Tuesday, 31 December 2013

5 days in Lisbon

After a friend received some wonderful news, years in the making, we decided to celebrate with a city break to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

Built, like Rome, on seven hills, the city is a sprawling collection of distinct districts, each with their own character. In just five days, we tried to see as much as it as possible, soaking up the atmosphere and some early summer sun.

After finding our bearings during the first day, we scrapped the map – it’s difficult to get truly lost, and exploring the meandering streets and alleys is part of the fun, even if your calves will groan by the end of each day. Picking a direction at random revealed to us beautiful mosaics, brightly coloured hanging decorations, buskers throwing hopeful looks at passers-by next to metro stations and quieter narrow cobbled streets. If we became tired or ready for some lunch there was always a simple (lazy) way back - the extensive tram network is an easy way to navigate the city, and saves the long slog up some of the steeper hills. It can work out pricey for very short journeys, but is a real establishment of the city, shared by locals and tourists – particularly outside the centre.

As always when visiting a city, I was a little worried that after a few days I’d be ready to leave the bustle, but there was plenty to amuse us during our stay.

We began with the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a hilltop fortification with sweeping views across the city. The castle's many towers are made for exploring and I particularly enjoyed wandering the archaeological site in the grounds as peacocks strutted past. Having taken the tram up, we returned to the centre by foot, passing beautiful churches whilst winding our way down steeply cobbled passages. Back at sea level, we headed towards the heart of the city, Praca do Comercio - a vast square lined with stunning buildings looking out towards the water. Unfortunately, the central statue was undergoing renovation when we visited, with huge amounts of scaffolding somewhat affecting the view, but it was still a lovely place to stop for a snack as the clouds parted and the sun lit up the white stone surrounding us. We even managed to time our visit to coincide with some traditional dancing taking place.

Resisting being dragged in to participate, we instead nipped across the the other side of the square for some wine tasting - eager to raise the profile of Portuguese wine, free tastings were being offered and we didn't need much persuasion to join a tour. It was an interesting hour during which I actually learnt a few new facts (wine knowledge is not exactly one of my strong points).

After spending our first day ticking off some of the main sights Lisbon has to offer, we devoted the rest of our time in the city seeking out some less-visited areas. We climbed high up the Aqueduct das Aguas Livres, close to our hotel, incorporating the slightly eerie experience of entering through a green-lit chamber with deep, crystal clear pools of water with an alternate view over the city from above. We rode the trams at random, hopping off and seeking out pretty churches, colourful streets hung with brightly paper banners, and small cafes to eat at.

Although I adored everything Lisbon had to offer, The real highlight of the whole trip for me was the Convento do Carmo. We'd spotted this huge structure sitting perched above the central plazas a number of times during our first few days, thick white walls and a glimpse of arches beyond. It was only as we entered from the other side, however, that its incredible beauty was revealed. Almost destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, the only remaining features of the convent are its Gothic arches standing completely exposed. The ruins are absolutely captivating, as is the small attached museum, and we spent a couple of hours just wandering around.


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