Expat Chronicles: Lisbon

The mid-February school break gave us a chance to travel to warmer climes in Marrakesh and then Lisbon. I blogged about our Marrakesh experience here. You can read some of my other travel blogs here and here.

Now, on to Lisbon….

I’m probably repeating myself here, but Lisbon is another one of those gorgeous, postcard-perfect European cities that you seem to find every few hundred kilometers on the continent. It’s the eighth European city we’ve visited since moving to London a couple of years ago (not counting day trips to Brighton and Canterbury in England). Every city we’ve visited  is aesthetically pleasing in its own way, and many just knock your damn socks off in terms of design, architecture, views and surrounding geography.

Lisbon belongs to the latter group, not least because it’s a coastal city that also features a (very) hilly terrain that gives you eye-popping views of the sea and urban landscape. It’s been called Europe’s best-kept secret in some quarters, probably because so much attention gets paid to global powerhouses like Paris, London, Rome, Madrid and Berlin or cultural/historical hubs like Amsterdam, Milan, Istanbul, Vienna, Copenhagen, Athens, Barcelona, Prague and Budapest.

Lisbon is tucked way off to the southwest in little ol’ Portugal, closer to Africa than it is to any of the other European capitals. For many people from elsewhere (like me), there’s no instant connection to Lisbon the way there is with other cities, whether it’s the culture of Paris, the history of Rome, the party vibe of Amsterdam or the hamburgers of Hamburg (ha ha).

But when you factor in a bunch of things that make a city attractive – geography, history, nightlife, food, culture, accessibility, affordability and weather – Lisbon might have them all beat, at least from my non-expert POV. The weather was sunny and warm when we visited, especially for the dead of winter. Temps were in the low-70s during the day, mid-50s at night. Warm enough for the girls to dip their toes into the water at a small beach right beside the Praça do Comércio, which is the main square in Lisbon.

Lisbon’s geography has just about everything: beaches, hills, amazing views, lots of water. There’s plenty to do in terms of museums, sightseeing, shopping and nightlife. It’s a very walkable city if you don’t mind trekking up and down steep sidewalks (but not one that looks easy to navigate on bicycle). If you want to rest your feet, you can hire a motorized Tuk Tuk carriage for about 15 euros or take one of the trams. It only takes a couple of hours to fly to Lisbon from London, and then it’s just a short cab ride from the airport into the city.

One of Lisbon’s greatest strengths is that it’s cheap compared with other European cities. We paid less than 200 euros a night for a beautiful 2BR/2BA apartment in the heart of the Chiado, which is maybe Lisbon’s most happening neighborhood. The apartment had been updated with modern touches and featured a full kitchen, living area, washer/dryer, complimentary fruit basket and front-row view of the Chiado Square, or Praça Luís de Camões, where you hear free music in the late afternoon. All for less than 200 euros a night. Unreal.

We ate most of our meals in the Chiado, and just about all were very good. There was a little café/breakfast place right around the corner from our apartment that had some of the best breads we’ve ever tasted, including a roll with Portuguese sausage in it that I could probably live on.

Speaking of sausage: if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, skip down a few paragraphs, because I am about to…..

…..praise the pork in Portugal. The sausages were the culinary highlight of our trip, at least for me. I was introduced to them on our first night at a small restaurant in the Chiado, the name of which I can’t remember. The owner was a happy, friendly native who chatted us up and seemed expert at doing 50 things at once (seating, serving, bartending, hosting). We learned that he’s getting ready to marry a Filipina woman and is a little freaked out about having to fly way over to the Philippines to meet the family. We ordered a ham plate and a sausage plate, as well as a couple baskets of bread. Portuguese sausages are sort of like chorizo, only not as spicy as what you might find in other countries. Delicious. The ham is good as well, a little salty (which I like), usually sliced thin, great on the crusty breads they serve.

On another night we went to an Italian restaurant in the Chiado that was run by either Indians or Pakistanis (again, I can’t remember the name of the place. Sorry, I’m not a travel/food blogger per se). I was a little skeptical at first about how well they could prepare Italian cuisine. But the food was among the best Italian I’ve ever had. The spaghetti Bolognese our oldest daughter ordered was a revelation, full of subtle flavors and not too tomatoey. The pizzas were excellent as well: thin, almost cracker-like crusts, fresh sauce, not too much cheese. I personally had a bowl of pasta with a mushroom sauce that created an orgy of deliciousness inside my mouth.

On the downside, Lisbon also provided one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten. It was at a little hole-in-the-wall joint with outdoor seating located down a side street not too far from the main square in what probably qualifies as the touristy part of town. We tried (and I guess failed) to get away from the tourist lunch spots. I ordered a shrimp dish that I’m pretty sure featured frozen shrimp, the kind you find in the frozen section at your neighborhood supermarket. Chewy and flavorless. One of my daughters ordered a cod dish she thought was going to be done British fish n’ chips style, but instead was lathered with this hideous lemony/onion sauce. The fish itself was an oversalted horror show. A pork sandwich was as dry as cardboard. I wish I could remember the name of this place just to warn people away. As it stands, I’ll try to purge it from my memory.

The main dessert in Portugal is called a pastéis de nata, which is a sort of pastry/custard thing. It’s ok. Let’s move on….

My favorite place in Lisbon was probably the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a castle perched atop Lisbon’s highest hill, from where Romans, Moors and eventually Lisboans could best defend the city (I just stole that description from Susan’s FB post). The castle offers amazing views of the sea and city, not to mention the apartment homes built just below the castle walls, where individual home owners each get their own little yard. Many had lemon trees planted in them. We also saw some cool ancient artifacts in the castle museum, as well as in a museum at a Catholic church we later visited.

Another highlight was walking down one of the narrow cobblestone streets of the Chiado on our first night and hearing live American blues music pouring out of one of the bars. We stepped in for a drink and a couple songs. The band featured a killer guitar player, a keyboardist, and a clarinetist, which was an odd and pleasant touch for a blues band. One of the tunes we heard borrowed a few licks from “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MGs. Another tune was “Everyday I Have the Blues,” made famous by B.B. King. No matter where you go in this world, the long arm of American music is not far away.

Even though Lisbon is a capital city and tourist destination with a certain amount of hustle and bustle, it still has a laid back, bohemian vibe that I found intoxicating. I could see whiling away a lazy afternoon at one of the squares, sipping on a few beers, listening to street musicians, soaking up the sun and watching the human parade pass by. I might do that very thing the next time we go to Lisbon.

And I’m pretty sure we will be going back….

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