So why Portugal, one might ask? Well, it’s a country I haven’t yet pinned on my wall map. That’s reason enough. But while Portugal’s extensive coastline as a place I have long wanted to explore, it wasn’t in my “Top Five.” But more and more, I have been seeing Portugal show up in the “listicles” as of late. Just Google “Why visit Portugal?” and you will come up with a long list of articles citing anywhere from 10 to 45 reasons to visit Portugal. TAP, Portugal’s national airline, just added five weekly flights from Chicago, with another five from San Francisco, even more significant as it adds the first nonstop option from the west coast.
I remember ten years ago when my Icelandic hairdresser, Helga, used to tell me I needed to travel to Iceland. Back then, vacationing in Iceland was practically unheard of. Now, they recently had to close a canyon featured in Justin Bieber’s video because it was being overrun by rabid fans. Once an area of free rein for camper vans, one must now camp in designated campgrounds because people were peeing in public places. Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Bruge, Belgium have all recently instated measures to prevent “over tourism.” So I decided to move Portugal up the list while it was still reasonably affordable, the people were friendly and welcoming, and the sights did not require months of advance booking. I want to go there before articles in my newsfeed change from “Reasons why you must go” to “How Portugal is coping with overtourism.”
Otherwise, I was relatively neutral about the country. My Lonely Planet arrived just two weeks before I was to depart. Other than book my first three nights in Lisbon, I had done very little research. So I had no expectations going in. But upon approach to Lisbon’s Portela Airport, gliding in over the red tiled rooftops all laid out in patterned grids, I was intrigued.
Public transportation in Portugal is convenient and efficient. They have kiosks with an option for English (click the icon of the British Union Jack) which accepts Euro cash or Visa/MC card. You must purchase a Viva Viagem card (€ 0.50) which you can then choose to load and reload in a number of ways. The card is good for transit on the Metro, city buses, trams, and regional light rail trains. You can purchase a.) an individual ride at € 1.50, b.) unlimited travel for a 24 hour period beginning at validation for 6.50 € (but you must take five rides to get your moneys worth on this one) or c.) you can go the route of what they call “zapping,” which is to use the card as a stored value card. Put anywhere from € 3.00 to € 40.00, and the system deducts the appropriate fare (less € 0.10 discount) with each “zap.” I chose option c, which is the best value if you don’t plan on riding five times in 24 hours. While the terminology is different, it mirrors the system of the Manhattan subway. It’s good to step off the plane into something that immediately feels so familiar.
The Metro leaves from the airport, taking me within a 10 minute walk of my hotel. The first thing I notice upon exiting the Metro is the beautiful tiles! Tiles above me, tiles below me, it’s like a life-sized china shop. Instead of paint or siding, the multi-story buildings, apartments, and houses are tiled from top to bottom in blue and white, green, brown, pink, yellow, their giant windows framed with wrought iron balconies. They all look so decorative and clean! And rarely a tile missing!
And then there are the sidewalks. As soon as I take a few steps, it clicks in my mind, it’s Portuguese pavement! Anyone who has visited Brazil, once part of the Portuguese Empire will immediately recognize the black and white mosaics of the two most famous beaches in Rio de Janerio, Copacabana and Ipanema, bordered by these famous patterned designs. So now I get it. Calçada Portuguesa, it’s not just Brazilian, but a Portuguese thing!
In 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake which devastated most of the city. The building of these intricately hand-laid mosaic sidewalks followed, using rubble from the earthquake, later to be replaced by white limestone and black basalt. The first area to be built was Rossio Square, which follows the same undulating wave pattern as Rio’s Copacabana.
But heed a word of warning; these works of art can quickly turn treacherous at the first sprinkles of even the lightest of rain. It’s imperative that you bring sturdy, flat, non-slip shoes for walking the Seven Hills of Lisbon!
(A funny side note, back when I was working for Braniff Airlines in the early 80’s, I took my parents to Rio de Janerio, Brazil. We came upon an area where the calceteiros were working on the pavement. My Mom snatched up two stones, one black and one white, from the construction pile. She brought them back as souvenirs to imbed in the floor to ceiling flagstone fireplace she and my Dad were building in the “Family Room,” or converted garage on the farm where they still remain. Maybe that is why I am so enamored with the Portuguese pavement!)
Lisbon is a thriving, vibrant, hip city…a little Manhattan, but more San Francisco. The city is manageably broken up into a dozen different smaller neighborhoods, each with their own unique personalities. There’s an “electricity” here like you find in Manhattan without the grit, grime, and garbage smells of my beloved NYC. Because each sidewalk, plaza, courtyard is covered in the work of the calceteiros or pavers, one is literally walking on art, so the sidewalks seem cleaner.
There’s a lively food scene offering constantly changing chalkboard menus featuring “petiscos,” Portugal’s version of Spain’s tapas. And wine bars show off Portugal’s abundance of good, affordable wines. It’s love at first sight for me, as It ticks all the boxes as far as a city goes; Art, museums, monuments, markets, trams, and a lively waterfront. I look forward to sharing more…