A year ago today, I was wandering the colorful alleyways of Lisbon. It’s the kind of city in which you can spend the entire day just exploring; there is so much to see and so much going on all the time.
One of the unique features of the city is its tram and funicular system. There are three funiculars in the old town, which lead up to various miradores (lookout points). This funicular is the Gloria Funicular. It began operation in 1885 and links the downtown area with Bairro Alto (an old, but now trendy neighbourhood full of bars and restaurants).
It’s not the Eiffel tower, nor the Taj Mahal. It’s not Times Square, nor the Mall of America. No, it’s the little things that make travel interesting. It’s those signs that, everywhere, people live. They go to school, work, marry, have children, and between all of that — they play.
I fell in love with Lisbon because it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. While it has its share of monuments, ruins, and churches, it also embraces its identity as a centuries-old port city.
As I wandered through the steep, winding alleys of Bairro Alto, I lost myself in another world. I passed colourful, crumbling walls, hordes of cats, and windows filled with old senhoras hanging out the day’s laundry. It gave me the feeling that time was simultaneously standing still, and chugging forward at the same, familiar pace.
Bohemian seems to be very trendy in Portugal right now. For a great bohemian hangout and people-watching, visit the Miradouro de Santa Catarina, a beautiful lookout point with a great view of the river. (See the first photo below for an idea)
Lisbon can be done on the cheap. Train tickets for daytrips are inexpensive (I went to Sintra, 40 minutes by train, on a return ticket for under five Euro). On Sundays, some museums, such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (where I went — a private art collection which contains everything from Greek coins to Persian rugs to Rembrandt and Monet paintings), and the National Museum of Archaeology, are free to the public. Exhibits in the Belém Cultural Center are normally free. Overall, food is also inexpensive.
A bottle of Fonseca Vintage Port from 1948 costs 7300 Euro. That’s around $10 000 CAD. Also try sampling ginjinha (a liqueur made from ginja – sour cherry berries) with chocolate.
The historic centre of Lisbon is filled with old men and women, who seem to spend most of their days staring out of balcony or shop windows and admiring the passersby. Take a lesson from them and do some people watching on the streets of the Alfama (for the old and traditional), Chiado (for the stylish , urbanites) and Bairro Alto (for the young nightlife) districts.
Lisbon in Photos: (Many more photos to follow on Facebook – this is the short version)
Although I’ve only been completely alone for a few days, I’ve already noticed a couple of things about traveling solo. On the negative side, it can be a bit frustrating trying to fit into tiny European bathroom stalls while carrying a huge backpack (instead of having a companion wait outside with your bags). It can also be tricky trying to buy groceries for just a one-person meal. However, the most remarkable difference I’ve seen is in the amount of attention I get when I’m on my own.
While I was waiting for my flight to Portugal at Schiphol Airport, I was informed that I would be upgraded to business class. Having only flown first class once, and never having received any sort of upgrade, I was pretty excited about this stroke of luck, even if it was only an hour and a half flight. What I didn’t anticipate, is how much I would get out of this seat change.
A little disclaimer: anyone who has every traveled with me will know that Ellen-in-transit is truly not a pretty sight. In glasses, with messy hair, and loaded up with Gravol, I barely have the energy to stay awake through the boarding process, so why the following scene would ever take place is beyond me.
Of course, like all of the other passengers flying business class (who were all men), I enjoyed a nice glass of wine and a delicious meal, which was served despite the short flight duration. However, the strikingly handsome Portuguese flight attendant made a very obvious point in giving me, not one, but twopackets of “fruit and nut cocktail mix,” which were accompanied by a wink. Then the purser — who was also rather dashing, but more than twice my age — walked by to strike up a brief conversation. He seemed quite interested in the fact that I was traveling alone and that I was making a (pitiful) attempt to review some Portuguese. Shortly thereafter, he returned to ask if he could present me with a bottle of wine to help me “enjoy my stay” in Portugal. He then brought me a plastic bag filled with a chilled bottle of white wine and fifteen packets of cocktail nuts. (The latter have been my primary source of midday nourishment for the past five days). When the other, younger flight attendant came by again, he coyly handed me a package of TAP Portugal playing cards, with another wink. Not to be outdone, (although in my opinion wine > playing cards), the purser walked over and handed me his business card, with his home and mobile phone numbers scribbled on the back. “In case you need anything while you’re here.”
“Anything” included a place to stay or a ride to my hostel, as I discovered by the offers he made on subsequent trips to Seat 3J. Of course, I politely refused both offers, a decision I came to question later as I struggled up the San Francisco-esque hills of Lisbon with my backpack. Nevertheless, countless winks later, I left the plane with my bag full of TAP souvenirs and wondered what on earth I was getting myself into in Portugal.
The attention continued throughout the week. At the hostel, I got my room upgraded. While out and about, I received more winks, smiles, and coffee/drink invitation than I can count — at least enough to run out of creative excuses (so if anyone has some good ones to supply me with, I’d appreciate it). However, the level of attention changed completely on the days I went sightseeing with other people. This behaviour is clearly culturally influenced — I’ve never experienced anything to this level while on my own in the Netherlands.
The good thing is that all of the attention so far has been positive. People (both men and women) seem much more eager to help me or initiate a conversation when I’m alone. Still, it has caught me off guard; I had not expected anything to this extent… and if this is just Portugal, what will Brazil be like? It’s something to ponder while I pack for my flight to Rio and finish off the last package of cocktail nuts.