“The train slows down, we’re at Cais de Sodre. I’ve arrived at Lisbon, but not at a conclusion.” — Fernando Pessoa
Although I spent two weeks this month in the city as part of the impressive Dzanc Books/Disquiet International Literary Program, I still cannot explain my experience except to say: In Lisbon, you’ve got to get lost in order to get found.
Case in point: Alfama. The oldest surviving section of Lisbon’s devastating 1755 earthquake, these medieval alleyways comprise a village-like hilly neighborhood where balconies are strung with drying laundry and Portuguese flags, walls are tiled in blues and greens, and pigeons strut down meandering stairwells.
With the Lisbon Lux self-guided walking tour in hand, I should have known how to get around, but instead, I got lost several times as I stumbled from the Portas do Sol viewpoint down the labyrinthe streets, stopping at the Santa Luzia Church to light some votives for loved ones.
I discovered several defunct fountains carved out of hillsides (the area was originally named for the Arabic al-hamma (or ‘springs’) as a reference to the once-plentiful hot springs gurgling beneath the streets), and a locals-only cafe where I ate my first tostas queijo (grilled cheese) of the trip (an easy meal for a vegetarian). I finished lunch with a galão (a hot, milky coffee drink) and a pastel de nata (a Portuguese egg tart pastry I ate every day). While a soccer game blared from an overhead television, I attempted shabby Portuguese with the shop owner. No one paid my foreignness much attention, which I gratefully appreciated.
On my walk alone that afternoon through the Alfama, I came across few people, many pigeons, and several surreptitious Catholic shrines hidden in corners and draped in wilting chains of flowers, incense burned out at the feet of saints. The Igreja de São Miguel (Church of St. Michael), with its looming red doors, was closed, leaving its famed gilded interiors only to my imagination. A homeless man lounged on a set of stairs outside; I followed the stairs to a bench where I spent an hour reading the words of Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal’s most beloved writers.
The district, built by the Moors in the 7th-12th centuries, now is home to some of the city’s poorest residents—the unrenovated buildings with insufficient heat and drafty walls afford cheaper rents; I found myself marveling at the simultaneous beauty and poverty of the chipping pastel paint, the pebbled walkways, the ornate tile facades, the rusted bird cages and wilting flowers lining balconies.
As evening neared, at the bottom of the neighborhood’s hills, I meandered through the dusk-lit Lisbon Cathedral. Alone in the excavated cloisters behind the church, where layers of Roman ruins (including a buried mosque) are being carved from the earth, I stood on a set of planks overlooking the remnants of a city beneath a city. I wondered how much more was hidden beneath the layers, what streets lie beneath the ones on which I’d walked for hours.
But then the trolleys shattered the silence with their jangling up the narrow streets outside. A pigeon shifted in its feathery roost in the cloister’s eaves and, behind me, the tombs of silent noblemen seemed to grumble against a growing wind. I walked out of the cathedral and down into a square busy with rush hour rumblings as the sun set on the reddened rooftops of Alfama behind me and I attempted, with only the city as my compass, to find my way home.
- Some of the best meals I had in Lisbon were at unassuming hole-in-the-wall type establishments that served the famous bacalhau (dried and salted codfish).
- That said, the salads at Cafe Fabulas (in Baixo Chiado) were unmatched.
- Tapas rules at the trendy Chafariz do Vinho, a small plates restaurant and wine bar in the middle of an aqueduct (galoshes optional).
- In my opinion, pasteis (pastel: singular) de nata qualify for any meal—breakfast, lunch, or dinner—as my growing waistline can attest. The best of the best can be found at Pasteis de Belem, a short (and well worth it) tram ride from the city center.
- For a sweet sangria with a view, check out Bairro Alto’s LOSTin Esplanada Bar (also follows on the theme of getting lost in Lisbon).
- For a variation on the local Fado experience, try the Cape Verdean version of Morna at the Casa da Morna Restaurant.
- If you’re like me and can’t handle a strong espresso, order a galão at any local cafe.
- Don’t forget to check out Libson’s famed ginjinha, a sour cherry liquor often served in a chocolate cup and thought to cure any number of illnesses (such as a hangover after a night of Fado clubbing?).
Sleep: I was fortunate enough to sleep in a quaint boarding house associated with the University of Lisbon, but on my next return, I intend to check out the following:
- Hotel Solar do Castelo, a historical boutique hotel located within the walls of Alfama.
- As Janelas Verdes, part of an 18th c. palace.
- Farther out, the beachy/trendy Farol Design Hotel in Cascais is just a stone’s throw from the beach as well as the impressive collection at the Paula Rego Museum.
- Ever on a vintage-finding mission, I was ecstatic to find, in Baixo Chiado, A Outre Face da Lua and its sister outlet store down the street. Doesn’t hurt that there’s a quiet cafe overlooking the racks.
- For a more curated vintage experience, check out Veronique, just off the Largo de Carmo in Baixo Chiado, where the owner sources great vintage finds from France.
- The perfect Portuguese souvenirs, such as soaps and ceramic swallows (not to mention my favorite Portuguese-made beach blanket), can be found at A Vida Portuguesa.
- Purchase a pair of Portugal’s famous custom-made gloves at Luvaria Ulisses, in Chiado.
- The neighborhoods of Baixo Chiado and Bairro Alto are great places to get lost.
- Nearby Belem requires nearly a full day of exploration: be sure to check out the Torre de Belem and the Jerónimos Monastery.
- Take the train to Cascais for a day at the beach.
- Meander like a royal through the castles, palaces, and estates of nearby Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site outside of Lisbon.
- Art museums abound in Lisbon, featuring everything from contemporary art at the Berardo Museum to Fado to tiles to historical coaches.