Hello from Lisbon! Collected from quick emails sent from the road, here’s some of my experiences on this incredible trip:
Getting into Portugal was easy enough, but they did have the most elaborate airport Covid screening. Besides intense checks of documents, tests and vaccine cards, there were spotters doing random temperature checks. Mask usage is still pretty high – well over 60% but not to the overwhelming usage in Madrid.
The Comforts of Lisbon
Getting from the airport to the city was a snap. The airport is close and right on a subway line. After ascending some wild hills, I finally found and dropped off my bag at my airbnb apartment. It features the steepest stairway and lowest ceilings in the world! The first thing I did was to gather my bearings by walking to the waterfront. I’m just a few minutes from the city center, long avenues of shops, restaurants and the like. It’s hard not to stare at the tiled sidewalks. Lisbon was abuzz! It was packed with tourists, holiday shoppers and Lisbon’s own just milling about having a good time.
The differences from Madrid were remarkable. There was a slightly chaotic nature to things here compared to the clean, grandiose nature of the Spanish capital. There’s a gentle lived in quality that feels like staying at the warm comforts of grandma’s house. My senses overloaded with the absolute wild variety and smells of the foods on display on every corner. Seeing all kinds of food and the crazed plates and window displays and flames and meats and breads and soups of the restaurants was refreshing from the ham oligarchy the Spanish maintain. I’m going to spend a day eating the hell out of Lisbon.
The city is beautiful and completely filled with crazy, beautifully tiled sidewalks. Add to that an overload of tiled houses, resulting in a visual feast any direction you look. Lisbon is a slew of steep hills stacked atop each other on the waterfront. Each view is stacked with brightly colored houses, church steeples and trees dotting creating a vertical backdrop in any direction you look.
The first night in Lisbon I wandered up and down the city streets, with crazy views on each hilltop. The yellow and pink buildings and varying heights of the neighborhoods were a great contrast to the flat ocean. With the sun descending fast, the silhouettes of the hills from the opposing shore across the bay created a wonderful backdrop for my next stop.
I wound my way through the hills of some neighborhood to end up on an overlook with a couple of musicians singing Bob Dylan-esque songs. There was a relaxed crowd spread over some natural seating around a statue. I found a cool spot and just chilled out watching the sunset over the western edge of Europe. It was so calm, so nice, all the shit of the last two years disappeared. Soon the sky was fully black so I found my way back across town to settle in for the night.
The Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
After seeing the coastline and the grand, grand, grand central plaza in front of it the night before, I wanted to see some art my second day so I started a 45 minute walk across town to the traditional art museum, featuring a small, but solid collection of impressive European art from the 1400s-1800s. I was early, so I was the only one in the museum and got to spend a few hours staring at some old masters while the bored security guards stared at me.
A Long Way…
After seeing the collection, I started making plans to see where to head next, and there was a monastery 50 minutes further west that I could see. ‘Since I was halfway there’ is the equivalent of a gambler saying ‘I’m due’. I could’ve taken a bus, or train, or streetcar, but I had feet. So, I kept heading west, through a bunch of normal neighborhoods that wouldn’t make a tour guide but were fascinating to see. About ten minutes in a misty rain started falling and I quickened my pace, the rain would come and go for the rest of the walk, until it ended and the clouds started to break, revealing the blue sky behind them as I came up to a big plaza with a giant column and a pissed off Portuguese guy standing on top of it.
One of the best things about the United States is if you drive far enough, you’ll get to someplace different. The same happens in cities. After following some tram lines through neighborhood after neighborhood, everything changed. I inadvertently made it to the Presidential Palace, a complex of walled off pink buildings, and a waterfront with the sun shining down. I continued up the waterfront to a weird but oddly huge sculpture dedicated to the Portuguese explorers and the rain kicked in full throttle. Tourists ran under trees and lined up outside restaurants for an early lunch.
I pressed on and the rain tailed off, and I made it to Belem Tower, an old 16th century fort built on a tiny jut of land along the sea. I did quick sketch of it then spent twenty minutes taking reference photos of rocks and waves. My original destination – the Jeronimos Monastery – was close and I headed towards it. I was intercepted by the Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art and made a full stop.
It was a pretty comprehensive collection of modern art with a few large contemporary exhibits thrown in for good measure. I saw some of my first art of the trip made by American artists, and the place was dead quiet and again, I had lots of the galleries to myself. I headed out towards the Monastery, which at this point was closing in a couple of hours. There was a huge line, so I left this on my to do list and headed back east. Apparently, the Portuguese prefer Monks to Munchs. I’m sorry, that was a long way to go for a dumb line!
The next day I made it back to see the Jerónimos Monastery. Opened in 1495, this gothic monastery was anything but modest. It wielded an array of arches, ornate decoration and wild tracery ran in and out. Column lined cloisters were inside, with grand ornamentation everywhere, including wild gargoyle waterspouts. At the bottom of these pictures is a magnificent moment when light cast colored shadows on the wall of the adjoining church.
Lisbon: Mission Accomplished!
One last thing before I head out to my next destination. I was able to resolve some exciting, unfinished business from Toledo, Spain. During my last day in Lisbon, I casually walked on over to the St. Roque Church. It was an absolutely forgettable exterior, whitewashed stone that quietly fit in its surrounding neighborhood and plaza. Inside, the small church was an extravagant delight – a huge wooden mural covered the entire ceiling, punctuated by stars for the holiday hung throughout the entire church. The church had all the extravagant trappings of Catholicism – gold, intricate chapels on both sides of the church leading to a lavish altar and all.
But the most important parts were the museum next door and the two alcoves flanking the altar. On the left, was a chapel devoted to male saints, the right side provided the same for (virgin) female saints. Included in both those overstuffed chapels were an astounding collection of relics – sculpted arms, from elbow to fingertip were arranged with saint’s arm bones visibly placed inside. Busts of saints tearing open their shirts ala Superman to reveal bone fragments and other relics. It was heaven! There was so much to take in – and in the museum – two thorns from Christ’s crown and a piece of the Cross were exhibited alongside a slew of even more relics. It was a delight and was more than I could have imagined!
After seeing the display of relics that mirrored the Madrid wig storefront, I couldn’t keep up with what was real anymore. Don’t despair, there are still more pictures and stories from my trip: