10 Apr 2008
Lisbon has been in my 'must go to' list for quite some time now, hence even though not a big follower of motorbike racing, I jumped at the idea of heading to Lisbon for MotoGP Portugal.
We (Cam, Guppy and I) got in to Lisbon on a Thursday evening and started our explorations with a visit to Bairro Alto, a popular part of Lisbon consisting of narrow cobbled streets and boutique style shops, restaurants and bars. After grabbing some dinner at a Portuguese restaurant serving a range of grilled meats and seafood, we moved towards Docas, the dock area below 25 de Abril Bridge (pretty much a carbon copy of the Golden Gate Bridge). Overlooking a marina, this was a great place to grab a drink, with a series of old warehouses that had been converted into bars, restaurants and clubs.
The next morning we met up with a couple of Gup’s mates (Tim & Sherryn) and headed up to Castelo De Sao Jorge (Castle of St George), which has origins dating back to the 6th century. Located on top of Lisbon's highest hill, the castle consists of a long extension of walls and towers offering fantastic views of the city. From there we headed in to Alfama, a working-class, residential part of Lisbon directly below the castle with more narrow cobble paved backstreets where washing is hung from buildings and dogs bark at you from open windows. The feeling walking through Alfama was unique, almost as if you were walking through someone’s house, with local residents going along with their daily routines unperturbed by the masses of tourists an arms length away.
After grabbing some lunch (more grilled seafood) at a nearby café along the waterfront, we headed in to Baixa (downtown Lisbon) consisting of Terreiro do Paço (the palace’s square) where the royal palace (which replaced Castelo De Sao Jorge in the late 15th century) had stood for over two centuries before being destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. From here we headed north along Avenida da Liberdade, the city’s main street consisting of a multitude of shops, cafes and restaurants blended in with numerous sculptures, fountains, decorated pavements and trees. At the top of Avenida da Liberdade is the monument to the Marquis of Pombal (the prime minister responsible for the rebuilding of Lisbon following the Great Earthquake in 1755), which has him standing on a column with a hand on a lion and his eyes directed to the downtown area he rebuilt after the earthquake.
By now we were well in to the evening. The day had been warm, and we had covered quite some mileage by foot. Pleased with our day’s achievements we headed back to the hotel to freshen up, and similarly to the evening before headed back in to Bairro Alto for dinner, and the Docas for a couple of drinks.
The next morning Guppy took off early to watch the MotoGP qualifying rounds in Estoril. Being not so big on motorbikes, Cam and I decided to stay behind in Lisbon and explore more of the city. We decided to head in to Belem where many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyages of discovery. As a result, Belem is full of great monuments and museums showing off the riches and cultural gains brought home by their explorers. We started off with a visit to The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Jeronimos Monastery). Regarded as the greatest symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the age of discovery, it is a magnificent structure built in the 16th century by King Manuel I, the wealthiest monarch in Europe at the time (primarily as a result of the successful spice trade – in which Sri Lankan cinnamon no doubt played a major role!).
Across the gardens of Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is the Discoveries Monument, built on the north bank of the Tagus River in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. The monument represents a three-sailed ship ready to depart, with sculptures of important historical figures such as King Manuel I following Prince Henry at the prow. Not far from the Discoveries Monument is another famous testament to Portugal’s maritime history. Built in 1515 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon's harbour, the Belem Tower was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery, and for the sailors it was the last sight of their homeland. Walking along its terraces over looking the river (which I initially thought was sea) brought back my craving to head home to Auckland. In fact, it almost felt as if I could live here. There was sun, wind to keep you cool and miles and miles of waterfront with restaurants and cafes. With so much to see and do, and a fantastic climate, Lisbon was slowly becoming my favourite European city.
While at the tower we were lucky to meet an Italian tourist (Alessia) who had quite a bit of local knowledge of the area. Going on her recommendation we moved to the nearby Centro Cultural De Belem (The Belem Cultural Centre). The centre was free to visit, and consisted of a wide range of art and photography and also the odd strange structure, which encouraged me to carry out closer inspections resulting in one of the security guards following us around the place for the rest of our time there. All cultured out we next headed to an iconic café called Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. The café consisted of a number of large rooms covered with 17th century tiles, with a long queue by each entrance for a table. The café is estimated to serve around 10,000 custard tarts a day, and even the takeaway queue was significantly lengthy. Hence, the visit to the café was restricted purely for visiting purposes, and we ended up tasting a traditional Portuguese custard tart at a nearby less popular café. It was still quite tasty!
From here we headed back to our hotel to freshen up. Afterwards it was back to Bairro Alto for dinner, this time at a Fado restaurant with live Fado music. The best way to describe Fado (at least from my point of view) is that it is a form of folk music, with a couple of guitarists (or viola players) and a singer. However Alessia was convinced we could get an even better exposure to Fado music in Alfama, and proposed we head to a bar called Tejo. Though we took a taxi to Alfama, our driver seemed to have no idea where the bar was, constantly pulling over and asking people for directions. Finally he dropped us off on a deserted street, and pointed in a direction and left us. A bit of a walk along the narrow streets and we came across a group of people who we asked for directions. They advised we knock three times on the door next to us (this is Alfama remember, narrow streets with houses), as anything else and those inside will not open the door in fear of cops! The door had ‘Tejo Bar’ written on it with a felt, in quite small writing. I was now starting to worry as to exactly what Tajo bar really was…
Turns out Tejo Bar is the best kept secret in Lisbon! It is really just a house, with a little side kitchen acting as a bar. The only reason to fear cops is due to noise, given the close proximity of houses in the neighbourhood. Inside were a group of people varying in age from their teens to the sixties, all sitting around on couches and chairs, almost as if one big family having a sing along – very similar to what my fam back in Sri Lanka gets up to on evenings of family gatherings. This was great! The only thing different here was instead of arrack, people were drinking port, and instead of Singhalese or English, people were singing in Portuguese or Spanish. The music here was quite different to the Fado we had heard at our restaurant. In fact the music here was very similar to what is common in Sri Lanka, with guitars (or violas) backing up singers who sometimes seemed to just make up verses as they went, with the words almost sounding as if they were being spoken rather than sung – making the rest of those in the room who understood the language occasionally break out in laughter.
I came to Portugal hoping to see glimpses of Sri Lankan culture (as Sri Lanka was once under the rule of the Portuguese), and all of a sudden I was sitting spot bang in the middle of something that resembled one of my favourite past times in Sri Lanka. Time flew by at a rate of knots, even though not once was a song sung in English. The music got more and more livelier as the night went on, the laughs increased, and people started to get off their comfortable seats and dance. Earlier in the day the Gup had advised an 8am wake up call to get to MotoGP on time. By the time I got back to the hotel it was well past 4am!
Waking up the next morning was not at all easy. In fact we missed our 8am wake up call by quite some time, with Guppy eventually managing to get out of the hotel a bit earlier than Cam and me. Aware the main race was not to start till at least mid day, Cam and I got in a bit more sleep and eventually jumped on a train to Estoril. Much of the ride was along the waterfront, and I went back to contemplating life back in Auckland, with somewhere along the ride the Tagus River definitely turning in to sea. Estoril seemed one fantastic beach resort. The sun was shining, the beach was packed, and I was heading to MotoGP to watch a bunch of guys riding motorbikes!
Actually, it was not at all bad. The event was a great experience, with plenty of flag holders to keep us interested. Seriously though, the speeds at which those bikes were ridden (apparently over 200mph) was amazing to see. Trying to take a photo of a bike passing us was near impossible, they were quite literally faster than the shutter speed of my camera. Watching such races on TV will never allow one to appreciate just how much concentration and skill must go in to riding these bikes. The effect of one small mistake at those speeds can literally spoil your race, not to mention the possibility of a very nasty fall!
At the completion of the racing, which was won by Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, we still had some time left before our flight home. Hence I finally got my moment at the beach… sun, a cold pint and did I mention BEACH?! A whole half an hour of it before having to jump on a train back to Lisbon to get on a plane to good old London.
Lisbon was a great trip and a fantastic city. Personally I think it has everything you need for a great weekend at a fraction of the cost of some of the other better-known cities. Having spent a solid two days exploring Lisbon there is still so much left for me to see should (or more likely when) I head back. It is possible I am showing some prejudice here, but to me this city offered a great blend of the basic simplicities of Sri Lankan and Kiwi life I miss so much in London. In other words, to me at least, this place was almost perfect!
Locations Visited: Lisbon , Estoril