Music, Graffiti and Custard, Not Necessarily in That Order: Lisbon

I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a city where 30% of the residents are of Portuguese descent. I grew up with many Portuguese friends, my favorite pizza was covered with linguica, a Portuguese sausage, and every Easter morning my mom would stand in a long line at the bakery to pick up the Portuguese sweet bread that she’d ordered weeks in advance. Ironically, while I have traveled across Europe from Iceland to Turkey and Finland to Spain, I had missed Portugal, so this summer I decided it was time to make my first visit. After a few days in England, I flew into Lisbon and got my first taste, literally and figuratively, of Portugal.


I rented an apartment in the Graça district, a more quiet and residential area than the more touristy Alfama neighborhood, but still not too far from the city’s most popular attractions. I was told by my host, Isabella, that I should abandon any plan to reach the apartment via public transportation, because wherever the Metro would drop me off, I would be faced with walking up very steep hills with my luggage in tow. She said (and I’d read) that a cab should cost $10 – $15 from the airport and would be well worth it. This was the first of many suggestions she made that proved to be invaluable!

Unfortunately my cab driver decided to pull a fast one and rounded the 11 Euro fare on the meter to an even 15, which I stupidly paid, though I knew it was a scam. Isabella later said I really should have taken a picture of his license and reported him because “what he did was wrong”, but at this point, here I was and I have spent 4 Euros in more foolish ways in my life.

While the neighborhood and the building itself were far from impressive, the tiny elevator whisked me 5 stories up to a charming one bedroom apartment with tons of natural light and colorful decorations. Pictures of the city’s infamous tram cars adorned the walls, some of which were painted a deep, burnt orange. How did they know that orange is my favorite color? The bedroom wall had a huge painted bunch of yellow flowers on it. But more than anything, what caught my eye were the views. From the living room, looking southeast, I could see a beautiful monastery, a green park, and the beautiful white dome of the Church of Santa Engráci, now the national Pantheon, with the azure blue Tagus River in the distance. From the bedroom, looking north and east I saw a patchwork of colorful residential neighborhoods below me, and again, the river winding its way in that direction. The river, by the way, doesn’t actually look like a river; it widens into a huge estuary as it reaches Lisbon, and the Vasco da Gama Bridge, named after the famous explorer, crosses the estuary for a distance of 11 miles, the longest bridge in Europe. I could see all of this from my hilltop castle of an apartment and it was beautiful.

Isabella then spent over an hour with me, giving me the most detailed orientation to a city that I have ever received, better than I might have gotten on a guided tour! She told me where to catch popular trams at the very first stop so that I would find a seat and ride in comfort when the crowds (and pickpockets) board at stops later along the line. She recommended I go to the famous Pasteis de Belem which makes Lisbon’s signature treat, tiny custard pies called pastels de nata, but described that I should not get into the line that often stretches down the block. That is for take-out orders or for those who don’t have Isabella to guide them. Instead she told me to go inside at the first entrance and simply wander through the various rooms until I found an empty table to grab. She talked about how appetizers like bread, cheese, and olives will be brought to one’s table at almost all restaurants and warned that they are not complimentary. If you don’t want them, just tell them that when they bring the dishes. She talked about boat trips and places to hear fado music and restaurants; I simply could not believe how much time she spent with me.

Once she left, I decided to go to Graça square to buy some groceries and have a look at one of the famous viewpoints that can be found from many of the city’s hills. I intended to research a good restaurant for that evening, but I was already a bit hungry. As I walked “home”, I saw a cute little café called Vicente.  I thought the place was French because crepes and galettes (savory crepes) were on the menu, but it turned out that one of the owners, Madalena had lived in France for a while, but was originally from Lisbon. I proceeded to take a table and figured I’d made a good choice when Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere started playing on the sound system… a sign of good fortune! I dined on a beautiful galette while my hostess shared a lot about the interesting life she’s had; only in her early 50s, she had first studied medicine, then went into architecture, and now had just recently started this business. We both talked about our journeys to figure out what we really want to do with the rest of our lives, and she declared that “to find what makes us happy” is the best goal. Almost as though it were planned, the song that began playing next was U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and we both laughed about that strange coincidence.

I was about to leave, but Madalena then informed me that she was about to put a batch of pastel de nata  into the oven. She had been tasting the ones at the famous bakery that started them and trying to perfect her own recipe and asked if I wanted to wait and try one hot out of the oven. An offer I could simply not refuse. They were indeed worth the wait, and though I intended to visit the Pasteis de Belem to compare, I am not sure how they could be any better than these were. And so, after spending almost 2 hours there and feeling quite satisfied, I skipped dinner and had a quiet night at the apartment looking out at the lights of Lisbon and planning my next days. I know that Lisbon has been compared with San Francisco because of its being surrounded by water and set on some very steep hills, and it has a very Golden Gate-esque bridge too. The weather also seemed to show some similarities, because after a very warm day, around sunset a bank of fog hovered over the river and the winds picked up considerably, forcing me to close all the west facing windows as the wind was nearly knocking paintings off the walls of the apartment!

The next morning I started out from the Graça area by descending what seemed like a few thousand stairways, with occasional respites of virtually 90 degree angled streets! Oh my aching shin bones and knees! I had read that Lisbon is famous for graffiti and has actually turned a blind eye on the “problem”. Allowing street artists to use old buildings as canvases. But I was not prepared for the incredible amount and detail of the graffiti I saw. It is everywhere; some of it simply “tagging” with initials or perhaps gang names, but much of it funny cartoons and even some rather impressive art work. I have to say that many of the neighborhoods I was walking through did not feel unsafe, but the buildings themselves were ugly concrete monstrosities, and the colorful graffiti actually made them look nicer. There were also many flowering trees and shrubs, and then as I got down into the Baixa District, there were many buildings that were adorned in colorful tiles with intricate patterns. It occurred to me that this is what I find so appealing about traveling in Europe: each country really has its own unique look, feel, and flavor, literally and figuratively.

I arrived at the bottom of all of the steep hills to find Praça da Figueira (Praça is Portuguese for “place” or “square”), and there was an interesting enclosed marketplace there featuring foods to buy as groceries as well as a number of places serving food to eat there. There were many stands selling grilled pork and sausages, and also several places to get a refreshing glass of sangria. I stumbled upon a cheese shop and accepted samples of some delicious cheese that I thought my host said came from Israel, which I found odd. It was really good, and when I asked again, “from Israel?”, he looked at me as if I were nuts and said what I know clearly heard as Azores, the island off Portugal’s west coast. That made a lot more sense. I proceeded to have him make me a sandwich with the Azorean cheese, which he melted on a strange contraption as he grilled some bread and spread it with blueberry preserves. He then poured the soft, hot cheese over the jam, and what a tasty lunch that made.

From this square I was able to board Tram #15, which takes you to a neighborhood called Belem. It’s about a 30 minute trip and thanks to Isabella’s advice, I scored a comfy seat and with my wallet on my left side pocket, firmly against the wall of the tram, I felt safe from pickpockets as well. I have been pickpocketed more times than I’d like to remember in Paris and Rome, and people seem to talk about it happening a lot in Lisbon, so I was a little wary. The tram trip passed some beautiful, stately squares and some really seedy warehouse districts, and then dived underneath the approach to Lisbon’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge, called the Ponte 25 de Abril commemorating the date of a military coup that overthrew a dictator in 1974. Interestingly, the bridge was designed by the company that created the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate. As the tram reached Belem, we passed the  Pasteis de Belem bakery and a line of people was waiting to get in that stretched down the entire block. Yikes.

Armed with Isabella’s insider info, I walked past the line of people and saw and open door, stepped quickly inside and was confronted by a veritable maze of dining areas crammed with people, all eating the little custard pies. The third room I entered had one empty 4 top table covered with dirty dishes, and really feeling guilty for having avoided the line outside, I asked a waiter “how does seating work here?” He simply pointed to the empty table and told me to have a seat. Could it really be just that easy? As he was cleaning off the dishes, a man came over and asked if I was alone and if he and his family might share our table. Of course I said yes, and soon I was the 5th member of a family of four from Germany who had also heard that one should just skip the line and wander around inside. They spoke English beautifully, and the couple and their two teenaged daughters were great company. We shared many travel stories and found that we had very similar tastes in travel. They were renting an apartment in the same neighborhood as me, they are very definite “foodies”, and we spoke a lot about how much we enjoyed our visits to Israel. They sing in a choir and have traveled to many places to perform, and were so moved by their visit to Israel that they got baptized in the Jordan River on their third visit, just as I did. Meanwhile, I started with some quiche before diving in to the pastel de nata, which I must say were warm and absolutely delicious. The difference is that this place makes 30,000 of these little suckers a day; my friend Madalena makes 30!

I then took a nice walk through this area, spending considerable time watching a group of enthusiastic high school aged kids performing music and dancing in front of the stately Jeronimos Monastery to earn money for a school trip. I walked through a lovely park where a flock of baby ducklings and their parents paddled around in the pools of water and fountains, and I admired the beautiful monument called Padrão dos Doscobrimentos, which commemorates the first Portuguese explorers who sailed to the New World in the 15th Century. Foolishly, I though this monument was the famous “Tower of Belem”, an old fortress and popular attraction, so I totally missed the real tower. Oh well, always leave something to see for the next visit!

I came back to the center on a crowded bus, and while I did have a seat, I noticed a local warning a young Asian couple with backpacks to beware of pickpockets, pointing to a couple of men and then pointing to his own eyes, as if to say, “Watch them!” I was glad to see that someone was alert to the thieves and was trying to help innocent tourists from getting victimized, as it is such a hassle when it happens.

I walked through some of the beautiful squares along the waterfront, into the famous Alfama District, a maze of narrow, winding streets that are the historic and tourist center of the city. I chuckled, remembering how Isabella had talked about the Alfama, saying, “You will see many places in Portugal that were once under the rule of the Moorish Muslims. Any time you see a name beginning with AL, it was Muslim… like Al Qaida.” The Alfama as I walked through at about 7 PM was rather quiet and not all that engaging, though I was walking straight uphill to get back to my apartment and sweat was pouring off me as though it were raining, so honestly I didn’t explore too many of the back streets of the area.

For dinner I landed a 9:30PM reservation at a tiny place that had only 7 tables and was just 5 minutes from my apartment. It was called Restaurante Ti’Ascenção, and was rated by Tripadvisor as #22 out of over 4,000 restaurants in Lisbon, so that was a good sign. I had a very quiet and delicious meal of marinated sardines, grilled octopus with potatoes and vegetables, a beet salad, berry cheesecake and a very large and refreshing glass of white wine sangria with lemons, oranges and apples in it. After dinner I virtually limped back to the apartment; after all the hills and walking on streets that often have slippery tiles or broken chunks of pavement, my back and my knees were a wreck, and I decided that after the day I’d spent, my feet were probably not planning to even speak to me for quite some time.  That night from the apartment I could hear a raucous party happening in the streets below the bedroom windows, and from the living room I heard a marching band playing somewhere in the distance. People were clapping and singing along. Lisbon definitely seems like a place where music is everywhere and is a centerpiece of life.

On my last full day in Lisbon, I confess that I slept in very late and I was in such pain from all my walking the day before that I really couldn’t handle a lot of walking again. I did manage to hike to the Convent of Carmo, an ancient convent that was destroyed by the huge earthquake here in 1755 (yet another thing Lisbon shares with San Francisco!). It has been rebuilt and features a museum, but they left some of the ruined parts as a memorial to the quake. I had some grilled sardines for lunch… evidently they are just coming into season now and many places start to open up little sardine stands on the streets at this time of year.

At night I walked downhill mostly to get to a restaurant in the Alfama: Farol de Santa Luzia. Here I had another really exceptional meal starting with a warm octopus salad with lots of veggies and beans, then a stew of clams and pork served over potatoes, the flavor of which was just amazing. It almost reminded me of a New England clam boil, where we steam sausages or Portuguese linguica along with the clams. Dessert was a cinnamon and plum tart, warm and covered with cinnamon, which the Portuguese seem to love. They also sprinkle copious amounts of it over their pasteis de nata.

The next morning I had to go to the airport to pick up a rental car so I could explore the Algarve region of southern Portugal over the next few days. Thankfully, I’d arranged for a cab, as I awoke to pouring rain for the first time in my trip. The driver was incredibly polite and charged me under 10 euro for the trip… making up for my overcharge upon my arrival to the city. I feel like I only scratched the surface of this interesting European capital, and I would definitely like to come back and explore it further, after I hire a trainer to help me prevent irreparable damage to my back and legs the next time! As I set off to explore more of the country, I carried with me memories of music in the streets, vividly tiled buildings and colorful street art, the smell of clams and pork, and the taste of warm custard dusted with cinnamon. What a wonderful first impression Lisboa, as the Portuguese call her, made on me!

4 thoughts on “Music, Graffiti and Custard, Not Necessarily in That Order: Lisbon

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