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Finding inspiration in Lisbon

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

By Mary Carpenter

Escuche. Preparar. Esperanza. These were among the handful of Portuguese words I could make out during the sermon at Sunday Mass in Lisbon. It was too early to check into my hotel, so I had popped my head in the door to look at the 15th century murals, and perhaps see if my rusty Spanish would be of any use here.

“Listen. Prepare. Hope,” the priest said. This much I understood.

My trip to Lisbon was an unexpected solo adventure. One week earlier, I was with my family in a pub in Northwest Ireland starting a long-planned vacation to visit my college-age son, Patrick, who was studying in Dublin for the semester. My daughter, Sally, was enjoying her first Guinness when I got the text that my Uncle Jack had passed away after a long illness.

Jack grew up in a small town in Indiana, like everyone else in my family. Unlike everyone else, he settled in Norway after marrying a Swedish exchange student. The funeral would be in Oslo, a mere 800 miles from where I sat. “You should go,” my husband said.

At any other time in the last 30 years, this would have been a challenge. But I had left my job as an advertising executive a month earlier. I decided to take a bit of time off to help my 85-year old father, and to spend time with my daughter before she left for college in the fall. For once in my life, I had the freedom to do something spontaneous. When it became clear that my dad was determined to make the trip from Indiana despite his health challenges, that tipped the scales. My brother would accompany him, and I would meet them in Oslo some five days after the end of my family’s Irish vacation.

I would have stayed in Dublin a bit longer, but Patrick had classes and exams. And my husband and daughter had to get back to Chicago. A few Google searches told me that it would cost me less to go to Lisbon compared to staying in chilly, dark Dublin, or waiting in chilly, even-darker Oslo. I checked my weather app and started making reservations when I saw three days of sun icons and 58 degree temperatures.

I landed in Lisbon on Sunday morning and headed straight for the The Luminares, a boutique hotel I found on Chase Rewards that turned out to be a luxurious and relaxing spot on the edge of Bairro Alto, which roughly translates as “High Neighborhood”. Indeed, it seemed The Luminares was at the very highest point of Lisbon, so after storing my bags with the concierge, I set off down the hill to explore the city.

The narrow lanes of Bairro Alto are enchanting, with tile sidewalks and fresh laundry strung across balconies. I went looking for tourist attractions without a map or an app, which is when I wandered into Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Loreto just as the 1 p.m. Mass was beginning. I later learned the church is more than 500 years old, and like dozens of others in Lisbon, has extraordinary Renaissance-era paintings and murals set in small “chapels” around the church perimeter.

After settling into my room, I walked back down the hill in search of a rental bike to take me to the Sunday market at LX Factory, which a bit of hasty research had identified as a cool spot in an up and coming area of Lisbon. I found Lisbon Bike Rentals and in no time rented an electric bike, helmet and lock. With the electric boost, it was an easy ride along the Tagus River to LX Factory, which was hopping on a Sunday afternoon with a bustling outdoor flea market to complement the hip shops and galleries. I bought a piece of pottery for Sally at the flea market and a tin of fish for my husband at O Mundo Fantastico da Sardinha Portuguesa (yes, there is a store called The Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines).

I had dinner that night at Grapes and Bites in Bairro Alto, a cute tavern with excellent Portuguese cheese and a nice green salad. While official wine tasting hours were over, the bartender happily let me sample different wines. I enjoyed them while listening to a violin/guitar duo sing acoustic hits, including an awesome rendition of Baby Shark for a curious toddler.

The next morning, I made my way to Praca do Comercio, the starting point of the Rick Steves Walking Tour of Lisbon (download the excellent free app here). I’ve never done a self-guided audio tour outside of a museum exhibit, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it was excellent. I spent more than four hours walking, listening and learning all about Lisbon, all the while thinking that I would never have done a tour like this if I weren’t traveling solo.

It is impossible to spend time in Lisbon without learning that the pivotal event in the city’s history was the 1755 earthquake, which killed more than 50,000 people and leveled much of the city. The charming style of Lisbon architecture – with tile facades, symmetrical balconies and cobblestone sidewalks – was born during the rebuilding of Lisbon.

The audio tour focused on three primary neighborhoods of Lisbon: The Baixa, the historic center of town and the location of many of the city’s landmarks; Chiado, with it’s fashionable shops and restaurants; And Bairro Alto, the bohemian quarter known for nightlife and steep hills. Highlights of the tour include the grand Rua Augusta Arch near Praca do Comercio, the Igreja de Sao Roque – one of the earliest Jesuit churches with beautiful baroque chapels, and the Convento de Carmo, the ruins of a medival convent that was partially destroyed by the earthquake. The tour also points out classic delicacies of Lisbon, including bacalou (dried cod – they eat a lot of it), patel de nata (a decadent creamy tart), and ginjinha (a cherry liquor sold from a centuries-old storefront bar). And it was a treat to ride the Elevador da Gloria, a bright yellow funicular up an impossibly steep hill.

I had dinner that night at Lisbon’s Time Out Market, an upscale food hall featuring outposts of some of the best restaurants in the city. You can order from limited menus at more than forty restaurants and take your food to open seating in the middle of the market. But if you’re by yourself, it’s nicer to sit at the bar on the opposite side of kitchens. I had a wonderful dish of gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) at O Surf and Turf with a crisp Portugeuse rose.

I booked a food tour with Treasures of Lisboa for Tuesday at 10am. I joined three other solo travelers from the US and Canada, plus a couple from Dubai, on a three-hour tour through the charming neighborhood of Alfama. Francesco was an excellent tour guide, sharing bits of history about the area while introducing us to some fantastic food. Among the 14 different tastings were patel de nata (fresh from the oven), Portuguese sardines, codfish croquettes and a Portuguese green wine (which is actually white, and delicious).

Alfama is one of the oldest districts in Lisbon, having been largely spared by the earthquake, and it was a pleasure to walk through medieval courtyards and winding lanes as we enjoyed local food and drinks. This neighborhood is also the birthplace of Fado, a soulful style of music that is unique to Portugal. After the tour, I spent an hour at the Museo do Fado, which was well worth the 5 Euro admission price.

Besides the Portuguese mass on Sunday, I had no trouble communicating in English throughout the city. That changed on Tuesday evening when I went to a local self-serve laundromat to make sure I had clean clothes for my trip to Oslo. While I struggled with the coin-operated machines, a kind Portuguese women pointed and nodded until I figured it out. I had dinner near the hotel at Tapa Boa Hora, a tapas restaurant that was more Spanish than Portuguese, which reminded me of my own semester abroad more than 30 years ago, in Spain. I had a tortilla española with a glass of Rioja, warm laundry in a bag at my feet.

As the plane to Oslo took off the next morning, I looked out the airplane window at the city of Lisbon. I was glad I’d have some special time with my dad in the next few days and was looking forward to getting home to see Sally, who was anxiously awaiting news about college admissions. Before long, I’d have to get serious about my job search, but I was trying not to worry about it quite yet. I repeated the words I’d translated from the sermon at Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Loreto which seemed to be telling me what to do – with my dad, my daughter and my career. Listen. Prepare. Hope.



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