How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Lisbon
Written by Jaillan Yehia
I had last visited Lisbon in 2005. Back then I did the usual touristy stuff, walked around the right neighbourhoods, rode the 28 tram and visited the flea market.
I hired a car to see Sintra and some of the beaches outside town, I adored the tile-fronted houses and shabby chic neighbourhoods and ate my fair share of pastries.
But somehow I didn’t fall in love with the city. So I was keen to find out if I would love Lisbon when I re-visited in 2012…
My first trip to Lisbon was rainy, cold and a bit blustery and I was perpetually in search of a either a salad (something I make a habit of the world over, usually with more success than I had in Lisbon) or a parking space, often both. Sadly I just didn’t fall in love with the city as I’d expected to.
When I’ve been underwhelmed by a city – especially its cuisine – I really worry about returning, but those who knew I was going back to Portugal’s capital said I’d notice a positive change. And I really do feel like I’ve been to a totally different place.
Today’s Lisbon feels like an urban melting pot which has been stirred with regeneration and investment, sure of its identity it has a buzz of its own making and while being chock-full of history it has eyes firmly on the future. Dilapidated buildings are still everywhere, so you can get your fill of urban decay and Lisbon street photography, but interspersed are more signs of affluence and modernity than I felt in 2005, and the mix felt just perfect.
Within an hour of landing at Lisbon airport three unconnected kindly strangers had helped me with my bag. Being a suspicious Londoner I was a bit perturbed by this at first, but it turns out Portuguese men just don’t like to see a woman struggling with a huge suitcase. I was off to a great start and arrived at my apartment near the central Marquis de Pombal Metro station, feeling excited to rediscover the city.
As well as a day long culinary walking tour of Lisbon, I did two different tours over the next couple of days which really helped me see Lisbon from a different perspective and made me go gooey for what was on offer.
First up was as unique a mode of transport as I think I’ve ever taken a tour on. Myself and my fellow travellers took a dusk journey around Lisbon on army-style motorbikes with sidecars – each taking two passengers; one perched precariously on the back behind the driver, the second jauntily placed in a disconcertingly low-to-the-ground sidecar. These growling machines roared around corners and chugged through Lisbon’s hilly streets while onlookers applauded. I wasn’t quite sure if they were applauding the general concept or specifically me for managing to stay on board without clinging to Peter, my speed-demon driver in an overly-familiar fashion whenever he decided to accelerate away from the lights.
When I’m in a city I want to see it up close and personal, not from the inside of a car or coach. Usually walking does the trick, but there’s only so much ground you can cover on shanks’ pony, so bicycle is my fall back vehicle – fast enough to get around, slow enough to take it all in, and with the benefit of being able to stop when something catches your eye. I have to say, the sidecars give the bicycle a serious run for its money, especially in Lisbon where any cyclist would spend a disproportionate amount of time in a fight with the tram lines which zigzag the roads.
On the sidecar tour I felt as though I really got under the skin of Lisbon’s identity, and with it Portugal’s world view, because as well as the uniqueness of the transportation, the drivers double up as knowledgeable and personable guides, giving you a first-hand idea of what Lisbon was like under more austere times, showing you the memorials as well as taking you for the customary Nata in between serving up stunning miradour views at sunset.
Next day it was time for the intriguingly-named We Hate Tourism to take me away from the metropolis and to Sintra, towards the beaches of Cascais (and some exceptional gelato) and excitingly for us box-tickers, to the most Westerly point of Europe, a sort of European version of Cape Point with similarly wind-swept, rocky and symbolically barren scenery.
Knowing that so close to the hubbub of downtown Lisbon lies a stylish sandy beach resort and access to fresh, pure air and salty good times makes the city so much more appealing – just that knowledge makes you realise you’re not hemmed in, and those lucky Lisboners have it all within easy reach.
I felt like a real Lisboner too, staying in an apartment always gives me a buzz; walking up to an atmospheric old tiled doorway and letting myself in, being part of the fabric of the city, discovering a local coffee shop and supermarket like an actual resident for those short few days.
I’ve now taken Lisbon to my heart in a way I didn’t the first time around, so much so that when I found myself faced with an unscheduled couple of hours back in the city en route to Southern Portugal my heart did a little skip as I alighted at Santa Apolónia train station.
I found a cab and enjoyed a balmy evening ride to my destination, and was delighted to find the driver smilingly carrying my now souvenir-laden suitcase to the door of the hotel, he clearly didn’t want to see a lady struggling with a large case. Yes, it was good to be back in Lisbon.
Lisbon By Night Sidecar Tour provided by Sidecar Touring
7 hour Tour of Sintra, Cascais and Belem by We Hate Tourism Tours
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