Lisbon is a beautiful city. Its combination of vintage buildings and sweeping hills, together with its location on a major port, supply its aesthetic charm. When you factor in the cable cars (known locally as trams) that traverse the hilly streets of its downtown, Lisbon bears more than a superficial resemblance to San Francisco, a city to which it is often compared (The two cities also share a delightful Mediterranean climate. A further point of similarity: while San Francisco is much more famous for its seismic hazards, Lisbon suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 1755, with a magnitude estimated to have been as high as 9.0, that helped inspire Voltaire’s Candide. If you visit either city, you risk being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the next Big One strikes).
And like San Francisco, Lisbon has now been a stop on my World Karaoke Tour. I sang on my very first night in Lisbon, a Friday night. I was staying in town through the following Monday morning. How did I occupy the rest of my long weekend?
After I passed a couple of hours in my hotel room writing a blog post about the previous night’s singing experience, it was time to embark on some exploration. Appropriately, my first stop was the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries). I’m hugely interested in the Age of Exploration, an era in which the Portugese played a pre-eminent role; so I was eager to check out this concrete sculpture, which includes depictions of the major seafarers of that time as well as their financiers. It looked pretty nice on the outside. Sadly, the exterior was all that I was able to see of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. Although the posted hours on the front doors indicated that the monument was supposed to be open during the day and time of my visit, those doors were locked and there were no personnel on the premises. I was thus deprived of the opportunity to ascend to the terrace for a panoramic view of the surrounding area. It also would have been nice to see the multimedia exhibition on Lisbon’s history that is supposedly found inside the monument. The monument looked nice on the outside, though.
Next I visited the Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle), a Moorish castle complex that dates to the 11th century. As you would expect of a medieval fortress, it sits atop a hill with commanding views of the surrounding area. The historic district in the vicinity of the castle contains additional edifices of note, including a church that dates back to the 12th century (it also abounds with the the souvenir shops that tell you that you’re in a historic district).
One of the more pleasant activities available in the castle region is a ride on the tram (okay, perhaps it’s a little too touristy, just like the San Francisco cable cars. But it’s still a fun way to get around, and pretty inexpensive). I will say, though, that my tram ride did not go quite as advertised. I’d been told that the tram operates in a loop — that I could hop on anywhwere, and it would circumnavigate the old part of town, and eventually I would end up back where I’d started. The “loop” description did not apply to the particular tram that I boarded. It took me on a one-way journey, and I was kicked off when we reached the end of the line. I then boarded a tram that appeared to be heading in the opposite direction, but it didn’t return me to my original point of embarkation either. Instead, it too reached its terminus where I was required to alight. As a result, I kind of got lost, with my map being of little help to pinpoint my location in the maze of medieval thoroughfares (In theory, I couldn’t be truly lost since I was carrying a GPS-equipped smartphone with global capabilities. However, given the exorbitant roaming charges for international data use, the cost of actually using the GPS would have been out of any proportion to the benefit. Still, that feature may come in handy someday if I need to escape from kidnappers or something). After some aimless wandering, I jumped in a taxi.
I had the driver take me to Rossio Square, a large public square that’s one of the focal points for the city. I’m a big fan of the broad plazas that can be found in so many of the older European cities; and this one was no exception. I ended up at a cafe with outdoor seating, got a cup of tea, and sat at a table adjacent to the square, from which I was able to engage in some top-notch people-watching.
In the evening, I dined at a restaurant in the Bairro Alto, a neighborhood with many pubs and restaurants. Then, to celebrate the transition from 2011 to 2012, I went across town to witness the New Year’s Eve fireworks display that Lisbon puts on over the Tagus River. As you can see, it was quite an impressive show:
What wasn’t so praiseworthy was my journey home post-fireworks. After watching the 10-minute fireworks show, I waited at a taxi stand for 3 hours and 15 minutes for a taxi to take me back to my hotel. In case you don’t believe me, here is what the taxi queue looked like:
The extreme waiting period was a function of two factors: the sheer number of people waiting in line, and the scarcity of vehicles to provide them with transportation. At times, 5 or 10 minutes would elapse before another cab would pull up to the taxi rank. And no matter how long it took the line to creep forward, I had no choice but to stick it out; any attempt to hail a cab on the street was unlikely to succeed.
So I waited and waited and waited and waited, and then I waited some more. Lesson: Whenever I go out in an unfamiliar city — especially at night — I should always make sure I know in advance how to get back to my hotel in a safe and reasonably efficient manner. Coming from New York City, a metropolis with over 13,000 licensed taxis cruising its streets, I tend to take for granted the ease of hailing a cab on demand. But had I realized that this process would prove much more difficult in Lisbon (or at least in the part of Lisbon where I watched the fireworks), I might at least have investigated Lisbon’s Metro system, which could have afforded me a much quicker way of returning to my hotel from the fireworks (the Metro runs nightly until 1:00 a.m.). Or I might have opted to forego the fireworks and ring in the new year in a different part of town. On this New Year’s Eve, not having had the benefit of such hindsight, I was forced to play out the situation in which I found myself and remain in the taxi line for as long as it took. Walking back to my hotel was not an option — not in an unfamiliar city whose streets aren’t in a grid pattern (and a city in which I’d already gotten lost that afternoon — and nearly gotten mugged the night before).
My interminable session in the taxi line was not completely lacking in entertainment value. At one point, someone cut in front of the line and jumped into a taxi that had just driven up. The police ran up to the taxi and pulled the cheater out of the vehicle; the people who’d been obediently waiting in line burst into applause.
I felt sorry for the folks who were at the back of the taxi line at 3:45 a.m. when I finally boarded a cab (the line really hadn’t gotten any shorter during the time that I’d been standing in it). But my ordeal was bad enough. Man, after subjecting me to over three hours of dead time, the forces that control the universe owed me big. The least they could have done was to ensure that when a taxi finally pulled up for me, it would be one of those taxicabs with karaoke that are so trendy these days. That would almost have made my ridiculous wait worthwhile. But alas, my ride home was song-free. Still, at least I was finally getting home. New Year’s Eve was over at last.
On New Year’s Day, I’d hoped to take a day-trip from Lisbon to the nearby city of Sintra, which is known for its colorful palaces with dreamy architecture. Sadly, just about everything in Sintra turned out to be closed on January 1. Additionally there was a railroad strike in Portugal that apparently reduced the frequency of trains and would have made it difficult for me to get to Sintra in any event. So I stayed local. That didn't help much, as few if any attractions were open in Lisbon either. I took a ferry ride so that I could get a glimpse of how Lisbon looked from the river (this was a commuter ferry, not a tourist boat; the tourist cruises on the Tagus, which would have appealed to me, turned out to operate only between April and October). Then I made a return visit to the castle district, since walking around neighborhoods that date back to the Middle Ages never gets old for me. That relatively modest itinerary was the sum total of what I was able to come up with to pass the time on New Year's Day. Lesson: Before I make plans to travel to a particular city, make sure that the things I want to see will actually be open during the time when I want to visit them (of course, unanticipated obstacles like the railroad strike will still arise. But the tourist-attractions-being-closed-on-January-1 thing was knowable in advance). When I'm on the road, I like to constantly be moving around and seeing new things; and I try to take in as many of each city's "must-visit" sites as I can. I was unable to achieve those usual goals in Lisbon. With that said, even when everything goes wrong, travel remains a stimulating experience for me; and I enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from vanquishing such challenges. I was just about to write that I'd rather be bored in a foreign country than at home; but the truth is, travel never really gets dull for me. Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, put it well: “I love travel because you may be uncomfortable, hungry, hot and sweaty, cold and shivering . . . but damn it, you will never be bored.”
And I was okay once I got over my disappointment and resolved to make the most of my time remaining in Lisbon. I returned to the coffee house on Rossio Square that I’d enjoyed the previous evening; then I just wandered around and let serendipity take over. I stumbled into a neighborhood with pedestrian-only streets and a large volume of restaurants offering local cuisine. Many of those eateries employed touts who would run into my path and urge me to sample the gastronomic delights at their restaurant. One such hawker boasted of how his restaurant offered “typical Portugese cuisine.” I pointed out to him how the restaurant across the street from his own displayed a sign that also promised “typical Portugese cuisine.” Eventually I chose a restaurant that had not employed high-pressure sales tactics on me, and enjoyed a fine repast featuring grilled octopus. That meal was a good way to wrap up my Lisboetan weekend.
On my next airline voyage, I’m hoping to not to be stuck with as gross a seat-mate as the man who was seated next to me on my flight from Madrid to New York when I was returning from Lisbon. For most of the last four hours of the flight, that individual was biting his nails and/or otherwise putting his fingers in his mouth (he was also rubbing his face with those same fingers). That spectacle was impossible to avoid seeing with at least my peripheral vision, and was highly unpleasant; it made the flight seem twice as long as it actually was. Some of my friends have theorized that my nail-biting neighbor may have been a nervous flier who was merely trying to cope with his discomfort. Perhaps, although we have no real evidence as to what was causing his dismaying habit (and he continued to bite his nails even after we’d landed, while we were taxiing to the gate). Anyway, as you know, I’m afraid of flying myself; but I don’t deal with my phobia by doing something that would disgust innocent bystanders.
But just like I survived the Longest Taxi Line Ever, I did somehow make it through that flight from Madrid. So now that I’m back from Portugal, attention turns to my next trip, during which I expect to add countries 25 and 26 to my World Karaoke Tour. In February 2012 I’ll be visiting Egypt (my research indicates that Cairo has a thriving karaoke scene); and on the way back I’ve arranged an overnight layover in Frankfurt, Germany, where I’ve found at least one venue that has karaoke on the night when I’ll be there. Thus, not only will I be singing in the land of the pyramids, but the Land of Chocolate will also become a long-overdue addition to the World Karaoke Tour! 🙂
Here are some additional photos from my brief sojourn in Lisbon: