A day in Lisbon

May 17, 2016

LisbonLisbon is known for its mild climate.

“It snowed 50 years ago,” our guide, Sandra, told us, “and it was a mixture of chaos and spectacle.”

Back in 1755 a huge earthquake rocked the ocean and sent a gigantic tsunami uphill, destroying much of the city. It’s still talked about today.

My favorite story of hers had to do with a stunning basilica built by a queen who was barren. She badly needed an heir, so she prayed to the Virgin Mary, and like the rich royal she was, built a gorgeous basilica in her honor. Shortly thereafter, she was pregnant with a son. By the 10th child, the queen was praying “enough!” to the Virgin. In the end, she had 16 children. So, forget about IVF: build a basilica and infertility won’t be a problem.

The most amazing thing I saw was an almost exact copy of the Golden Gate Bridge—because it was built by the same guy who did the Golden Gate.

LisbonDespite the white-bleached sandstone buildings I saw from the air, I didn’t find Lisbon as charming or even as interesting as I’ve found other European cities. Nearly a quarter of Portugal’s population lives here—some 2.5 million people– and from the dangling utility wires (not as bad as Mumbai, but still) to the crumbling walls, Lisbon (or Lisboa, as it’s called in Portuguese) seemed to have all of the earmarks of a large European city and little of its charm.

LisbonBut let me talk first about what I did find pretty:

The old cobblestone sidewalks evoked a different era. As a result, though, and for safety’s sake, I saw no stilettos and very few heels at all. Shoes and attire seemed strictly for comfort.

LisbonBuilding facades made completely out of mosaic tiles lent an individual look to Lisbon.

I’m always up for a street café and there were plenty. And some of the very best coffee I’ve ever had.

The people are very likable.

LisbonTuktuks are a great way to get around and far, far nicer than those we took in India. FARRR nicer. And motorized!

And the location, right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, is lovely.

LisbonThe Avenida de Liberdade is the main boulevard, fashioned after the Champs Elysees in Paris, but I have to tell the truth: despite its gardens, leafy trees and waterfalls, it kind of fell short. Maybe because it was developed in modern times: 1985.

Today, Lisbon is proud that all of the major luxury brands are represented on the Avenida (from Cartier to, well, you name it) and from an economic development standpoint, it’s a good thing. I, however, avoided retail therapy during our time in Lisbon and felt the city’s shops gave it a generic feel. That’s all I’ll say.

Scratch a city in Europe and you’ll find monuments on every corner. The same is true in Lisbon, and the most interesting of these was the monument to discoveries in the 15th and 16th century, when Portugal played a key role in mapping the coasts of Africa, Asia, Canada and Brazil.


Looks pious, right? I’m sure he was held accountable for his atrocities at the pearly gates.

Portugal was home to Vasco da Gama, who sailed to Calcutta, India, bringing back spices and establishing a maritime route and trade. The voyage took 10 months. In a world without GPS and with only the most rudimentary of sailing ships, that took guts. And with guts comes some brutality, it appears.

Our guide failed to tell us how da Gama’s second voyage to India included the interception of a ship of Muslim pilgrims, including women and children. He locked them all up and burned them to death, despite the entreaties of the women, who offered up all of their jewels as they pleaded for mercy with their babies in their arms.

Any Catholic nation has basilicas, churches and monasteries. Lisbon is no different and we visited one with a particularly pretty cloister: The Monastery of the Hieronymites in the Belem section. Vasco da Gama was entombed in the church there. Also buried in that church was the poet Luis de Camoes, whose epic poem celebrated da Gama’s first voyage to India. I always like it when writers are entombed in European churches.

LisbonThe cloister looked old, large, peaceful.

I loved that the confessionals in the church backed up on the cloister and that’s how the monks got in and out of them privately to hear confession.

We walked around the old Jewish quarter. I am always dismayed to hear yet another horrible story about the treatment of Jews…and in 1497 the King ordered Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave. Those who converted then had the pleasure of the Inquisition in 1536. I mean, what the hell is wrong with people, anyway? Back then, now, it boggles the mind.

The language spoken is Portuguese, which is sort of like Spanish, but not. In fact, our guide told us that we should do our best to avoid speaking Spanish to Portuguese, as there is a rivalry of sorts. But the language is close enough to be a little confusing. So I’d catch a word or two and then be completely flummoxed.

We really had only a limited time in Lisbon, so my view of the place is colored by that. It’s clear, though, that Lisbon’s a city that’s trying to make its mark. It’s not there yet, but worth watching.

25 comments on “A day in Lisbon
  1. Lee says:

    Thank you for sharing your guide’s stories. Those were great to read. I also liked how you gave us the good and the bad about Lisbon. Your photos are excellent and gave me just enough to make me think about visiting this great city.

  2. Kate Mahar says:

    Such a thoughtful piece. I, too, appreciate your candor and willingness to back away from the travelogue mode, talking simply about what you did and did not like. I’ve been wanting to go on the Douro River cruise with Viking and am still interested. However, I most likely would have added a few extra days to explore Lisbon. Not so sure about that now.

  3. GiGi Eats says:

    Adding another one to the bucket list!!

  4. Gorgeous to see these photos, Carol! One of these days I hope to visit Spain and Portugal.

  5. I was only in Lisbon for a day on an excursion from the Queen Elizabeth but was intrigued by the faded bohemian style buildings looming on the steep hills. And even though I don’t normally have a sweet tooth, I am now a dedicated fan of Pasteis De Nata custard tarts in Belem.

  6. alison says:

    I have never been to Lisbon but I appreciate the architecture there and I think I would love the shopping! I didn’t know that they spoke Portuguese there. That was interesting to find out.

  7. Anna Palmer says:

    I love that you mixed in critique with celebration. Sometimes I feel like travelogues are one big ad. This was real…and now I want that tuktuk

  8. I really hope to go to Europe one day. Man those buildings are so close it’s making me feel claustrophobic lol

  9. Roz Warren says:

    A mixture of chaos and spectacle! Great line. Your tour guide was a poet! I’ve never been to Lisbon so this lovely bit of armchair traveling was just the ticket. Loved the photos. Any town with excellent coffee is work visiting at least once.

  10. Klauss says:

    Wonderful pictures, beautiful architecture!
    But in the photos there is no tram, that’s for sure Lisbon 🙂 joke,okay

  11. Andrea says:

    You still looked like that you had a great time in Lisbon – and I too like how you gave both sides 🙂

  12. Very honest assessment. Thanks for including the things of beauty as well as the parts that were less than desirable. Glad the coffee was good!

  13. Carolann says:

    Love the photos Carol. I like the vibe of them. I’d like to go there someday for sure. I think I can live vicariously through you in the meanwhile!

  14. sue says:

    I enjoyed ‘visiting’ Lisbon with you Carol. We are hoping to visit Spain next year but I must admit Portugal has never ‘called to me’. I was surprised to see a tuk-tuk as I usually associate them with Asia where we take our life in our hands riding in one LOL:) Your photos were beautiful thank you.

  15. Nancy Hill says:

    I would love to see the rural villages, the ocean’s edge from the other side, but I think I will do large cities elsewhere. Love your assessments.

  16. We loved Lisbon! We did some great shopping there and would actually like to go back and spend more time.

  17. Criz says:

    I read a lot about Lisbon recently. Although this is not on my list, I still want to see this city too sometime soon. And I would like to see that bridge that is like the Golden Gate Bridge. 😉

  18. Nicole Escat says:

    My sister was there last year and she says it’s so beautiful in Lisbon. I want to go theresoon.

  19. Barbara says:

    Thanks for a great review, Carol. Now I can take Lisbon off my bucket list! Loved the stories!

  20. It looks beautiful. I love to travel. Colored buildings are awesome!

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