Staff Travels: Robin goes to Lisbon

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Robin Sluzas, Reporter, Production Manager

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Lisbon, Portugal: Medieval, beautiful, proud people and affordable!

There are no public drinking fountains in Lisbon. But don’t let that stop you from traveling to this beautiful city. This smallish hilly city of approximately 505,000 people translates to easy commutes whether you are walking or riding the Metro system which is comprised of underground trains, commuter trains, buses, funiculars (trolleys) or even commuter boats. Simply purchase a Viva Viagem card from the machines at any underground train station; they are good across all of the aforementioned public modes of transportation.

I loaded my card with 20 euros at the Aeropuerto (airport) underground station on the red line and it was a quick 20 minutes to the Baixa-Chiado stop that was minutes (walking) from my hotel. The 20 euros lasted my entire vacation because most of Lisbon’s tourism destinations are within Zone 1. Taxis, while more expensive are another travel option.

Portugal possesses both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines and it is it is on the absolute western end of the Iberian Peninsula. Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city is inland from the Atlantic Ocean and is situated on the Tagus River.  Despite being a small city Lisbon possesses no less than 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Because it is a Mediterranean country the weather in September, 2019 ranged from about 93 degrees Fahrenheit to mid-80’s during the day and the 70’s in the evening with annual lows reaching the mid-40’s in January.

The national language is Portuguese and signage is in Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic and of course English. English signage is everywhere and I never once got lost. Many Portuguese people speak English but if you can converse even rudimentarily in Spanish, that’s a plus! Once a Portuguese citizen determined I did not speak Portuguese, often that person switched to Spanish and we proceeded to have our conversation. I also found that the Portuguese language is easier to read if you have familiarity with Spanish.

The city itself is fairy tale-like with narrow cobblestone (chopped up marble on the sidewalks if I’m not mistaken; I got down and looked close) streets that wind (as in curving) up (waaay up) and down (daooown). In other words, should you decide to walk, get ready to get your “steps” in with charming sights around every curve or corner, plenty of cafés to rest in and beautiful architecture and fun things to do along the way. If you’re not a fan of hills, consider Kansas as a vacation destination.

Lisbon cuisine can best be described as seafood-based Mediterranean but Lisbon is cosmopolitan enough to offer everything from Indian cuisine to Italian to hamburgers and fries for non-adventurous eaters. DO try the national dessert pasteles de nata, a lovely baked custard with cinnamon in a flaky (think filo dough light) pastry cup. The original pasteis can be found at Pasteis de Belem, a restaurant who began making the dessert in 1857 based on a very old recipe originating from the Mosteiro dos Sao Jeronimos (Monastery of St. Jerome).

There is a rivalry between the two, de nata pastries denoting the fact that they are not being made in Belem, hence de nata custards are made with a different recipe. Honestly, I preferred the de nata pastry from a bakery/factory called Manteigaria. The Belem pastries’ custard, being an old recipe had a more egg-like flavor. If that’s your thing you’ll love it; if not, Manteigaria for a less eggy flavor. Note: there were lines at both places!

Another incredible dining option is the Time Out Market (an international dining concept) in the Baixa Alto neighborhood in a warehouse an easy walk from the commuter boat docks. The Time Out Market is, in essence, a big food court with big wood block communal tables with 35 food kiosks featuring dishes made by the best chefs in Lisbon.

I spent about 20 euros during a late lunch (missing the dinner crowds) on a beautiful cheese platter with crusted bread, a delicious compote (fruit jam) dates and nuts all for 5 euros. Next up: seafood croquettes with a side of rice & sauces (tuna, cod & something delicious but unidentified) for 9 euros. and the first of a few pasteis de nata (custard cups! 2 euros each) for dessert. Time Out market is a great place to try as many different Portuguese dishes as you can fit in your stomach in one sitting! Chicago’s very own Time Out Market located at 916 W Fulton Market will open sometime soon (Fall, 2019).

As for things to do, Lisbon’s history is very old making for fascinating sightseeing and yet modern enough to cater to a diverse range of choices. This is the country that launched (literally) the explorers Prince Henry who began a navigation school providing a foundation for explorers to follow such as Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.

I visited the Belem Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the River Tagus where these explorers launched their voyages. Portugal is a predominantly Catholic country and Lisbon features continuously functioning churches that are approximately 500 years old or older. My favorite was Sao (St.) Roque that was originally built in Rome in the Baroque style, dismantled and put back together in Lisbon.

I and my friends took the underground train and transferred to a commuter train to spend the day in Cascais at the beach where, after some nice swimming around, we toured a citadel (of the same name; construction begun in 1410). While on the train to Cascais we noticed that the artist Banksy’s exhibition was near Sao Jeronimo (another UNESCO World Heritage site).

Banksy is the graffiti based artist who recently sold a work Sotheby’s art auction for $1.4 million and then caused it to self-destruct via a shredder that was built into the bottom of the frame. The piece then slid down and voila! It was destroyed which caused a worldwide sensation. We had to see this artist’s exhibition as Banksy, to our knowledge, has yet to have an exhibition in Chicago.

Another day we went to the Lisbon Zoo which can best be described as a beautiful botanical garden with animals! Lisbon Zoo is the second biggest in Europe. That particular day we witnessed an aggravated male silverback gorilla (a juvenile gorilla kept taunting him; no apologies necessary Mr. Gorilla.) who finally rushed the glass.

He smashed it hard with both his hands causing myself and a Portuguese woman to laugh like crazy out of fear. Another interesting feature of the zoo is the pet cemetery where Lisboans can bury their fur companions (dogs and cats) complete with headstones and other accoutrement!

We also took a crazy taxi ride up what felt like the side of a mountain to Sao Jorge (St. George’s) castle. The ride was crazy because a) it was fast b) nobody stops; not anyone walking or driving, c) four of us were squished into this tiny car and d) in Lisbon you learn to just time things right and go.

The hill Sao Jorge is on boasts evidence of human habitation dating from at least 8 B.C. The castle itself was originally built in the first century B.C., with subsequent Phoenician and then Roman, Islamic and then European “improvements” layering one over the other chronologically. Outside the castle walls an ongoing archaeological dig site features ancient Islamic residences.

Overall, the Portuguese people are very nice, very accommodating and very proud of their beautiful city. At Sao Jorge we were approached by a security guard who let us out a locked gate saving us a climb back up through the castle.

He was very happy to meet us knowing we were from the U.S. He told us that the Portuguese love Americans and we should tell everyone back home to come to Lisbon (primarily because of monies spent, but no matter!). Lisbon in particular is not a segregated city. I met Portuguese citizens who were originally from all over Europe, Canada, Australia, Asia, Pan-Asia and North Africa. It was a beautiful and relaxed experience! 

Our vacation package cost was $1300 per person including roundtrip air and a one week in a 4-star hotel. In the end, I just want to tell you all, if you can do it, watch those vacation package prices. The best time to visit is either March to May or September to October; there are still some warm days, these months are less expensive and there are less tourists in the city. Apparently Lisbon and Portugal are the latest “hot” destination due to all of the reasons above so prices could rise. Money notwithstanding, please, take a leap out of your comfort zone and get to know Lisbon and its people. You won’t regret it.