TRAVEL: Lisbon — built for walking; prices were cheap

Community News & Features Dec 8, 2017 at 3:34 pm
View of old Lisbon from the rooftop observatory at our hotel near the Sao Jorge castle.

View of old Lisbon from the rooftop observatory at our hotel near the Sao Jorge castle.

By Bruce Gates

LISBON, Portugal–The tomb of Vasco da Gama has pride of place inside the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon’s Belem district. Da Gama (1469-1524) was the Portuguese explorer largely responsible for finding sea routes to Asia around the cape of Africa, launching a golden age of exploration, which eventually led to the discovery of the Philippines by another Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, though he sailed under the Spanish flag.
The monastery is built of limestone and was completed in 1601, and it is one of many attractions in Belem (Portuguese for Bethlehem), a half-hour streetcar ride away from the centre of old Lisbon, where all the roads are cobblestone and some streets are so narrow I could stretch out my arms and, with the palms of my hands, touch the walls of buildings on either side.

And the hills! The old trams, which are tourist attractions themselves, are a godsend if you are hauling any kind of luggage – because even the sidewalks are covered in small pieces of stone done in mosaic patterns. Lovely to look at but hard on the luggage wheels (or high heels).

The historic trams that take you just about everywhere in the city. (Photos provided)

The historic trams that take you just about everywhere in the city.

Our hotel the first night we stayed in Lisbon was in the shadow of the Sao Jorge castle, an old fortification dating back to medieval times and perched high on a hill overlooking the historic centre of the city. The view would have given defenders of the castle a clear view of any invaders coming in by land or by way of the Tagus River.

And what a view it is.

Our hotel contained a small room at the top of a winding staircase called a Keep. In medieval times, this was a refuge of last resort in times of invasion. From this vantage point, we could see clear across the old city, whose buildings’ roofs are mostly covered in red clay tile.

Walking through the old Alfama district of Lisbon, not far from the castle, we could appreciate the need to be in good shape: There were plenty of stairs and hills to climb. We passed by some lovely old churches and restaurants, some of them not much more than holes in the wall. There were also small stores resembling Filipino sari sari shops.

There’s plenty of shopping and dining in Lisbon. We found a pedestrian mall lined with a number of familiar stores and restaurants along Rua Augusta, just a short walk west and south from Praca da Figueira. And just northeast of the Rossio railway station and behind the Teatro D. Maria II is another pedestrian precinct with plenty of restaurants and bars, where, at 9 p.m., the party is just beginning.

Much of our time in Lisbon was spent walking, because this is the best way to experience the city, which dates to Roman times. It’s the best way to experience the architecture of the buildings both quaint and grand, many of them covered with ceramic tiles in multiple colors and patterns. (There’s even a museum dedicated to ceramic tiles in the city.)

But when we needed to use transit, Lisbon’s efficient Metro took us where we needed to go, including the airport. And the old-world trams with the narrow-gauge track took us everywhere else in between. We found a day pass worked well for us and the prices were reasonable.

Also reasonable were the prices for a meal. I bought a fresh fruit salad at Varn, a bakery-cum-grocery store off Praca da Figueira, for 1.20 euros, and beer there was 1 euro (about $1.50 Canadian). The local beers, Sagres and Super Bock, were as cheap as pop, and certainly cheaper than fresh-squeezed orange juice. At another restaurant, A Padaria Portuguesa along the waterfront near the ferry terminal, my wife Nida and I ordered hamburgers with drinks. The meal for the both of us, including chips and beverage, was less than 12 euros: the orange juice was 1.80 euros and the beer was 1.40 euros.

A guy could get used to this.

Narrow streets in the Alfama district.

Narrow streets in the Alfama district.

Vasco da Gama’s tomb at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon’s Belem district.

Vasco da Gama’s tomb at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon’s Belem district.

 

Many older Lisbon buildings are covered in colorful ceramic tiles.

Many older Lisbon buildings are covered in colorful ceramic tiles.

 

And where the trams don’t go, the Metro does – including the airport. Here’s one of the subway stations.

And where the trams don’t go, the Metro does – including the airport. Here’s one of the subway stations.

(All Photos provided)