top of page

Catching our breath in beautiful Lisbon

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

When we look back on this trip, we'll think of Lisbon as a regrouping stop. We’re now 18 days in, and we needed a city to catch our breath, and to get some work done. Odd that we would do this while still walking more than five miles a day in the hilliest of hilly cities. But there you go.

It is a beautiful city, and very welcoming. And while Lisbon isn’t Rome or Athens in terms of antiquity, it does seem old, even for a European city. Part of the floor of the hall outside our hotel room is thick glass, displaying the Roman staircase that was unearthed when the building was renovated in 2015. Up the hill from us, the Castelo de Jorge includes ruins from the Iron Age, a couple of centuries BC. As for more recent history, the church where Christopher Columbus got married is just up the street.

The famous patterned tile sidewalks, combined with the sharp angles – both up and down and side to side – make walking both an adventure and a pleasure. Only one part of the city, the Baixa district, is flat and laid out in a grid. Which calls to mind the still-talked-about earthquake that happened – checks notes – 267 years ago.

In that sense, Lisbon does share something in common with Chicago. Both suffered a devastating event that both destroyed and still seems to define the place. Lisbon’s earthquake of 1755 killed more than 50,000 people, and destroyed large swaths of the city. Lisbon rebuilt itself, this time around grand squares and plazas, and the grid of the Baixa is a reminder.

Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and you can see that in some graffiti and decay when you venture out of the popular neighborhoods. The funicular we rode in the Barrio de Alto (the high neighborhood) was so covered in graffiti that it reminded John of the New York subway system in the 1970s.

You can also hear it from the people, who complain about poor financial support for retirees, and long hours and low pay for everyone else. Our cab driver from the airport told us he was retired from the Merchant Marines, and still drove his cab 370 hours per month. That’s 12 hours a day every day.

Still, it is experiencing a bit of a tourist boom.

“There’s no low season now. Only high and mid,” said Ines Salvador, the manager the Santiago de Alfama, our hotel here.

Mary found it, booked it with credit card points, and we’ll definitely be back. It currently has only 19 rooms, with plans to more than double that in the next three years. But a stylish renovation of the 15th century building gives it the feel of a larger luxury hotel. And it is in the heart of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest and loveliest neighborhood.

We especially enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails in the hotel bar, presided over by Bruno, an artist of a bartender. We're normally not a fan of the artisanal cocktail builders one typically comes across in the states. Too often they seem pretentious – turning a fun exchange into a stern lecture. Bruno brings a little joy to the process, and happily – over the course of our stay – walked us through the many different ways to make everything from a great gin and tonic to some great after-dinner drinks.

The hotel wifi was solid, and Mary was able to navigate a few important work calls. They also helped us at the front desk, printing out some travel documents.

John wanted to get out on the water, as he always does when water is near, so we took one of Lisbon’s many ferries. We crossed the Tagus river to Cacilhas and it was our first disappointment of the trip. The boat, mostly used by daily commuters, wasn’t particularly clean. And it didn’t allow passengers to ride outside, in the fresh air. We watched the beautiful views of the city through dirty windows.

The other disappointment was our own fault, as we made the river crossing too early. The little town of Cacilhas was just waking up, and we were too early for lunch at a restaurant Rick Steeves said he loved. We walked around the town, had a coffee, and headed back to the city.

Lisbon lives outside, even in November. Edoardo, our guide-friend in the Algarve, had already told us this.

“The home is for the bed,” he had said, meaning people would rather spend their free time outside their home, with other people.

The Alfama is home to many very small cafes, most with more tables outside than in. Even the shopkeepers seem to be half inside and half out, often standing in the doorways or sitting outside, stepping in only to tend to a customer. Old women sit in the open doors of their homes, selling shots of Ginjinha, a cherry liquor served in edible chocolate cups for an extra euro. Streets are often bustling until late in the evening, which gives the place a friendly feel. And they observe the late-dinner time of other Southern European countries here. Book a table for 8 p.m. and you’re likely to be one of the first diners in the restaurant.

Mary and I both love live music, and were determined to sample Fado, a type of Portuguese folk singing that is famous here. It’s a simple form of music, with one singer accompanied by one or two guitar players. “Live Fado” is offered in many places, but someone told Mary how to spot a good place for it.

“If they are playing Fado and people are talking and talking, don’t go in,” he said. “If they are playing Fado and people are shushing people, that is good Fado.”

We landed at Bohemia LX restaurant, a short walk from our hotel, and were pleased by the quiet ambience, even as the musicians were on break. Shortly after we placed our order, a woman took the small stage with two musicians, both older gentlemen. One played a traditional acoustic guitar. The other played a “classic” Portuguese guitar, with a smaller, rounded body.

Fado - pronounced FAH-dough - is folk music characterized by sadness and melancholy, often about the lives of poor people and fishermen. Like Italian or German opera, you can feel the emotion, even if you don't understand the words.

The songs are even more evocative because the Portuguese language sounds vaguely Russian. I can't find a good explanation for why this is, but with a quick internet search, I was pleased to discover that this is a real thing, not just something I imagined. The guttural sounds and melodic cadence suggest a mix of romance and tragedy - a perfect description of a Fado ballad, or a Russian novel.


Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Nov 09, 2022

It’s the way they say “leh-deez and gentlemen” that cemented the Russian thing for me. I even got some Russians at the next table to see it whilst we listened to fado!

bottom of page