In love with Lisbon: Travel Writing piece

In Love with Lisbon

“I’ve never been to Europe before, and I feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” L said, and I knew she was leaving me no choice. The winters in Perth can be lonely enough as they are, with several people disappearing abroad to follow the sun. She knew this, so I could not simply vanish to the other side of the world without taking her with me. We were too attached, and I’d always talk about my hometown, Lisbon, as the most fascinating city in the world. In the three weeks that followed, she got an almost too-real experience of what life in Lisbon really is like. How the city of seven hills will have your legs aching if you are not used to living there, comfortable sneakers being a must. How several well-presented men will casually offer you drugs with the most amazing façade-merging corners as background. And how much there is to see and do in three weeks, which gives the holiday a sense of much-needed proactivity if one is to make the most of their time there.

I had come back to the city where I’d been born many times before, but this was the first time I was bringing a girlfriend from Australia, which changed everything. It meant that not only was I a lover and protector of all the blasphemies only I understood in the local language, but I’d also have to become the local guide for the holiday. And guide her through Lisbon’s crooked cobblestoned alleys I did.

The first thing you need to be introduced to when in Portugal is the food. Much like the Italians and Spanish, us Portuguese have a very proud and old food tradition. As soon as we landed, we went straight to one of the oldest producing bakeries in the country, Pasteis de Belem, or translated roughly, Tarts of Bethlehem. Sounds more exciting in Portuguese. I’d been craving these for almost two years now, the same way a soldier misses his rifle. This is the original factory where the same recipe has been used since 1837, where tourists queue around the block to try the cinnamon-topped custard tart. This recipe is said to be locked away in the national archive museum, and the wait couldn’t be more worth it.

 The two-hundred-year-old white and blue tiles that adorn every wall of the historic place give you a sense of going back in time, a head-first dive into Portuguese history and culture. As you enter, the sweet, hypnotizing smell of freshly-baked custard fills your nostrils with a feeling of home, giving you the same feeling you get when returning to the warmth of your house on a winter afternoon. They sell something like twenty-five thousand tarts every day. Me and L had twelve in one sitting, to give you an idea.

These heaven-baked tarts demand pairing with a bica, the Lisbon-styled short black coffee, an acronym for Beba Isto Com Acucar (Drink This With Sugar), a term created a few centuries ago after the introduction of coffee to the city which used to be the heart to one of the world’s biggest colonial empires. This means that nowadays, the Portuguese population is composed by a myriad of cultures from all around the world, a small price to pay for the many colonial crimes committed in the past. This is, in the end, the most Western country in Europe, and so, the end of the road for many. We paid for the coffees and tarts to one of the many employees I knew had worked there ever since I could remember. A full belly and the warm taste of coffee to wake you up. We were ready to start our adventure around the city.

We moved in downtown with my sister; a house probably smaller than many backyards in Western Australia. The wooden floors are the original since the apartment was built in the eighteenth century, and you must bend down in order to go up the narrow, creaking wooden stairs without banging your head. People were shorter back then. This gives the whole experience a sense of uncomfortable charisma: every time we would arrive from a night out, we’d have to tiptoe up the stairs in order not to wake my sister up so that she could go to work the next day. It never worked. But it’s these little details, such as using a match to light up the boiler every time you need a shower, that bring you the full Portuguese humbling experience. Call me a romantic, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The whole of Lisbon was rebuilt after a huge earthquake back in 1755, which destroyed the old city almost completely. A tsunami made sure whatever was left of downtown, one of the worst zones to be affected, was never the same. The city went on to be redesigned by one of the great Portuguese marquis of the Enlightenment era, Marquês de Pombal, whose statue features atop one of the city’s great roundabouts he designed himself. This means the vast majority of downtown houses, including the one I used to live in before moving to Australia and my sister’s, are all mostly eighteenth-century builds. Crazy to think what would happen if calamity were to strike twice in the same location.

We woke up the next day and descended the one hundred and eighty steps I used to go up and down every day on my way back-and-forth from school. We had some delicacies for breakfast, paired with a bica, of course, followed by a walk through Baixa-Chiado, an old-styled, cobblestoned shopping strip with freshly renovated façades, and possibly L’s highlight of the trip. The Australian dollar is not what it used to be compared to the euro, but when abroad, one likes to indulge in the freedom of spending in the local currency. It was, in hindsight, the chance for a small-town Queensland girl to have a shopping spree in one of the most famous European fashion hubs.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!”, she would repeat when I looked at the price tags and added numbers and conversions in my head. But how could I deny her of her freedom? It was the height of summer and there we were, right in the middle of it, a tourist in my own hometown, a world I’d seen many times before but that I now saw through her point of view, a pair of young, green eyes. To be young and in love in Europe. This constant romanticizing of events shall be the end of me.

That night we joined my family for dinner and L started realizing the magnitude of the conversations shared around the table in that country. Sure, my dad made an effort to speak English whenever possible, but we Portuguese like to sit over a meal for at least a couple of hours, and L was quick to understand how weird it was for me trying to communicate with family I hadn’t seen in two years in a foreign language.

When I asked her “What’d you expect?”, she replied “I dunno, but not this.”. This set in motion a constant juggle between communicating in Portuguese and translating it to English to make sure she was always included, even if we were talking about the most banal of subjects. “I know how to speak your language, why not make an effort to understand mine?” I would ask with a smile, and she would try for a while, to no avail. Maybe it’s this romanticizing of the difficulties in life that make the Portuguese fall in love for other languages, which doesn’t happen too often in the English-speaking world of Western Australia.

I decided to deafen the language barrier by taking her out into one of the most famous nightlife spots in Lisbon, Bairro Alto, translated roughly to high neighbourhood, not named after the state of mind of its inhabitants, surprisingly, but because of its location atop one of the city’s seven hills. These narrow-alleyed streets look like just any other in Lisbon during daytime: antique builds with two-to-three storied multicoloured façades, small old ladies standing in their smaller balconies watching the world go by, usually with an acute ear for gossip. But during the night, a complete transformation turns the scene on its head with an overflow of music, laughing echoes, foreign languages and living-room sized bars selling shots for €1.

We live in Fremantle for most of the year, where nightlife ceases to exist around two, three o’clock in the morning. But in LX, as the locals call it, the night is only getting started by then, especially considering how the sun sets around 9.30PM during summer and how people go out for dinner as late as 11PM.

Whereas alcohol restrictions are strict in Australia, Portugal couldn’t be more different from it. The little bars encourage you to buy alcohol and go out into the streets where you can have a drink as you roam around listening to all the different music emanating from a multitude of bars. A perfect way to spend a warm, summer Friday night.

 I remember how fascinated L was by all this freedom, considering many places in Fremantle won’t allow you a drink after hours without ordering something as banal as a bowl of chips. Well, in Lisbon, bars strive even when charging €1 a shot. Sitting indoors is a rarity, mainly because the bars are too crowded with people lining up for a drink, which can be overwhelming during the peak of summer. A good solution for this are the mini-marts specifically located near these night hubs, owned mostly by Indian families, who sell after-hours alcohol for a cheap turnover.

It all feels like a very entertaining walk around the city with a drink in your hand, which, for someone who lives in a country with such strict alcohol measures as Australia, feels like heaven. It also seems to work differently in terms of public intoxication. Maybe the fact that the pubs close so early down-under and how they won’t allow you to take your drink with you results in heavier drinking. If they tell you a rollercoaster will close at a certain time, you’ll try to get as many rides out of it as possible. If you know that same rollercoaster will be open all night, maybe you’ll think twice before taking your stomach for several bumpy rides.

The same can be said about drugs. Portugal was one of the first countries to decriminalize all drugs for personal use back in 2001, and not surprisingly, addiction levels have decreased over the years. Same concept again, the more you forbid it, the more we want it.  

From Bairro Alto we made our way down the hill, crossed downtown and started another daunting hill-climb into one of the other nocturnal hills in the city, Alfama. These hill climbs have the original yellow trams functioning all day for unaccustomed tourists, and the antique-looking tram has become one of the trademarks of the city. But during the early hours of the morning the trams aren’t mobile, and so these climbs become the main challenge when trying to move from one area to another. L learned her comfortable-Lisbon-shoes lesson when a lady descending the hill in front of us collapsed on her high heels. The price to pay for beauty.

Alfama is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the city, and it’s a bit calmer in comparison to Bairro Alto. It is built around the city’s castle, Castelo de S. Jorge, and it has always been a hill more inclined towards the arts. One of the city’s greatest jewels was born and raised here, Amalia Rodrigues, who earned her place in Portuguese history by becoming one of the best Fado singers, the most iconic national music style. Since the great Amalia died before the turn of the century, a great funeral I still remember watching on TV when I was but 5 years old, I took L to the next best thing: a little Fado bar which is open until late. The traditional music style consists of usually a sole voice singing about the many misfortunes in life, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and a normal guitar. The word Fado itself translates to fate or destiny, and so the Fadista (Fado singer) will sing with as much emotion as possible. Add cheap wine to the mix and you have yourself an immersive and emotional experience, “Even if you don’t understand the words!”, as L put it.

We finished the night off with the classic trip to the bakers who, at that time of night, are just getting started. They choose to keep the tiniest of windows open, through which they conduct business and capitalize on the drunken longings for a good chorizo bread, for instance, another one of the many local delicacies. We walked back downtown hand-in-hand, the bright yellow lights guiding us home as we climbed our last little hill, followed by a cautious, short climb up my sister’s old wooden stairs.

The next day my father rocked up way too early in the afternoon to drive us to lunch across the Tejo river, Tagus for the tourists, to a fisherman’s town across the river, named Setubal, where my dad was born. This is by far my favourite place in the world to eat fish. As you get to a restaurant, the first thing you see is a little fish stand where all the freshest catches are displayed on ice. You choose your own fish and the usually moustached-man, whose sole job is to stand in front of the coals all day, will cook it to perfection. Pair this with a salad and some of the local green wine, or vinho verde, a slightly sparkling white wine, and the afternoon fades into the distance. I don’t eat as much fish as I should back in Australia, so this was a trip across the river we made as much as possible during out time there.

After lunch, we drove up one of the national parks close to Setubal, Arrabida, where you can drive along the cliffs overlooking the beach. We don’t have many beaches in Lisbon, but with a short drive you can visit one of the many beaches of a country that is kissed by the Atlantic from north to south. Portugal is a country which is proud of its long-lasting relationship with the sea: to the East we always had the Spanish to fight against, so we turned our attention towards the blue-mass that defines our massive coastline. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like back in the sixteenth century, the era of the Descobrimentos, translating to the Discovery era, where the Portuguese ventured the sea around the world in search of foreign, never before explored (at least not by the Western man) worlds. How Vasco da Gama must have felt when he completed what was back then the longest oceanic trip ever completed, from Lisbon to India.

We are blessed with an almost scary ease of travel nowadays, which we must be eager to explore and enjoy. So next time your partner, or a good friend of yours tells you: “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!”, make sure you listen and head over to that little country situated at the far end of Europe, for it will be a trip I’m sure you won’t easily forget. Just make sure to pack some comfortable footwear!

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