry hanging everywhere (no washing machines, only local Laundromats), locals talking loudly in the streets and bars, communities where families know each other and still eat together in the streets, and the music of Fado. It felt like I had stepped back in time walking through this neighborhood, an era of a different generation.
As we descended down to the waterfront to the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro square, we came across a local festival of music and dancing. What an experience to see families and a local community enjoying a festival which has probably been going on for years.
We walked back along the river and entered the huge Praca do Comercio square with the statue of King Jose I (the man whose right hand man and essential ruler of Portugal, PM Marques de Pombal, rebuilt the city after the earthquake). The Palace square was the site of the royal palace for 200 years and still contains many government ministries. The huge arch was Pombal’s attempt to restore Lisbon to Paris status. It leads to the grand shopping and pedestrian street back to Rossio and the Restauradores square.
We headed up the street and turned right to see the Romanesque Se Cathedral. It was started in 1150 and is the burial site of St. Anthony. However, there was more to see on the outside than on the inside. We wandered back to the wide pedestrian streets near the arch and grabbed dinner at the Casa das Sandes. It’s the Portuguese version of Subway but with fresh food. K loved it so much she wants to open one in the US.
After dinner, we wandered the streets and looked into some shops before heading back to our hotel. It was 8:30 pm on a Sunday and there wasn’t much to do. So we decided to go to the biggest mall in Spain and Portugal – Colombo shopping mall. It has 3 floors, 400 shops, 60 restaurants, a health club, and a movie theater. That is why we were going. One thing different about the movies here is that different sections and seats have different prices and each person is assigned a row and seat once you buy your ticket.
From just a couple of days here, I had already observed some things about the culture in Portugal. The great thing about Portuguese movies is that everything is in English with subtitles (unlike Spain). It is probably one of the reasons their English is so good (plus it is required in school). From my observations, the Portuguese seem more westernized than many other European countries. They seem to accept and want some of the same things we want as Americans, including our music. That is all that plays in shops, internet cafes, and in the mall. Seems there is more of a sense of western fashion as well as I see more makeup and nails than I did in Spain. Not only do they know English so well but it seems America is a great influence on the culture.
After the movie, we took the Metro back and headed to bed. I still like Lisbon a lot. And while it is not a really busy city, there is still enough to do and see. The weather has been great here as it has been sunny and in the upper 70s. However, one complaint that I do have – flies. They are everywhere and all over you. Without that, this place would be even better.
Lessons Learned - One of the best memories this day was watching a movie in another culture. Seeing day-to-day life as people experience every day things gave me a glimpse into a culture that I wouldn’t see as a tourist. While watching a movie may not seem like the best tourist thing to do, seeing Portugal’s culture, fashion, food, entertainment, and tastes gave me me a lot of insight into how they live.
Day 21 – Last day in Lisbon
Today is the last full day of our trip. And honestly, there isn’t much to do today as all the major sights and museums are closed. We woke up at 9:30 and then headed over to see the inside of Sao Roque church. Wood panels on the floor are numbered as they used to mark the places where people were buried underneath the church. However, that is not the case anymore as this practice was stopped in the 19th century because parishioners didn’t want plague victims buried here. The church was nice to visit and the altar was big but there was nothing too exciting about it.
Afterwards, we rode the Metro back to the Colombo mall to do some shopping. However, this isn’t the place for tourists – clothes, specialty stores, a Target type store, electronics, sports, a typical mall. We wandered the 3 floors of shops and places to eat and went into a few places to browse. There were a lot of local places for people to shop. However, my idea that Portugal is very much influenced by America seems evident here. McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Hut were just a few of the places to eat. There were other more local places and foods as well but you can see the influence of American culture all around in the food, shops, and even the people.
After a couple of hours in the mall, we rode the Metro to the Marques de Pombal stop and walked through the Edward VII park. The park was green and wide and had some paths for people to walk and jog. It is located near the more modern part of the city, just north of the Praca de Restauradores square (where our hotel was).
This area of the city was a bit uphill and from the top of the park, we saw the Pombal statue (the grand rotunda similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris) and the tree lined Avenida da Liberdade (modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris) which was part of the rebuilding effort in Lisbon. Far off in the distance, we could even see down to the waterfront. We walked down the Avenida da Liberdade and picked up some souvenirs at some shops. The street is lined with mostly office buildings and shops and a few grand hotels. We made our way down the street as it led us right back to our hotel. We dropped off our souvenirs and went back down the pedestrian street Rua Augusta.
We spent more time peeking into shops and looking for various souvenirs. After finding a few more items (including a small commemorative plate of Lisboa), we went to eat at Casa das Sandes again. After lunch, we headed back to the hotel and I spent some time using the internet. Later on, we headed to dinner in the cold and the rain, our worst weather in almost 2 weeks. Our last meal in Portugal was at one of the pushy, tourist restaurants as we settled for an omelet and pizza. I hated the restaurant. The food wasn’t that bad but the ambience was terrible and it felt like a tourist trap. It wasn’t the best meal to end our trip but with the cold and rain, we wanted somewhere close to our hotel to eat.
The meal summed up our trip – cheap tourist rather than curious traveler. Most of the trip was spent seeing things and going to places rather than experiencing the people and culture. There were a few of those moments along the way. However, the best memories of my trips in 2004 and 2006 were experiences I had and not things I saw. We ended our night walking through Rossio and the Praca do Comercio pedestrian streets. On our walk back, we heard 2 Americans talking to 2 Lisboa policemen. Even the policemen here know English. I am glad we finished our trip in Lisbon. If there was one city I could pick to live in from our trip this would be it – for the city, people, diversity, and culture.
Lessons Learned - Your best experiences in a place may not be your pictures or souvenirs. Finding a place you like to eat or a place where you can observe the culture where there aren’t tourists is a great way to remember your trip.
Day 22 – The journey home
We woke up at 8:30 to get ready to catch our flight home. I got ready while K went and had breakfast. Around 9:15, we checked out and headed to the square to catch the bus to the airport. We had to wait 30 minutes or so but we got on the right bus and arrived at the airport around 10:30. We checked in, I had a snack, and waited to board our plane.
It was a long day as we flew from Lisbon to Newark, Newark to Houston, and then Houston to Sacramento. Our flights consisted mainly of sleeping with some eating and a movie for me. Our friend Chris picked us up at the airport around 11:15 pm and we made it safely back home around midnight. For the most part, it was an uneventful day of traveling. By the time we arrived home, 24 hours had passed since we woke up in Lisbon. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my trip – the good and bad, likes and dislikes, favorite moments, and what I learned.
Next up - A review of my trip backpacking through Spain and Portugal trip and a look back on things I learned from my trip.
Read more about my adventures in Exploring Spain and Portugal