The first thing that struck me were Lisbon’s streets. They are thin. Busy with side walks, tram lines and cars. The pastel and patterned buildings rise high and close making the streets claustrophobic at some times and like a maze at all others. The streets rise up and then down and sway from side to side as though a drunk man had done the street planning.
Emerging from the metro into the middle of this scribble of streets I was hugely disoriented. No sea to be seen that could point my inner compass, in fact no natural or man made landmarks were to be seen. The side walks themselves were reflections of the streets. Pitted with surprising crevices and with a languid roll to them, they have been polished dangerously smooth from the thousands on millions of feet passing their way. Their diamond cream stones glittered in the evening sun making every pathway look like the sparking scales of a fish, perhaps even the cities own trademark – the sardine.
I’d done a classic. Booked a flight with no research on the destination. Just some free time and the allure of a place I hadn’t been before. When I rose from the underground, I rose into something I hadn’t expected because I hadn’t been expecting anything.
My hostel here in Lisbon is called Lookout Lisbon and is situated right on the Jardim de sao Pedro de Alcantara, a lookout that sits a little back from the city and gives beautiful views over to the castle and the sea. I had arrived during festival time in Portugal and on this lookout every night I was there, DJ’s set themselves up for an evening of playing to those come to watch the sun set over the hills of the city.
On my first evening I got in late and checked in to the hostel but headed straight out again to a restaurant recommended to my by Claudia at reception. It was a tiny restaurant with no English menu and waiters who also spoke no English. It’s been a while since I was in a place where English is a useless language. So often when on tour we go to the same places who are used to having tour groups through and so who are able to speak with us and so to be in a situation where I couldn’t understand him or him me was a nice novelty. I also couldn’t read most of the menu (which is unusual as food translations are generally what I am best at) so I pointed at something and sat back to wonder what I was getting. I did kind of laugh at myself when what I managed to get was veal escalopes with chips and 3 veg, not the most exotic meal but it was delicious and huge. Always what you want after a big day of travelling.
Back at the hostel I made friends with my room mates, some very friendly brothers from Canada. They invited me to go out but I was exhausted from my day of trains and planes and turned them down in order to nestle down in my 3rd tier bunk with game of thrones. I’d made a decision (not a hard one) to make this holiday a quiet one. I wanted to chill out from the world a bit with movies, books and writing. Because work involves moving so much and late nights and sightseeing, a holiday is sometimes just being able to NOT do these things. Luxury to me is staying more than 2 nights somewhere and being able to sleep in till 8. I did realise pretty soon into my trip that I had chosen the wrong country to do this in (is there a right one?). Portugal has so many cool things to see and do that for most of the time I was still out sightseeing and cramming my days full of experiences.
Lookout Lisbon was an amazing hostel. The best I stayed at for my trip. It is only small, taking up 1 level in an apartment building. This gave it a very personal feel, every time I came in I would have a chat with whoever was at reception, breakfast in the morning was a beautiful variety of foods spread along a long table and we all sat around in pajamas, talking and organising our day to come. The beds were comfortable and each bed had a huge locker with it. The whole place was spotless and modern and they offered great day trips out of the city which I took advantage of on my 3rd day. Most of my room had said they were going on the beach trip the hostel ran so I thought I should join in. This was a great decision.
The next morning 8 of us plus Bojan our driver loaded into an old but beautifully maintained yellow van and headed up the coast. The beach was about an hour north in the national park of Sintra and the drive up was spectacular. The beach itself was the kind you would expect in Aus but which is so rare in Europe. Wide and white sanded with actual waves worthy of surfing on crashing on the beach. I love waves, they are my favourite part of the beach and for most of Europe (around the Mediterranean sea) there are virtually no waves so this was a treat. Bojan had brought umbrellas, beer, snacks and a volley ball. We probably spent 4-5 hours there, reading, tanning, swimming, chatting and drinking. On the way home most people passed out asleep from the heat and rumble of the van which is a sign of a good day I think.
Back at the hostel Bojan told us that the food we needed to try was Bifanas and he pointed us in the direction of a good restaurant for them. This place had a picture menu but as we said, if we had just been going off the pictures the Bifana would have been the last thing we ordered. As it was we ordered 9 of them and plenty of sangria. Bifana’s are the softest rolls in the world (seriously, they felt like clouds) stuffed full of strips of pork and then smothered in mustard. That is all there is to it (which is why they are only about 2.50) but it is a delicious dream of a sandwich. I had it for dinner 2 nights in a row and would have been happy to have more except for the feeling that I needed some vegetables.
On the note of food. Pastel de Nata. I had a Portuguese teacher back in high school and one day he introduced us to these Portuguese custard tarts and I remember them very clearly as being delicious. It was the main food that I knew of in Portugal before I came. One of my friends had also said before I came that one of my ‘to do’ items needed to be just sitting down and eating these natas until I could eat no more. I didn’t quite do this but I did manage to fit in at least one of these sweet sweet treats into each day I was in Lisbon.