Travel Diaries: A Glimpse of Lisbon

I went on my first ever trip to Europe last December. It was one of the coolest things I have done in my adult life – just travelling with a friend to a whole new continent. When Swetha asked me if I wanted to fly back from New York  to India together, she suggested a week-long ‘layover’ somewhere in Europe. We pretty much picked out the exact location in Europe based on the timing and price of flights – and after extensive Skype sessions, mapped out an itinerary which ended up being NY – Lisbon – Venice – Florence – Rome – New Delhi. Italy was our main destination, but we found a flight that had a legitimate layover in Lisbon for 22 hours, which felt like a pretty great bonus.

I was wildly excited about this trip, but it was hard to pinpoint what exactly I was looking for. Apart from the general excitement of seeing a new place and culture, I also wanted the independence of just finding my own way around in completely new surroundings. Which is why we shunned all sorts of guided tours, agreed to carry phones which were quite useless without public WiFi, and made our own itineraries, a lot of which involved ‘walking around the streets to soak in the place’. We went as old-school as possible: paper maps with x marking the spots, multiple print-outs, handwritten notes to account for our finances. Our schedules for all of Italy were completely packed to squeeze in everything we both wanted to do, but since Lisbon was our little treat, we agreed to keep it light and flexible.

The very first sight which greeted my eyes the moment I stepped out of Lisbon airport was a gorgeous stretch of ocean. Palm trees, with their fronds gently waving in the breeze. It looked sunny, warm and welcoming – which is just how I like my Decembers to be!

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Nothing signifies ‘summer vacation’ like palm trees!

 

We exchanged some currency and took a bus over to our hostel, only to be greeted by some very welcoming folk, who chattered away with us, pointed out some of the local attractions and stored our bags. They were very excited indeed to hear I was from Goa – which I wasn’t sure how to feel about. Didn’t the Portuguese rule over Goa for some 450 years, and shouldn’t I be slightly resentful at this sweeping familiarity of their feelings? Oh well. I decided to see it as a useful talking point – and believe me, there were SO many similarities to Goa! The architecture, the beaches, the slanted roofs! The climate, the insistence on having fish with every meal! After we shed all our bulky winter layers (which had proven so useful just a day ago in NY), we walked over to the Commercial Square, wandered around, took photos, and pored over the menus of every restaurant in the Square before we settled on a meal.

After a long leisurely lunch, Swetha and I decided to go see a place called the Belem Tower which everyone kept gushing about. It’s right by the coast, they said. You can’t miss it, they said. We took a bus and dutifully got off at the stop called Belem, which was apparently the wrong stop for Belem Tower. This led to a comical forty five minutes of being misdirected and rerouted by every person we stopped to ask directions from (“it’s a 100 meters to the left”, followed immediately by “just walk straight on this road for 700 meters, the Tower should be on your right”). Life without Google Maps is hard, you guys! But on the plus side, yay for the metric system! At some point we saw a couple of guards who were dressed up like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, and timidly went up to them to ask for directions. They stoically refused to break character and looked straight through us. It was rather unnerving, we weren’t sure whether to turn our backs and sprint away, or walk backwards verrrry slowly (they had these scary-looking rifles, and didn’t blink AT ALL). A normally dressed guard witnessed this one-sided exchange and taking pity on us, pointed us in a third direction. Our gratitude proved to be premature, as we ended up reaching near the sea, but with no tower in sight. It HAD to be on the coast, and our view was unencumbered for miles … but believe me, there was no tower in sight! I began to think it was a mirage – only existing in people’s minds. At one point we saw Portugal’s Ponte 25 de Abril bridge, which was disorientingly similar to the Golden Gate Bridge from the continent we’d just left. Eventually we decided that even if we did find the tower, we’d probably be denied entry because it was nearing their closing time. We somehow ended up at the Jeronimos Monastery, which I’d also looked up before, and decided to act as if it was our destination all along.

But the moment we walked into the Monastery, it stopped being a consolation prize – it was incredibly beautiful. The stonework, the design, the intricate marble carvings were stunning. We found ourselves in a courtyard which felt right out of a story book. This huge grassy green expanse with a little fountain in the center, surrounded by four tall walls of marble, and above, the bluest of skies. It was almost deserted – we had the place to ourselves. We chatted and took photos for the first five minutes – but it was so peaceful that we fell silent. You know those moments that just take your breath away, the moments where you forget everything else, and all you want to do is savor it? The kind of moments you are so busy experiencing, that documentation becomes unimportant? Because all you care about is the here and now. You don’t want to be anywhere else. You don’t miss anyone or anything, because there’s no other place you’d rather be. This … right here, is everything you want right now. And in that moment as I lay stretched out on my back in the grassy courtyard, looking up at the clouds skidding past the pointy towers of the monastery – I realized that this kind of peace and quiet was what I was looking for all along.

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The courtyard at Jeronimos Monastery, photographed before I went into philosophical musings

 

Much later in the evening, we hunted down a McDonald’s for free WiFi, called an Uber and drove through multiple sparkling streets to the Santa Justa lift. This is a grand and slightly eerie antique-looking elevator which takes you up to a viewing platform where you can look over miles and miles of the city. This turned out to be a common theme during the rest of the trip – for every city we visited, I made it a point to climb up to an accessible lookout point to get a bird’s-eye view. The view from Santa Justa at night was glorious – you could see slanted brick-red rooftops all around below you, interspersed with streets and marketplaces decorated with streams of Christmas lights and decorations. On one side, the glittering black sea stretched out to meet the sky, and on the other, an old castle upon a hill. By this time in the evening, stars were glinting overhead, the wind was whistling in my ears and doing its best to toss my curls into further disarray, and it felt like we were literally on top of the world.

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The Elevador de Santa Justa, with a viewing platform at the top

 

The rest of the evening whizzed past in a series of cheerful events – Swetha and I wandered into a bakery and inquired about all the different kinds of sweets and their fillings. The guy behind the counter was kind enough to describe each of the pastries, and after we ordered two to go, he very sweetly added three more, and refused to let us pay. We had dinner outside a lovely restaurant where the waiter brought us Ginja, a traditional Portuguese drink, along with Pastel de nata, a traditional Portuguese egg tart custard pastry served with cinnamon – which immediately won a spot on my list of all-time favorite foods.

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I’m going to find myself some of these in NYC!

 

After a late stroll along the beach, we hung around in Commercial Square once more. We ended up walking up to and into an artificial 100 feet tall Christmas tree, which looked rather silly from the outside (it was disturbingly symmetric), but was stunning from the inside. It was quite wide at the base and had a doorway on the side, sort of like going inside a very tall tent. I stood at the exact center of the tree and looked straight up – and instantly felt dizzy. It was like looking into some sort of twinkling red, green and white tunnel which was shooting straight upwards with no discernible ending. If you stood in the center and started twirling, looking straight into that tunnel, it almost felt like tumbling inside some giant kaleidoscope of sound and color. It was hypnotizing – I had to be physically dragged out of there.

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The Christmas tree from outside …

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… and inside. Looking up, up, up the vertical tunnel!

 

22 hours in Lisbon weren’t enough – it deserves a lot more time. Before I knew it, it was 6 a.m. and time for us to leave for our flight to Venice. Since our bags were already checked in straight to Venice, all we did was stroll into the airport with our carry-ons and walk all the way to the gate. Security was surprisingly lax – we got almost all the way to the boarding gates before anyone stopped us to see any documents or to scan our bags. It totally fit in with the whole laid-back attitude of the people, the whole sushegaad lifestyle my Goan relatives have introduced me to. You know all those dramatic movies in which someone is running through an airport to declaim their undying love at the last minute? Well, Lisbon airport seems like the easiest spot where you can get away with it, no problem whatsoever. In fact, no need to run, just casually saunter in and you’ll be fine.

Will I return to Lisbon? Probably. It seems like the kind of place I’d like to settle down in eventually. I’d live in a little house with a red roof and a porch, sit and read at the beach every evening, finally hunt down the elusive Belem Tower, and devour pasteis de nata by the dozen. Throw in the year-round warm weather, and it’s a deal! Sushegaad indeed!

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