Our original plan was to spend a day and a half visiting Lisbon and its suburbs. However, we didn’t get much accomplished on the first day. The second morning of our Lisbon stay, we got ready and headed to the kitchen/ breakfast area for a home cooked breakfast. Fresh coffee with a continental breakfast of breads, jams, cereal, fruits, milk and juice provided us a brisk start to the day.
Our main goal was to cover the Belém area first and then return to do a city tour of Lisbon. We first headed to the Rato subway station, just a couple of blocks from the guest house. It was a beautiful morning with clear skies. The roads were alive with traffic, a nice change from the previous evening. We needed a bit of help buying the tickets from the vending machine, but one of the security/ police personnel was nearby and was kind enough to help after we asked him.
Armed with our tickets, we took the yellow route from Rato to Marquês de Pombal station where we caught the blue line to Terreiro do Paço. From there we walked the short distance to the Praça do Comércio. In the morning sun, the Square was imposing, an outright testament to power and money. We could see the arch leading to the Rua Augusta in the distance. All around were painted buildings, now converted to shops. The Square overlooks the River Tagus. In the center of the square is the majestic statue of King José I. We spent several minutes taking in the monumental square as we jockeyed with other visitors to get great shots of the statue and the square. The experience was a bit marred by the several vendors constantly asking us to buy sunglasses, hats, etc. And some of them were very persistent in trying to sell their wares.
After enjoying the square and its surroundings, we took the tram from the northern end of the square to Belém, an easy day trip option. Monday is generally not a good day to see Belém as most of the important places there are closed. In our case, it was the only day we had to visit, so off we went. The ride into Belem took about 25 minutes.
We got off the tram right close to the Moistero dos Jerónimos, the monastery run by the monks of the Order of Saint Jerome. These monks were the spiritual guides for sailors and for the king’s soul. This monastery was built in 1502 to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s successful journey of discovery to India. Reportedly, before embarking on this voyage, Vasco da Gama and his men had spent the night here praying. We could not access the monastery but the exterior architecture was spectacular, if a little too intricate and overwhelming for me. A part of the monastery was under renovation at the time of our visit. UNESCO has listed this under World Heritage site.
After admiring the monastery, we walked across the street, spending some time at the verdant Jardim da Praça do Império. As the day was warming up, it felt nice to find a bit of shade in which to cool off. Crossing the other side of the garden, we made our way to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the Discoveries monument, a concrete tribute to the seafaring prowess of the Portuguese and their discoveries. The monument was open at the time of our visit and we took the steps to the terrace at the top, a good 170 feet above ground level. The terrace offers a grand view of Belem, including the monastery, the Belem Tower, the park in front and the River Tagus behind. Breathtaking, indeed!
The plaza in front of the monument has a large mosaic representing the world image with all the areas the Portuguese sailors had reached during their heydays. The terrace is a great place to view this from, if one can find a minute when people on the ground aren’t hovering around it.
The outside of the monument is a great piece of architecture. The building has been shaped in the form of a caravel ship, the iconic ships that were oft used in these expeditions, with Henry the Navigator at the helm. Henry, who never himself sailed the seas, funded a lot of the expeditions that led to many discoveries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Many other voyagers, cartographers, sailors are portrayed on the sides of the monument.
As the morning turned into noon and the sun grew higher in the sky, we started looking for a place to satisfy our thirst and hunger. As with Japan and Sri Lanka, we found Lisbon to be one of those places to start the food search sooner rather than later, as vegetarian options in many places are rather limited. We tried the Portuguese cervejaria nearest to the monument first but their menu lacked what we were looking for. So we walked towards the main road and entered the Nosolo Italia Belém restaurant which promised pizza and pasta, a sure-fire way to find veggie food. We were seated in their sunroom looking at the monument. The restaurant was busy but the staff was efficient. We ordered vegetarian pizza for ourselves and pasta for the kids. The restaurant is known for its gelato and we each ordered one. The portions were adequate and the food was nourishing and scrumptuous. We used the toilet facilities at the restaurant before heading out into the hot sun.
Our next stop was the 10 minute walk to the Torre de Belém, the tower of Belém. Originally built to guard Lisbon and built at the entrance to the harbor, the fortress serves as a symbol of Portuguese maritime superiority as well as architectural excellence. The fort is accessed by a small bridge and protrudes over the river. It was closed on the day of our visit, so we viewed the intricate exterior architecture, noted on many sites to be far more interesting than what lay inside.
It felt good to stay seated on the banks of the river, enjoying the tower, with our feet tucked into the cool waters while several kids played nearby, splashing water at each other. Eventually, we left behind the cool banks and headed back towards the main tram station. We had one last stop in Belém, the famous Pasteis de Belém. The custard egg tarts that this Belém pastry shop serves up is very famous. There was a huge crowd when we walked into the store. As the long line snaked its way to the counter, we stood patiently with atleast a 100 people or more in the small front of the store. Finally it was our turn to order and we chose to eat right there in the store with cups of espresso.
The custard tart was warm with just the right amount of sweetness. I didn’t add the powdered sugar or cinnamon as I felt the original flavor to be just right. Perfect to wash down with the espresso! The delectable pastries were well worth the wait.
Outside again, we crossed the street to get to the tram station and boarded the one returning to the Praça do Comércio. By now it was close to 3 pm and we started the Rick Steves’ Lisbon City walk audio guide to take us around the main city.
I really enjoyed the walk down the busy Rua Augusta, the main thoroughfare connecting the plaza with the city beyond. The whole street was busy with people and stores and trams, a beehive of activity. Over the next hour we enjoyed an efficient and quick walk through the city center bringing us back to the area of the Restauradores square, which we had visited the previous evening.
The highlight of the trip was the Elevador da Gloria, an electrified funicular that connects the Restauradores Square with the Bairro Alto area, that is located on an elevation. The car has benches on which to sit as the funicular winds its way up the steep streets, with narrow curbside and eye-catching graffiti on the walls of many buildings.
At the top, right across the street from the funicular stop is the Port wine Institute which I had read good reviews about. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the Institute was closed down for renovations. Diagonally across from the Institute, is the Miradoura de São Pedro de Alcântara, a viewpoint from which to admire the city. We could see the Castelo de São Jorge in the distance and got a bird’s-eye view of the city. The viewpoint area is adequately shaded by trees to make for some pleasant moments out of the sun.
We then walked the streets of Bairro Alto, a bit quiet at that hour, before coming to the church of São Roque. By this time, we were tired and a bit thirsty. So we headed back to the funicular stop and waited to board the next car. Soon, we were back on the Avenue da Liberdade and making our way back to the guest house. The traffic was back on the streets as we came across Bambu, a South East Asian inspired eatery. It had a DJ playing music and was well shaded by trees and next to the fountains. We ordered iced teas and coffees as well as light snacks. The food and location were good but the service wasn’t quite up to the mark.
We sat there for a while, as the day waned, talking about the trip, and doing some people watching. We planned to walk back to the guest house but got lost a couple of times. Along the way we discovered a small Indian restaurant called Bengal Tandoori. A small restaurant but well decorated, the atmosphere was cozy. We ordered two gravies with bread and a rice dish. The food was exceptionally good.
Once dinner was finished, we walked the 15 or so minutes back to the Guest house. I do have to admit, the roads are steep in many places and the sidewalks are slippery, so best to handle them with sturdy shoes with non skid soles. This was true through most of the places in Greece and several areas in Lisbon.
We had a flight out of Lisbon shortly after 10 am, so we had arranged for a taxi to pick us up around 8 am. Most of the evening was spent packing and getting ready for the flight home. We would fly TAP Portugal from Lisbon to Miami and then take a cab to Fort Lauderdale for the next flight home.
Even though we were physically tired, we stayed awake for quite a while, chatting about the trip we had finished, about other places we wanted to see as a family, about whether the kids would travel as adults. Mr. JJ and I have always felt that shared experiences are worth a lot more than luxurious possessions. And while they might not always realise it or talk about it, I hope the children have learnt what a beautiful world they live in. What makes it interesting is the natural beauty around us, peppered with the uniqueness of a country or region we visit, the language, the culture, the ethos, the history, the here and now. I have always felt very fortunate to be able to travel, to experience, to enhance my knowledge but also be able to share with my loved ones. I hoped, as I drifted to sleep, that I would one day return to see the Algarve area and taste port in Porto.