Robin Camille Davis
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What we done / in Lisbon

June 19, 2009
Tags: photography, travel

From Madrid, Deven and I flew to Lisbon, Portugal, where we spent 3 days. Old Lisbon (or Lisboa) is absolutely beautiful. The colorful tiled buildings, the black & white pavement, the weather, the water — we knew nothing about the city before we went, but the good things we'd heard about it turned out to be true!

We stayed in a superhip (and supercheap) youth hostel in Baixa, the old quarter of Lisbon. Baixa is currently being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status. Fun fact: in 1755, a giant earthquake destroyed most of the city's buildings. They reconstructed the city but made it earthquake-proof this time. To simulate tremors, the Portuguese army marched around the new buildings to make sure nothing would collapse. Guess it worked — the're still standing today.

Let's start with what we walked on. Portuguese pavement is made of small (~4" square) blocks of limestone and basalt, arranged into various patterns. Sometimes, in front of shops, they'll configure the blocks in the logo or name of the store. (Typomaniacal glee.) It's apparently a dying art, since after all it's backbreaking work arranging the tiles, but it truly "makes" the city. In all of our wandering in Lisbon, even outside the old Baixa quarter, I only saw one concrete sidewalk.

We arrived hella early on our first day. We tried to check into our hostel at 8am, but we couldn't until the afternoon, so we left our bags there and went walking. On the left: a photo of an amazing candleabra in a café we passed by. How many years, do you think? How many pounds? How many identical photos on Flickr?

In Spain, I'd used the rudimentary Spanish I remembered, feeling relieved that I knew some but ashamed that it was so clunky. However, we knew no Portuguese whatsoever except the basics I'd looked up beforehand — obrigado/obrigada for thank you, faz favor for please, desculpe for sorry. But good luck figuring out pronunciation, or trying to remember não falo português (I don't speak Portuguese). It was the first time (since I was 6 anyway) that I'd been in a foreign country where I knew nothing of the language. A totally alienating feeling.

Fortunately, there were often English translations at tourist sites, and many people spoke a little English. And of course a little pantomiming came in handy.

This is the view from Castelo São Jorge, overlooking old Lisbon. On the left is the San Francisco Bay Bridge (kinda). Lisbon straddles the mouth of a river (not sure I could have phrased that any more awkwardly). All the red roofs are quite pretty, n'est-ce pas?

Here's the actual castle we were standing on. It was built a thousand years ago (!!!) by Muslims. Then the Christians took over. Then the Muslims. Then the Christians. Lisbon has a richly textured history and has always been home to a mixture of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This castle was pretty fun. Those stripes on the right are "murder holes"...

...which Deven immediately took advantage of in his quest to become a Certified Castle Defender. We had a long discussion about whether being employed as a security guard at the Castelo qualified one to carry around a crossbow.

All right. In my previous entry I detailed the episode where we confused parks, palaces, and couples making out. Apparently the confusion would not end there.

Upon reading a brochure in the hostel, we found an interesting tourist site to visit, an old defensive tower. "Let's take bus #92 to the Belém stop and walk to the tall white tower, right on the water." So we found a tall white tower right on the water (left), figured this was the celebrated Torre Belém, paid the admission fee, and climbed a crapload of stairs to get to the top.

Once on top, Deven pointed out something interesting a few hundred meters down the coast (right picture). "Isn't that the Torre Belém?" "Oh... yeah, that looks more like an old defensive tower than this one." "Then what the heck are we on right now?" Evidently we had climbed some sort of modern homage to Portuguese explorers, which explained the little museum-y rooms we'd passed on the way up displaying portraits of Vasco da Gama and the natives he civilized (cough).

Anyway, it was Monday and the Torre Belém was closed, sadly, so maybe it was a good thing we'd climbed this other white tower on the water after all — otherwise we wouldn't have had such a great view! (Optimism.) Still, kind of ridiculous.

Overlooking Baixa is the Convento do Carmo, an old convent that only half-survived the great earthquake of 1755. You can still wander in the roofless cathedral. It's been turned into an archaeological museum which displays bits of the caved-in roof and also artifacts found in the area — like arrowheads and tools from the Bronze Age. And also Peruvian child mummies? I dunno, that was kind of weird. In any case, it was lovely to feel like you were inside a church while being able to see the clouds and feel the summer breeze, which made me feel fine.

Conclusion: the Convento, while less delicious than churros y chocolate in Madrid, was extremely pretty and an equally excellent way to end an Iberian jaunt!

Up next: Munich, Germany.