My uncle welcomed us to "The country of roundabouts" when we first arrived, and he couldn't have been more right. Despite his very detailed instructions when we first arrived in the village, we still had more than one time where we exited at the wrong place and had to circle back around or take highly detailed and unnecessary tours through neighbouring towns.
We eventually got the hang of roundabouts in small towns (the ones in major cities were still quite terrifying - double lanes and traffic lights!), and figured out the other idiosyncrasies of driving in rural Portugal. (For example, their yellow lights repetitively flash at you rather than hold steady. Sometimes, that means "slow down, prepare to stop," but other times it can change from red back to flashing yellow, meaning "there's a pedestrian crossing here or some other unknown reason you should be cautious". And other times, according to my uncle, it means "the traffic light is in a controlled speed zone that will immediately change to red if you go too fast, but if it's malfunctioning it will just flash yellow indefinitely so you can go through it anyway."
|Tower of Belém|
Windy mountain roads, roundabouts, flashing lights, rural road construction zones, tight parking spaces, and 2100km later, we nevertheless made it safely from top of the country to bottom and back again.
Free of our vehicle, we set out to explore as many of Lisbon's hidden nooks and charms as we could, while also hitting some of the most famous historic spots. Our first stop was the neighbourhood of Belém. It is here that Portuguese navigators set off in their ships during the age of discoveries, following the river Tagus (Tejo) out to the sea and to unknown lands. The tower of Belém was built in 1515 as an important fortress to guard Lisbon's harbours. We waited in the line to go inside, and while we were waiting admired the twisted, intricate stonework detail and the arched windows, balconies, and domes that dominate the Portuguese-unique "Manueline" style of architecture. The top (after climbing 93 stairs) gave us great views over the city and the river Tagus, and I sat in some of the smaller turrets, trying to imagine what it must have been like to look out these windows long ago and keep watch over the harbour.
A few minutes walk away, also along the river, is the Monument to the Discoveries. This beautiful monument was put up in 1960 to commemorate 500 years of Portuguese discoveries. The tall ship is lined with important Portuguese navigators and other figures who were involved in the age of discoveries (cartographers, poets). The ground in front of it is a huge mosaic that depicts a beautiful compass rose and a map of the world in the middle, highlighting all the places that the Portuguese went to. I know history is complicated and often romanticized, but looking at all the places Portuguese ships touched - Newfoundland, Brazil, Japan, India - after harrowing voyages and many failed attempts, it is no wonder to me why the people of this tiny country have such fierce pride in
|Mosaic mural on the ground in front of the Monument|
to the Discoveries
|Close-up detail of some of the mural on the ground|
The other major monument in the area is across the street - Monastery of Jeronimos. It was built in 1502, again in the Portuguese-exclusive "Manueline style". Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, came here to pray on the evening before what ended up being the first successful sea voyage to India. This impressive feat of discovering the maritime route to India gave Portugal a monopoly over the very lucrative spice trade for the next 100 years. His tomb is located at the front of this monastery, and so is that of Luis de Camões, one of Portugal's most famous poets from that same time period.
Walking amidst all this history related to the age of discoveries made me feel even more connected to the country that anything else we had yet seen. As I saw with my own eyes the tomb of Vasco da Gama, ran my hands along the intricate stonework of the tower of Belém, and contemplated each of the historical figures on the Monument to the Discoveries, something stirred in me. For lack of a better word, it was saudade, again. Perhaps I feel so connected to the history and mythology surrounding the Age of Discoveries because there is something powerful in the spirit of a people who get on a ship and sail to unknown lands, and in some small way, this is what my parents did as well. They got on a plane and flew across the ocean, in their early 20's and 30's, looking for something. What that something is (besides the usual reasons for immigration), I cannot really say. You have to be brave enough, or
|Vasco da Gama|
crazy enough (or both) to leave everything you know behind and set off into the unknown.
Perhaps I inherited my wanderlust, passed down through generations of ancient explorers.
Lisbon is alive with history, and I am immersed in it. I look out at the river, and imagine tall ships with unfurled sails, slowly sailing away. Somehow, in my mind's eye, part of me is with them, off in search of unknown shores.
|close-up detail of Vasco da Gama's tomb|
Next stop is a ride on the historic 1930's electric tram. These vintage vehicles are still in use along one of Lisbon's main routes through the city, as they are the only ones that can navigate the steep and narrow roads of Lisbon's old quarters. The wood paneling and seats inside are very 1930's indeed, as is the rickety, jerky feeling of climbing those steep hills in a vehicle that's almost 90 years old, as you watch the driver turn a metal crank and perform almost a dance of coordination with his different cranks, wheels, and dials.
Large parts of Lisbon were destroyed in a massive disaster that occurred in 1775 - an earthquake who's epicenter reigistered at 8.7. Because it happened on a holiday, the Day of All Saints, everyone was in churches that morning, and every space in every building was covered in lit candles. This caused the second disaster of the day - as people were trying to recover from the massive earthquake, Lisbon was now on fire from all the candles which had fallen over. Then came the aftershocks of the earthquake in the form of huge tsunami waves that covered the city.
This massive tragedy destroyed much of Lisbon's old monuments, neighbourhoods, and historic documents. Much of Portugal's history, poetry, and music was lost. Thankfully, a few neighbourhoods were spared, like Alfama, and that is the area we rode the tram through. The narrow streets, very old buildings with unique doors, windows, railings, and colours were quite fascinating to look at as we rode up and down the streets.
After this, we decided to go back to our hostel and rest for a short while before heading out to experience Fado.
Fado is a unique musical style that was born in Lisbon. This passionate, often melancholy, heart-wrenching music is said to be the soul of the Portuguese people, and we were eager to hear it performed live in its natural element.
We found a small bar called A Tasca do Chico, and hesitantly made our way in to the very crowded space. There was no more sitting room, so we ordered a pair of sangrias and stood against a wall, waiting for something to happen. Soon enough, the lights were dimmed, the doors to the outside were closed, and a young man went to the middle of the small space. The sounds of the Portuguese 12-stringed guitar filled the air from his masterful accompanist, and the voice that came out of him immediately grabbed our full attention.
|Fado singer at Tasca do Chico|
Fado is not something that can be described; it can only be experienced. There was a quote on the wall saying that you are a 'fadista' not only if you sing fado, but also if you know how to listen to fado. And listen we did, hearts attentive to every quiet phrase that suddenly swelled into passionate melancholic longing. Poetry spilled from his skillful story-telling, and he sang mostly head down or turned away, and eyes closed, clearly lost in his own turmoil of emotions, channeling them for us through song so that we could all somehow have a joint experience of longing, saudade, grief, hope, secrets, joy. Fado is not just 'sad music'. It is the soul, given voice.
We stayed there for a little over an hour, as three other singers took turns going up and giving us their own versions of fado. Old and young, men and women - it was a beautiful evening in the heart of Lisbon's culture, and we soaked up every moment of it.
Around midnight we left the Fado bar and wandered the streets of Lisbon's Bairro Alto neighbourhood - where the famed night-life happens. Things don't really get started in Lisbon until at least midnight, and we were surprised at how the streets had filled up with people drinking, eating, and laughing. Drinking in the streets is legal in Portugal, and alcohol is cheap (think 1 Euro beers), and clearly the night life crowd knows how to party. 2 am is when things really start happening, though, but our travel-weary selves only made it until about 1:30 before we decided to call it a night.
Lisboa de mil amores... thank you for showing me at least some of your secrets.