We landed and taxied for quite awhile before stopping in the middle of a long phalanx of planes. At first I didn’t believe it, but it quickly became obvious that we were disembarking on stairs and not a jetway. Kind of shock for a major European capital, and one of those times when our personal value of only traveling with two (stuffed and heavy) carry-on bags comes into stark contrast with reality. Because the reality of lugging those down rickety, slippery steps is never something you want to do.
Two rental car style buses waited at the bottom and once loaded we began a really long drive around the airport, finally ending at what must have been the furthermost entry to the concourse because we followed our really long drive with a really long walk. Finally though, daylight was in sight and we luckily exited straight into the taxi stand.
Rush hour on Friday in Lisbon is just like rush hour in any major city. Our driver bore a striking resemblance to Jean Claude Van Damme, in looks, size, build and even sunglasses. Once again we were treated to a great conversation as we crawled our way into the city center. Everything from the history of the city to the ruination of the old town due to rentals, smokers, tourists, the food, and even a brief sidebar about the terrible drivers that Uber uses (echoing our taxi driver in Madrid.) Really nice guy with a decent grasp of English.
It took waiting at 3 stop lights on our block to get us close to the front door of the apartment where Miguel was waiting for us in the lobby. Nice young man, working for Lisbonne Collection, a rental company that he said manages more than 60 apartments around town. This one, brand new, is striking. Modern, big windows, nice kitchen, 2-bedrooms, one bath. Beautiful wood floors and state of the art appliances. One of our best choices in our long history of rentals.
Miguel recommended a grocery store that was a few blocks up into town. And as we were quick to learn, “up” is the operant word here. We always do our research, and we had a good idea that Lisbon was a lot of climbing and descending. But I’ll be honest, I was surprised by how much we encountered just in these few blocks.
You get an impression about a place almost instantly, and mine was not positive. It was getting a bit dark; the narrow sidewalks were crowded and all the faults of the place were out in sharp contrast to where we’d just left. For all its warts, Madrid is a very agreeable city. Sure, there are missing cobblestones that will kill the unwary in a second, and trash and smokers in front you all the time you’re walking. But if you blur your eyes a little bit, on the whole it’s very nice. Here, blurring your eyes for that same effect will get you killed. The sidewalks are shiny, blue and while pieces of ceramic tile, perhaps 3” in diameter with a rounded edge. And missing all over the place. MLW’s boots were slipping and sliding just in normal walking, and my Merrells were doing the same thing to a lesser extent. I can’t even imagine what those are like in a rainstorm.
The walking was hard, and made more so by the throngs of people who can never seem to grasp that stopping in the middle of the route to check their phone causes a lot of ancillary problems, particularly for those of us who are just trying to get from A to B. I was using directions on Google Maps to find our way there, and somehow overshot our turn, so we ended up adding two blocks to the walk. One of which was nice and flat, the other – straight up those slippery tile sidewalks.
The store was at the top of the hill tucked away in the middle of a brown marble patio. I used to wonder about all the marble in China, and now I wonder about it in Europe. I know the US gets blasted for being a regulatory nightmare, but at least we’re not commonly walking on skating rinks.
The store itself was even worse – hot, stinky,shabby, poorly organized, and crowded with rude people. Now, I realize I’m starting to sound extremely negative here, and I don’t want to be one of “those travelers.” But since the moment we stepped off the plane, it was just one endurance challenge after another. We were tired from the travel, and in a new place that just had a long list of negatives. But bear with me, because it will get better.
We found what we needed, paid and left, glad to be out of there and even gladder that we won’t have to go back. By now it was dark, and the expanse of brown marble out front provided some unexpected stairs as one last “goodbye” challenge. In these situations, we usually warn each other about these hazards lest someone end up on the ground. As it turned out, going down the shiny blue and white sidewalks was even harder than going up. Back in our lobby, the elevator door opened, and this tiny little young woman was in the car with what seemed like 10 bags of laundry. This big, blue IKEA shopping bags stuffed with towels and sheets. She began profusely apologizing but MLW made light of it and helped her unload them while I held the groceries. She was so embarrassed, bright pink and saying “sorry” over and over. She was headed back up and offered to wait but we insisted she ride along. She left us at the 2nd floor, no doubt collection more bags. For our part, we had made it back to the apartment no worse for the wear.
It was dinner time and we’d seen a lot of restaurants on our first adventure so back we went, this time going around the block the pass the grocery store that I had originally planned to use. It was closed, and smaller than the one we’d just left, but it appears adequate for anything else we’ll need.
Now we found ourselves on Rua dos Correiros, a broad expanse of shiny blue and white tiles, gratefully flat and lined with restaurants with outdoor seating. It was simply a matter of running the gauntlet of men with menus doing the hard sell to get you to sit down. We finally just chose one after being promised that there were no smokers nearby (which turned out to be true.) While cuddling with the menus, one of the workers came out with a newly dead Sea Bass and described it to us and insisted he was going to make the most wonderful dinner for us out of it. The one thing most noticeable about that fish was the smell – it was the most wonderful aroma and nothing like we (unfortunately) sometimes get in our supermarkets at home.
MLW had Bacalao ala Plancha (grilled cod with potatoes) and opting for something different, I went with Porc ala Alejantra (roasted pork with clams and carrots,) both nice meals. While sitting there, it was hard to put a finger on where this place resembled. To me, a bit of Milan and a bit of Barcelona. We were accosted by an accordion playing duo, one of whom shoved a tip cup in my face, and an African selling those same wooden carved bowls that were hot in Rome in 2017. Dinner done, we decided to take a walk and finally, the enjoyment of the place started to settle in.
Our street ended at Praça da Figueira and a statue of King John I astride a mighty charger. John lived from 1357 to 1453 and is remembered for his success in protecting Portugal from invasion by nearby Castille , and in his ongoing battles with the Moors who had been evicted from Portugal in 1249 but continued to counterattack for decades.
On the way out of the plaza I stopped to buy a shot of Ginjinha, a portuguese liqueur made by infusing ginja berries, (sour cherry) in alcohol and adding sugar along with other ingredients. A gentleman had a stand at the corner of the plaza and was selling samples and bottles. We had a nice long conversation about his products, and he offered me a tiny sample of one version, infused with chocolate and chile. A nice little bit of heat that led to another conversation about the popularity of chile in our state.
Now heading back towards home, we found a second pedestrian street also lined with restaurants and shops, including a host of those dedicated to the most incredible looking desserts. We stopped at the end of the street under the Arco da Rua Augusta, brightly lit and magnificent against the black sky. Completed in 1875, it represents the entrance to the old part of the city. Beyond it, the Praça do Comécio and finally the Rio Tagus. It was late, we were tired and so we turned back.
An interesting day, beginning with an urbane coffee shop in Madrid to a crazy airport and then a horrible first impression of our new digs and ending with a nice meal, a fun walk and a better feeling about the days to come.