We finally arrived in Lisbon after flight delays, and were able to check into our hotel. Unfortunately due to the delay, we had to rebook on points and lost our Airbnb, so we weren’t staying in the most favorable part of town (a safe area, just more of an area where I suspect business travelers would stay).
However, we started our exploration of Lisbon with a trip to the Orient Museum, which is a fascinating collection of art and artifacts from the different areas where Portugal has had a global presence, including Japan, China, Macau, Timor Leste, Africa, and Burma. They have some really exquisite pieces of artwork from each of the locations, as well as some really interesting pieces which show how the different areas they visited reacted to them. For example, there were several incredibly ornate Japanese and Chinese screens decorated with traditional wood working, but with images representing westerners instead of Asians in the actual screenprint itself. They also called the Portuguese the “southern barbarians” and depicted them as relatively buffoonish in several of the artifacts, which was interesting as well. This is especially interesting given that typically western art from colonial periods depicted colonial subjects less than favorably, often relying on similar language of barbarianism and using de-humanization in images to further their agenda of “saving” non-Western peoples.
Then, there were artifacts which were more of a display of lived experience, where the Portuguese would have incorporated or commissioned an Asian artist to do some kind of work on top of a traditional Portuguese design. They also had a fantastic variety of historical artifacts from the different places mentioned, such as statues and home goods, as well as some beautiful Japanese Edo-period clothing.
Then, we went to the central market for a snack, where we tried the traditional salt cod with chickpeas (basically a super well marinated fish filet, with a hummus-type spread on it). We also tried the famous egg tarts, which are a bit like creme brûlée but with a fudge consistency.
From there, we took a short walk through the Barrio Alto neighborhood, which is quite hilly and very touristy. Most interesting about the architecture is the tiling everywhere – all of the sidewalks are tiled, and many of the buildings have tiles instead of blocks on the outside. After that, we headed back to the hotel and called it a day, still tired from the previous day’s travel woes.
Thankfully, we slept in on our last morning (enjoying the extra hour we gained by finally getting into western European time!) and saw a bit more of Lisbon in the morning and afternoon, before returning to the hotel to enjoy the spa.
Lisbon has a really interesting vibe to it, especially when you get to the old town Alfama, where the famous tram 28 runs (it is apparently – as we saw – standing room only unless you ride super early in the morning or super late at night, and apparently prime location for pick pockets, so we skipped actually riding it).
The old town is beautiful, with a ton of old tiled buildings, great vistas over the red roofs and water, and little markets to wander into (among other souvenir and tourist joints). Interestingly, once you get down into the winding streets, it becomes much more “local” and feels like smaller towns within the city. It felt a bit like Latin America to me – narrower streets, laundry hanging in windows, folks sitting outside their places of work chatting and smoking cigarettes. From the sidewalk, the atmosphere feels a bit dry and lackluster, until you start to peek into the cafes where people are chatting and having drinks. Thankfully, almost every establishment, even the very local seeming ones, have no smoking stickers (as do cabs) so the air is much clearer than we have been used to in central Europe.
For lunch, we went to a local restaurant where we got a whole grilled seabream with the traditional rice, as well as half an octopus and oiled potatoes (not sure how else to describe them, basically potatoes that seem to have been fried at some point, but then soaked in olive oil – this has been a recurring theme in our exploration!). The lunch special also included the option of two desserts, so we got the “light” flan (made only with egg whites, versus egg yolks), and a custard with caramel (basically pure sugar and eggs). The grand total, thankfully, was only 25 Euros, including the 1 Euro glass of fantastic wine. Definitely a highlight of Lisbon so far!
There are also a variety of beautiful churches in the old town area, although they are again a bit more modest compared to what I saw in Eastern Europe. There are also a variety of vendors supplying different wares, such as the trademark tiles and other gadgets – our favorite was a lady selling “shots” of some kind of cherry liqueur in chocolate shot glasses, which basically tasted like a liquid truffle.
In just our luck, that evening the first fully fledged hurricane to hit Portugal in 125 years struck – and we spent the night fearfully lying in bed, on our 25th floor room, having asked the hotel manager if the hotel was structurally prepared to withstand a hurricane (answer: well, it should be but, uh… we didn’t plan for this). So, as the hotel lightly shook in the hurricane-force breeze, we drifted off to sleep. Amazingly, the next morning the storm had completely past, and our flight that afternoon took off on time, with very little turbulence.
Overall, the three weeks I spent in Europe were some of the most fun that I have had in a while – the tradition of taking a month off of work to explore and refresh was incredibly necessary, and something I would wholeheartedly recommend.